FBI agents may be hot on his trail, but fundamentalist cult leader Tony Alamo is still selling $600 designer jackets to Melrose Avenue boutiques and to upscale clothing stores nationwide.
Alamo, 54, has evaded arrest on felony child-abuse charges since October. Authorities say he directed the beating of an 11-year-old boy struck with a three-foot wooden paddle more than 140 times at the Saugus commune of the Holy Alamo Christian Church.
But his flight from justice apparently hasn’t prevented Alamo from continuing to make a small fortune on his designer denim jackets, a business former cult members say he operates with some of his about 500 church followers doubling as employees.
To push his jackets in the competitive clothing market, Alamo has maintained an increasingly public life despite the federal manhunt. FBI agents say he has been spotted selling his jackets in Las Vegas stores. And he has even paid a quick visit to Los Angeles City Hall to have his picture taken with Mayor Tom Bradley.
The sequined jackets--painted with airbrushed images of the New York skyline, Hollywood and Rodeo Drive--are among the hottest items in the Los Angeles fashion market. Fashion industry insiders say annual sales of sequined jackets by “Tony Alamo of Nashville” total anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million.
“He makes jackets for all the stars,” said Shirley Blenner, a saleswoman at Twist, a boutique on Melrose Avenue where three Alamo jackets were on sale last week for prices ranging from $360 to $680. Blenner pointed to a display of photographs behind the cash register of Mr. T., Mike Tyson, Hulk Hogan and Dolly Parton, all wearing what appear to be Alamo-designed jackets.
“The clothing is so groovy, everyone wants it no matter what they think I am,” Alamo said in a telephone interview from an undisclosed location. “No matter what, the superstars are going to want my jackets.”
Alamo said he designs the jackets himself, using a fax machine to send in sketches from his hide-outs. “Everything I do is a work of art,” Alamo said. “I do the designs wherever I’m at.”
Alamo’s ability to conduct business while being sought by federal authorities has angered some former church members and others who have monitored the cult group’s activities. Some are critical of the FBI for not searching with more determination.
FBI spokesman Jim Neilson said the bureau is continuing its search for Alamo but refused to elaborate on the investigation.
“He apparently has a whole system in place to do all the marketing,” said Rachel Andres, director of the Jewish Federation Council’s Commission on Cults and Missionaries, which monitors Alamo’s group. “He has enough people in power who will follow his orders, and he has contact with them. Even though he’s not there, he’s still clearly in charge.”
Several members of the cult, which has branches in Saugus, Arkansas and Tennessee, have been involved in bitter child-custody disputes with former spouses who have stayed in the church.
Former members of the foundation’s 150-acre Saugus commune say some church followers have been held at the compound against their wills, deprived of mail and forced to hand over all their earnings to the Tony and Susan Alamo Foundation.
About 60 Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies raided the Saugus commune over allegations of child abuse in March, 1988, confiscating paddles and speaker phones Alamo is said to have used to direct the punishment of the 11-year-old child, who was left bloodied and badly bruised by the beating.
The district attorney’s office later dropped child-abuse charges for lack of evidence but reinstated them in October when a former Alamo church member who saw the attack cooperated with authorities.
Besides Alamo, five other commune members charged in the case remain at large.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Foltz said Alamo’s decision to evade arrest may have been linked to commercial considerations involving his clothing business.
“I think the real desire of the Alamo Foundation is to protect the clothing business and not some religious principle,” Foltz said. “A trial would bring even more publicity and affect the ability of him to market his products.”
Former cult members said Alamo’s clothing business operates out of small manufacturing shops in California and New York, with the largest shop in Arkansas. “Nobody gets paid,” one former member said. “It’s more or less like sweatshops.”
The foundation has a history of labor violations. The U. S. Department of Labor filed a lawsuit in 1976 alleging that the foundation exploited church followers who worked from 12 to 15 hours a day, six or seven days a week at foundation-owned businesses. Several workers testified at a 1982 trial that they did not expect salaries because of their religious beliefs.
The case reached the U. S. Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously that the workers were entitled to minimum wage and overtime benefits.
One former member who left the cult last year said working conditions at Alamo clothing shops have changed little since the ruling. The former member, who asked not to be identified, said he has seen young children working in the shops with their parents. Workers were paid only a $5-per-week stipend, plus room and board at an Alamo commune, he said.
“They’re a bunch of brainwashed people who think they’re working for God,” the former member said.
Although he declined to say how much money his clothing business brings in each year, Alamo said its profits help fund the work of his “Christian soldiers.” The small army of followers spend much of their time distributing leaflets in Southern California that tell Alamo’s version of events in the Saugus child-abuse case.
The leaflets’ rambling denunciations claim that the district attorney’s office, the Internal Revenue Service and the Department of Labor are linked to a “terrorist plot” against the Alamo church led by Pope John Paul II.
