In Saugus' Mint Canyon, neighbors watched nervously this summer as strangers began moving into a decrepit trailer park, guarded and posted with no trespassing signs.
Unmarked buses and vans appeared at odd hours, dropping off dozens of newcomers, mostly young men looking like refugees from city streets. They found lodging in faded cabins, sheds and vehicles scattered on the rural property, and soon were hurriedly erecting a large, corrugated metal building.
"There is something funny going on over there," observed Pam Booth, who lives across the road.
What the neighbors are witnessing is the resurgence in Saugus of a secretive religious organization called the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation. The ministry's work was disrupted in Saugus more than a decade ago, when controversy over its methods led many in the foundation to move to the South.
Created in '60s
The foundation was created in the late 1960s by a husband-and-wife team who spread the Gospel to young dropouts roaming the streets of Hollywood. The Alamos, who considered themselves the architects of the "Jesus Freak" movement, dried up drunks and weaned addicts off drugs by scaring them with fire-and-brimstone admonitions.
The Alamos' converts settled into remote Mint Canyon after the group was evicted from West Hollywood after a public nuisance conviction. It grew into a community of several hundred people who worshiped, worked and lived together under the Alamo regimen.
Like many religious communities of the period, the foundation became the object of fear and scorn by people who lived nearby and by relatives who saw family members join the group and sever contact with the outside world.
Deprogrammers searched for young people who joined the group. Sheriff's deputies raided the grounds looking for suspected criminals. And a state legislative committee held an inquiry after an Alamo convert's mother was beaten there.
In recent months, Mint Canyon has become home to a new generation of Alamo devotees, many of whom are street people from Los Angeles. A black and gray bus takes the willing every day from a corner near the Mann Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard.
"Los Angeles is a soul-winning station," explained Becky LaRoche, a prominent church member.
Neighbors do not welcome the return.
"You open up an old sore when you mention the Alamos," said one elderly resident.
The church appears to be operating several construction-related and janitorial businesses, using cheap labor provided by church members. This has brought complaints of unfair competition from other businesses in the Santa Clarita Valley.
At Odds With County
The church has also been at odds with Los Angeles County officials who had ordered the new building dismantled because it was constructed without permits, an act Alamo sees as an example of the government persecution he left California to avoid. "They are not supposed to be able to come on a sanctuary and tell us what to do unless we are doing something insidious," Alamo said.
In addition to its 12-acre parcel on Sierra Highway, the foundation owns a 150-acre spread four miles north, on which sit three modest cottages. Nearby, a converted restaurant serves as a church and a garage looks like it has been converted into a dormitory.
And the group is looking to expand.
A real estate agent who asked to remain anonymous said that Alamo, arriving in a chauffeur-driven limousine and wearing a sparkling black denim Western outfit, showed up at her office in Canyon Country recently, asking if Agua Dulce School was for sale. It was not, but Alamo was interested in buying the school for a youth facility and bragged he was worth $100 million, the agent said.
Alamo will not discuss that incident or other actions that have stirred controversy over the years. After granting a reporter two telephone interviews, he declined requests for a detailed interview. A spokeswoman said Alamo decided not to cooperate after discovering that church "defectors" were being interviewed. Four attorneys representing Alamo and his group also declined to discuss details of the operation.
When the Alamo foundation pulled out of Saugus in the 1970s, it left behind a skeleton crew and headed East to create a small religious empire in the hilly Ozark country of Arkansas, which nurtures a reputation for its religious toleration.
In Arkansas, the Alamos ran their ministry from a secluded mansion perched atop a tree-lined ridge close to the towns of Dyer and Alma, near Susan Alamo's birthplace. Those who visited said the interior of the couple's 14,000-square-foot headquarters was ostentatious--its cavernous rooms filled with statues and gilded antiques and lined with scarlet carpeting and draperies.
Within the heavily guarded compound, the Alamos built dormitories, apartments and houses for their followers, ran a school and nursery and regularly aired their message on local television. In downtown Alma, the foundation owned most of the businesses, making it hard to buy a loaf of bread, fix a tire, eat a piece of pie or purchase hog feed without patronizing the church.
The foundation also started a smaller religious community in Nashville and opened a clothing store that still operates there, specializing in expensive country-Western wear.
In Arkansas, community attitudes toward the church took a sharp turn with a series of events that followed Susan Alamo's death from cancer in 1982.
Alamo placed his wife's casket in their living room and ordered her admirers to hold a 24-hour prayer vigil until she rose from the dead. At a local radio station, one of the most requested songs during that period was "Wake Up Little Susie."
Buried by Pool
The praying lasted for two years. Susan Alamo was finally buried in a mausoleum built next to the mansion's heart-shaped swimming pool. Alamo married and divorced a Swedish-born dress designer from Beverly Hills, and has married twice since.
