Who Was Tony Alamo? New True Crime Series Explores the Life and Crimes of the Cult Leader

You’ve heard about Jim Jones and Charles Manson. But what about Tony Alamo? While the People’s Temple and the Manson Family are two of the most infamous cults in recent memory, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries was less well known. But that’s about to change. Sundance TV’s four-part docuseries about the evangelical cult leader premieres February 27, and it’s sure to draw more attention to Alamo and his crimes.

A cult with roots in California

Alamo Christian Foundation
Followers of The Alamo Christian Foundation in 1973 | Gilbert B. Weingourt/ZUMA Press/SundanceTV

Like Manson and Jones, Alamo’s cult had its roots in California in the late 1960s. He and his wife Susan founded the Alamo Christian Foundation in Los Angeles in 1969. They began as street preachers, and their “wrathful version of Pentecostalism” attracted hippies and other disaffected youth, who took to calling themselves “Jesus Freaks,” according to the New York Times’ 2017 obituary of Alamo. The group was anti-Catholic, homophobic, and pro-polygamy, according to Time. Most disturbingly, Alamo was also a proponent of child marriage, arguing publicly that “puberty is the age of consent.”

At some point, Alamo and his wife relocated to Arkansas. There, they established a business empire, which included gas stations, a grocery store, and a restaurant. But his most lucrative venture was a line of bedazzled denim jackets that were popular with celebrities and fashionistas in the 1970s and 1980s, including Michael Jackson, who donned a Tony Alamo jacket for the cover of his Bad album. The jackets sold for hundreds of dollars and continued to be popular even as information about Alamo’s misdeeds came to light.

“The clothing is so groovy, everyone wants it no matter what they think I am,” Alamo told the Los Angeles Times in 1989, when federal authorities were seeking to arrest him on child abuse charges. “No matter what, the superstars are going to want my jackets.”

Alamo’s downfall

According to the New York Times, Alamo became increasingly unstable after Susan died in 1982. He reportedly ruled his followers with an iron fist, according to several interviewed by ABC News in 2008. They recounted beatings and children being kept out of school and instead forced to sew rhinestones onto the famous jackets. In 1994, Alamo was convicted of tax evasion, a crime for which he eventually served four years in prison.

After he got out of prison in 1998, Alamo relocated his ministry to Fouke, Arkansas. But he didn’t change his ways. He continued to argue that it was acceptable for men to take underage girls as wives, and he himself “married” multiple girls under the age of 15. Finally, in 2009, Alamo was convicted of 10 counts of transporting minors – including a 9-year-old girl — across state lines to have sex with them. He was sentenced to 175 years.

Alamo died in prison in 2017 at the age of 82.

The Sundance docuseries is an in-depth look at Alamo’s cult

Sundance TV’s docuseries Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo takes an in-depth look at Alamo’s cult through interviews with followers, the FBI agent who caught Alamo, and never-before-seen archival footage. In the process, it explores the cultural consequences of the cult, which might still be active today, according to producers.

Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo premieres Wednesday, February 27 at 11/10c on Sundance TV.

Check out The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!