The author of a new book about apocalyptic evangelist Tony Alamo is speaking Saturday at the Arkansas Literary Festival. Alamo, who operated compounds in Arkansas, died in federal prison in 2017 at the age of 82. He was convicted in 2009 of sexually abusing girls he considered his wives, one as young as nine.
Debby Schriver's book Whispering in the Daylight: The Children of Tony Alamo Christian Ministries and Their Journey to Freedom was released earlier this month. She spoke with KUAR about Alamo, which you can listen to above.
Also included above is an interview with Alamo recorded in the early 1980s by the late Ron Breeding, who at the time was working for Fort Smith radio station KTCS. The interview was conducted inside Alamo's restaurant in Alma, Arkansas, which was part of a 300-acre complex that included several of his businesses. Breeding would later become news and program director of KUAR. In the interview Alamo discusses his legal battles with the IRS, the death of his wife Susan, and his claim of having an unreleased Beatles master tape worth $800 million.
Schriver will be speaking Saturday about her book at 10 a.m. at the Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock.
TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW WITH SCHRIVER:
MICHAEL HIBBLEN: How did you come to write this book?
DEBBIE SCHRIVER: The voices of the children who were taken in 2008, in the first raid in Fouke, called out to me actually through the foster family. And the family that adopted them really wanted them to express the kinds of things they were dealing with transitioning to the outside world.
HIBBLEN: And these were children who had been taken into the compound in Fouke in southwest Arkansas. Really, I guess, give the background, how Tony Alamo came to be operating what, even though he debated whether or not it was a cult, but what most people generally accept was a cult.
SCHRIVER: Tony Alamo started this church group in California in the late '60s and early '70s and he married a woman named Susan. And Susan and Tony Alamo were very shrewd and they gathered people from the streets of Hollywood, took them to Saugus Canyon, gave them a meal, gave them a service, and kept them there. These young people believed they were joining something that was truly God-driven, a wonderful happy loving community, and it was not that at all.
HIBBLEN: Yeah, what really was this? You write about child brides and basically financial schemes. What really was going on?
SCHRIVER: A cult leader is about power and money. Tony and Susan could have in the name of a church a tax-free organization and they set up as a church and a foundation. So all money that their followers earned was given to the church, which really would be Tony’s pockets. They had their followers work outside the cult, picking in fields and so on, then that money went to the church, and then they developed their own businesses. At some point, the California compound drew scrutiny from the IRS and also from wage and salary people, so he left about 300 people in California and moved the rest here to Arkansas, to Fouke, first in Alma and then in Fouke. This was a really good place for them to be because we were close to Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas. So he could move his flock across state lines whenever they became under the scrutiny of the law.
HIBBLEN: And he made a lot of pretty outrageous claims over the year. Our late News and Program Director Ron Breeding interviewed him in the early 1980s, and I have heard that interview, and he talked about things like having an unreleased Beatles master. Why did he make these kind of claims?
SCHRIVER: He made these claims publicly to have power to the public. He liked to present himself as a discoverer of a lot of rock music stars. His followers made jackets that were bedazzled, denim jackets, and they were under the Alamo design. People such as Dolly Parton, Sonny and Cher, a lot of these people wore these jackets and posed with him. They didn’t know what he was up to. He was seen as kind of a quirky guy in the music business, but internally, then he had this going on with his followers and they saw him as a prophet of God. And in fact, he taught them that he had a direct line to God and almost, that was a blurred line, and he became God to them. These children, I really want to let you know, these children were born in the cult and that’s what makes them so different. They did not have an identity before the cult. So when they came out, when they were taken in 2008, they were only built with the values and beliefs in that church.
HIBBLEN: Talk about that. You began the prologue with that day, Saturday September 20, 2008. Talk about what happened and how this was kind of the end of decades of what Tony Alamo had been running.
SCHRIVER: Right, well the FBI had been looking at Alamo’s cult for some time because of the child abuse whispers and finally they were able to arrest him for transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes. It was the Mann Act that got them. They had planned to raid the compound in Fouke some months later, and the news of the raid was leaked to the media by mistake, and so they had to move it up quickly. During that time, so on that Saturday, a number of the children had already been moved from the compound and that’s why only six girls were found and taken that day. But early in the evening, the SWAT team, FBI, federal agents surrounded the compound and burst in. The children thought they were going to be killed. They had seen movies of Waco that Tony had told them and he said some day this would happen and they would be killed. It was very frightening for them. It wasn’t being saved, it was being taken. They were taught that out here in the outside world they would be killed or certainly not saved by a god.
HIBBLEN: And you largely write about the children here. What happened to these children who knew no other life outside of this compound?
SCHRIVER: These children were taken into custody and distributed to foster homes. One foster family in particular, Ruth and Jay in the book, took in one of the girls, and then when they kept going back to court for custody hearings, as well as to do supervised visits with the parents, they met siblings, they met more children, and they came home with more children. This family in particular set a very high standard for providing a nurturing loving environment. And these children were very different from most foster children in that they didn’t have history of this world. They had been taught to not agree with anyone in this world. So it was a real challenge for Ruth and Jay to earn the trust of the children and they are really successful now because of this loving nurturing home that they had.
HIBBLEN: And its been a decade since this raid, so I assume most of these children are now adults or nearing adulthood.
SCHRIVER: They are. They are young adults, and yet they were born in 2008 to this world, so there’s a lot they don’t know. Just imagine if you knew nothing before 2008.
HIBBLEN: And you write about how Tony Alamo had many different personas and there was part of who he was really, you know, his family heritage, but then he put on the dark sunglasses and tried to present himself as this big showman. Talk about how that developed, how he built this persona of kind of who he ideally wanted to be.
SCHRIVER: He grew up in Helena, Montana and I think he always wanted to be a big guy, a smart guy, a well-known guy, and his goal was to go to California, go to Hollywood and make it big. So he actually designed what he wanted to look like. He picked a new name, his name was Bernie Lazar Hoffman, that was his birth name, and he tried on a lot of names and decided Tony Alamo, spelled like Alamo, but pronounced Alamo, gave him the kind of charisma he wanted. He was a promoter and he puffed his hair, he wore dark glasses, kind of the mirrored kind you couldn’t see through, dressed in furs, always had an entourage of people that he hired to be around him and he created a stir wherever he went.
HIBBLEN: Yeah you described he would go into restaurants with his entourage and that’s exactly what he wanted to be, kind of making a scene.
SCHRIVER: Yes, that’s right, and he met Susan Alamo doing exactly that. He walked into a restaurant in Hollywood and she was sitting at the bar talking to a number of men and he walked in and she turned and that was the beginning of a very insidious organization.
HIBBLEN: And you interviewed him even in the later years of his life, as I said, he died in prison last year. What was he like? Did he accept the crimes he had committed or admit to anything?
SCHRIVER: Not at all. He was a martyr. He was on the attack. He was a very difficult person to communicate with because he really didn’t answer questions as much as spout back his beliefs. He called me names. He acted as if he was hearing directly from God. He would stop a minute and look up at the sky and say "God says" and then come out with a litany of words. And he really didn’t like this book. So I’m really happy this book is out here for people to see the real Tony Alamo.
Transcript prepared by KUAR Intern Colton Faull