"When Susan died it caused a lot of chaos in the organization," said Jerry Pittman, a probation officer with juvenile services in Crawford County, Ark., where teen-agers who occasionally left the foundation were directed. "When she didn't come back to life it caused a lot of these kids to depart. I don't know if it burst their bubble or their dream."
Alamo took sole control of the foundation, acquiring extensive control over the lives of his followers, several past Alamo adherents said during interviews. He is called "Papa Tony" by the foundation's young followers and insists that even the smallest detail be run by him, they said.
$5 Weekly Salary
If someone needs a pair of shoes, a coat, a shirt, Alamo is asked. When a woman turns 18, Alamo sometimes arranges her marriage, the former members said. He decided foundation members should only be paid a salary of $5 a week, they said.
At Alamo's direction, the church began distributing anti-Catholic literature throughout the world. Alamo was greatly influenced by a minister from Chino, Calif., who publishes anti-Catholic comic books, say people who have worked with and studied the organization.
His feelings about Catholics runs so high that he would speak of little else during a phone interview. For instance, when asked how many people live at the foundation's compound in Saugus, he replied: "It fluctuates from day to day. I'm not going to tell the Vatican how many hundreds, how many thousands I have so they'd know how many troops to issue to come up the hill."
While in Arkansas, the foundation began running into trouble with federal, state and local authorities.
The U.S. Labor Department filed a lawsuit alleging that the organization exploited church followers who worked as many as 12 to 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week for dozens of foundation-owned businesses, including a record company, gas stations, a restaurant, grocery and clothing stores, a motel, a hog farm, a candy factory, a trucking operation, a real estate firm and a quarry.
Several workers testified that they did not expect salaries because of their religious beliefs. One woman said the thought of receiving a wage was "totally vexing to my soul."
The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the 300 or so people working at Alamo businesses, as well as future workers, were entitled to minimum wage and overtime compensation--or the equivalent in food, shelter and other benefits--because they engaged in "ordinary commercial activities."
'Cat and Mouse'
In another arena, the U.S. Forest Service has been involved in "a cat and mouse game" with Alamo's church for years, said Cecil Wilson, the agency's branch chief for law enforcement in Washington.
Although federal law prohibits tax-exempt groups from obtaining Forest Service contracts, church businesses have gotten contracts to provide 80- to 100-member work crews to plant and trim trees in North Carolina, the Dakotas, California and elsewhere. Bill Levi, a former Alamo official in Arkansas, said Alamo's organization uses aliases to obtain the jobs and then changes names if it suspects that the government has caught on.
In 1985, the Internal Revenue Service revoked the foundation's tax-free status, deciding that one of its primary purposes was making money.
'Luxurious Life Style'
"Although there is no record or itemization of the total benefits received by Tony and Susan Alamo from the foundation, there is evidence that through their control of the foundation, they enjoyed a very luxurious life style," an IRS report concluded.
The report, based on the years 1977 to 1980, said the foundation accumulated tens of thousands of dollars worth of South African krugerrands, silver dollars, silver bars and gold coins. It bought scores of antiques, a grand piano and many pieces of jewelry, including a $49,000 gold nugget diamond ring and a five-carat emerald ring, according to IRS documents.
Alamo, who is contesting the IRS action in U.S. Tax Court, told auditors the purchases were investments on the foundation's behalf.
The IRS also said the couple traveled in several Cadillacs and shopped at Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman-Marcus, buying fur coats and $285 shirts. When Susan was ill she convalesced in Palm Springs.
'Not After Money'
Alamo has maintained that his only compensation as a church volunteer comes from the free food, lodging, clothing and transportation he receives. "I'm not after money," Alamo told the Times. "If I was, I certainly wouldn't play in God's ballpark."
Roy R. Gean III, an Alamo attorney, argued in a letter to the IRS that the foundation's various businesses were actually "churches in disguise," with workers also proselytizing customers.
In recent times, the foundation's presence in the Ozarks has faded. Alamo businesses were closed after residents refused to patronize them, locals said. A special federal census indicates that possibly 100 to 250 or more people have departed in recent years.
"The majority of people are glad to see them go," said Manford Burris, who fielded inquiries about the foundation from across the nation during his 12 years as mayor of Alma. "It was bad publicity for the community."
The return to Mint Canyon began quietly last summer. A community began emerging and the traffic increased dramatically. The grounds became a stop for refrigerated semi-tractor trailers, cement mixers, roofing trucks and trash haulers. No-trespassing signs kept the curious away.
At some point, Alamo moved into a modest cottage on the property.
After the building began, neighbors sent a petition to county Supervisor Mike Antonovich asking that the flurry of construction stop. They also complained that trash, scrap lumber and metal drums littered the property.
County inspectors ordered the building dismantled, but were shooed off the property. The stalemate was referred to the district attorney, and the foundation agreed to try to get the building approved through normal county channels.
Alamo said the hastily erected building was intended for a sewing facility and storage. That led neighbors to speculate that the organization wants to produce garments for its Nashville clothing boutique, which one catalogue said offers the "finest Texas multimillionaire look by Tony Alamo."