The leaflets have become a common sight on Los Angeles streets. With titles such as “Government Subversion Against Alamo” and “Tony Alamo, My Side of the Story,” they have at various times appeared littered along the sidewalk on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, at the County Courthouse in Lancaster and on the windshields of cars at Dodger Stadium and Los Angeles International Airport.
The leaflets bear the same Saugus telephone number as the glossy brochures used by “Alamo Designs” to promote the sequined jackets. By dialing the number, callers can learn how to obtain more of Alamo’s religious literature or which Los Angeles-area stores carry Alamo’s jackets.
The manager of a store in the Beverly Center said he routinely telephones the Saugus number to order the jackets, which arrive in the mail or are delivered personally by a “very professional” Alamo salesman.
At Twist, the Melrose Avenue boutique, saleswoman Blenner said the store sells one or two of the jackets each week. Blenner said she owns an Alamo jacket. “Everywhere I go, people tell me how beautiful it is.”
Despite the continuing popularity of his jackets in some chic clothing stores, there are signs that Alamo’s run-in with the law may be hurting his business. Andres, director of the Jewish Federation’s Commission on Cults and Missionaries, said her group is trying to persuade merchants to remove the jackets from the shelves.
“Child abuse is one of the worst crimes a person can commit,” she said. “Stocking or buying his product is helping to support him financially and allows him to continue the group.”
At least one national department store has agreed to stop doing business with the cult leader, she said. And according to Alamo’s own pamphlets, Macy’s and Bullock’s have recently decided to stop carrying the jackets.
For a time, Alamo capitalized on the Batman craze when Warner Bros. granted his company a contract to make $500 sequined Batman jackets. But a Warner Bros. spokesman said the studio recently decided against renewing Alamo’s contract. “We clearly would not do business with anyone who was wanted by the federal government,” he said.
Besides the growing boycott of his jackets, Alamo and his foundation face a host of lawsuits. Some of the attorneys he hired to get the foundation out of previous legal entanglements are now suing it. According to an IRS investigation, the former attorneys say the foundation has failed to pay them more than $250,000 in legal fees.
The investigation resulted from an attempt by the foundation to have its status as a tax-exempt religious organization reinstated. The status was revoked in 1985. An IRS document filed in March at the U. S. Tax Court in Los Angeles said a pattern is developing in which the foundation “refused to pay its attorneys and accountants at crucial stages of the litigation in order to further delay the proceedings.”
The foundation’s attorney filed cross-complaints in Los Angeles Superior Court in January against two law firms that once represented the foundation, accusing them of attorney malpractice and fraud.
For his part, Alamo said of his former attorneys: “I don’t pay them to lose. I can lose for free.”
Since Alamo’s whereabouts are unknown, the attorneys’ efforts to serve him with summonses have been unsuccessful.
Despite the small army of attorneys and FBI agents on his trail, Alamo has tried to stay in the public eye. He routinely grants telephone interviews with the media--he can be reached by leaving a telephone message at his Saugus commune. He usually returns the call in a few hours.
Alamo said he stopped by Los Angeles City Hall recently to pose for a picture with the mayor.
In a photo that Alamo sent to The Times, Bradley is shaking hands with Alamo and is wearing an Alamo-designed denim jacket with red, white and blue sequined sleeves.
Bill Chandler, the mayor’s spokesman, said Alamo came to the mayor’s office as part of a public photo session with a jacket in which he wanted Bradley to pose. “I guess Alamo is known for his sequined jackets,” Chandler said, adding that the mayor knew of Alamo “simply because of the sequined jackets.”
Unaware of Pursuit
In response to a reporter’s question, Chandler said Bradley and he were unaware that Alamo was wanted by the FBI and that the mayor could not remember when the picture was taken. Alamo said it was taken “a few months ago.”
Those who have followed Alamo’s career say the impromptu visit to City Hall was not unusual. Alamo, they say, craves attention and publicity. The same desire for fame prompted him decades ago to change his name from Bernie Lazar Hoffman in the hopes of embarking on a career as a singer of romantic tunes. Alamo has been quoted as saying that he idolized Dean Martin at the time and that “Alamo” (pronounced ah-LAH-mo) sounded more Italian than Hoffman.
“This is what he revels in,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Billy D. Webb. “If he’s picked up somewhere, then we’ll extradite him. Until that happens, he will continue to play his game. It’s somewhat childish, but everyone has something they get their kicks from.”
Even if Alamo can continue to evade the law, there are those in the fashion industry who predict that the mania for high-priced Tony Alamo jackets will soon fade.
“This heavy treatment on denim can’t take him much further,” said Marshall Kline, a buyer at the California Apparel Mart in Los Angeles. “Now it’s hot. But you’re looking at merchandise that’s extremely expensive. Even in Beverly Hills, very few people will compulsively spend that kind of money.”
Times staff writer Lynn O’Shaughnessy contributed to this story.