Other businesses have sprouted, although they do not carry the Alamo name as in past years. An office-cleaning firm, Federal Maintenance, lists the foundation's number in the phone book. Vincent Roofing, in business since February, 1986, shares the same address as the Alamo Foundation.
Roofers in the Santa Clarita Valley complain that they can't underbid Vincent Roofing and suspect that the workers are paid little or nothing, said Mike Camplin, district administrator of the Contractors' State License Board.
A current member of the Alamo community said the roofing company, which has two dozen people working for it, is only one of several church enterprises.
"We are totally self-supporting," he said. "Some brothers do electrical work, dry walling, roofing, different construction."
The focal point of the ministry's property is the church, distinguished on the outside by a huge white cross anchored on a nearby hill.
For those who belong, membership requirements are harsh, according to interviews with several former members.
They said new recruits, called "Baby Christians," are watched constantly and even longtime followers, called "brothers" and "sisters," are rarely left alone. People who have lived in the organization for a decade or more can often carry everything they own in their pockets, according to the former members. A rigid regimen of prayer and labor allows little sleep, they said.
Tom Smith, a Santa Barbara college student who left the foundation last year, said he typically slept four hours a night during his 15-year stay in Saugus and Arkansas. He said he would awake at 6:30 or 7 a.m., attend religious services and then work until dinner at 6 p.m.
He would be back in church at 8 p.m., he said, and afterward would be required to help with chores. Then, he would often be assigned a two-hour shift of guard duty, sometimes not returning until dawn, he said.
Those who have fled, often in the middle of the night, say they were taught to consider their parents, friends and all outsiders as agents of Satan.
"It's pressed in your mind if you leave you will automatically die and burn in hell," said Robert Roby, 23, who left with his wife, Julie, 19, for Florida last year with $10 in his wallet.
Living in Cubicle
The couple said they had been living in a cubicle partitioned off with boards in a Nashville building shared by dozens of other Alamo followers. Julie Roby, who was raised in the Alamo community from the age of 2, said only after she departed did she see her first movie, "Poltergeist," visit her first bowling alley and buy her own food at a grocery store.
Alamo's detractors say that those who gravitate to the ministry are usually disillusioned, often in transition and willing to swap their freedom for a more predictable world where all decisions will be made for them.
"It fits the criteria for a mind-control group," said Cynthia Kisser, executive director for the Cult Awareness Network, a national, nonprofit organization based in Chicago. "There is control over the information the members receive and their contacts with the outside world. They control diet, their living conditions, their relationship with other people."
'A Real Good Life'
In spurning suggestions that he fosters a cult, Alamo has remained adamant that the foundation's mission is saving lost souls.
"They are needy," Alamo said of the converts. "They are on narcotics and drugs. We got them off narcotics and drugs. We are trying to show them a real good life."
He accused his critics of being agents of the devil. "We opened up more places when the devils started attacking," he said. "If the people had left me alone in the first place, I probably wouldn't have grown as much."
Those who choose to belong often come from Los Angeles. Each evening street people from Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica are bused to Saugus, where they are given a free meal, stirring testimonials and a hybrid of loud gospel and rock music that reverberates off the chaparral hills of Mint Canyon.
The visitors also receive copies of "The Pope's Secrets," an Alamo tract alleging that the Pope is a homosexual and the "super boss of all government agencies."
On a recent night, 31 people climbed aboard the church bus that leaves from near the Chinese Theater. About an hour later, they arrived at the Holy Alamo Christian Church, the converted roadside restaurant in Mint Canyon, which is decorated on the outside with biblical scenes.
During the two-hour service, a congregation of 80 was told that the only way to escape burning in hell was to repent.
"You're not going to talk your way out of it," warned Becky LaRoche's husband, Larry, a top Alamo official. LaRoche described how the condemned, imprisoned in pits, scream as they throw their bodies against blazing walls.
Drug addicts, a punk rocker who had practiced witchcraft, a man with former suicidal tendencies and another who professed to have contemplated robbing a bank walked to the microphone to say they had forsaken their old lives after the Alamo church propelled them to lead spiritual ones.
One woman said she felt "God tugging on my heart" when she arrived. A man with a handlebar mustache observed that, after years of restlessness, he "changed in a twinkle of an eye."
Those who spoke conveyed their distrust for the rest of the world. Established churches were denigrated and society was portrayed as a battlefield riddled with land mines. Near the end of the service, the churchgoers prayed for court victories.
Then a 6-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl sat down next to two visitors. The children said they were church regulars and were looking forward to moving into the Alamo community some day. They were hungrily attacking a plate of white bread, turkey and gravy after the service when a visitor, making conversation, mentioned Santa Claus.
The pair squealed in disgust.
Santa Claus, the boy exclaimed, is a "big fat weasel."
The girl chimed in: "Jesus don't like him. He's going to burn in hell."