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Inside the Secretive, Perverted Compound of a Fallen Evangelist

(CBS/KTHV)
Evangelist Tony Alamo, head of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries in Arkansas, in an undated photograph.

TEXARKANA, Ark. (CBS/AP) In the years after evangelist Tony Alamo took a 14-year-old girl as a bride, the girl said she caught glimpses of her father on the surveillance cameras that fed into the minister's office.

As her father walked by outside, monitors provided views from every angle. But even though only a few walls and doors separated them, leaving Alamo's home without permission was unthinkable.

Alamo was a prophet, she'd been taught. He was "God's chosen one." And she was scared.

"I felt uncomfortable asking Tony to see my dad," the woman, now 20, testified at his federal trial on charges that he took underage girls across state lines for sex.

"So you had to ask Tony's permission before you could go outside and see your father?" a prosecutor asked.

"Yes."

The woman, who left Alamo's compound in Arkansas three years ago, was one of many witnesses whose testimony offered a rare glimpse inside the evangelist's secretive ministry. They said Alamo made the decisions: who got married, what children were taught in school, who got clothes, who was allowed to eat. He also chose which of his followers to "marry," witnesses said; including one girl who was 8 years old.

Alamo's attorneys will make their defense this week. It's not clear how many more witnesses prosecutors plan to present, but all the women Alamo is accused of raping or sexually assaulting have testified.

(AP/Tony Alamo Christian Ministries)
Tony Alamo and his wife Susan in an undated photograph.

The evangelist has pleaded not guilty. His lawyers claim the government has targeted him because of his religious beliefs. Last week, a series of women testified that Alamo "married" them while they were underage and that he either raped them or sexually assaulted them.

On Friday, a woman who said Alamo had sexually abused her since she was 8 said she agreed to testify because she is afraid he will molest her little sister.

A 17-year-old girl also testified Friday that Alamo invited her and her sister to his home at the Arkansas compound near Fouke when she was as young as 8. By 9, she said she visited regularly. By 11, she said Alamo "married" her in his bedroom and immediately began sexually assaulting her.

"He said things like I looked very innocent to him," the girl said, her face and voice betraying no emotion. "And he said I had the body of a 6-year-old and he was attracted to" that.

"He had control over everything," testified a 30-year-old woman who said she was another child bride.

Families moved state to state at Alamo's command, living in apartments, trailers or houses owned by the ministry. The church had a language of its own: Alamo as "Papa Tony," new members as "baby Christians" and those few living outside as "visiting Christians."

At his compounds in Arkansas, students learned Alamo-approved curriculums, with ninth-grade biology tossed aside because the course material discussed sex, one witness said. Alamo began separating the sexes in the 1990s, and by the time he was released from prison following his 1994 tax evasion conviction, brothers and sisters often lived separate lives, another woman said.

(AP Photo/Mike Wintroath)
Tony Alamo Christian Church, Sept. 20, 2008, after FBI agents and state police raided the evangelist's headquarters.

In the 1980s, Alamo's ministry sold elaborately designed denim jackets made by members to celebrities. At the compound more recently, followers filled out request forms for everything, whether clothing or toiletries. Alamo himself approved all expenditures, witnesses said.

Alamo's house, meanwhile, had television, a swimming pool and ponies in the backyard – unbelievable luxuries for a life one described as floating just above the poverty line. Those amenities led at least one mother to push her underage daughter to become an Alamo wife, testimony showed.

Some of the mothers and fathers drove big-rig trucks hauling goods from Alamo's side industries. While the federal government seized much of the ministry's property when Alamo was sentenced to four years in prison for tax evasion, the 30-year-old woman remembered followers being required to roll candy for the ministry's distribution company.

Families were prohibited from keeping food at their homes, the 20-year-old woman said. Alamo also banned his followers from eating meat or dairy products. At one point, on a layover at a Las Vegas airport, the woman said she and another Alamo "wife" committed a sin — they ate a cheese pizza.

Sometimes, Alamo put requests from his followers on hold in order to have money to print the church's apocalyptic tracts.

Those fliers, outlining everything from Alamo's feared "one-world government," his belief in flying saucers and his hatred of the Vatican, served as a backbone of the ministry after he stopped preaching in the wake of his 1994 tax conviction. Each person had a distribution quota, the 30-year-old woman said.

Records in Alamo's office included the "account," she said; a list that showed how much literature each follower passed out on the constant cross-country tracking trips. Alamo's defense lawyers claim many of the girls who the preacher took across state lines worked as office assistants in that endeavor.

Even from prison, Alamo received regular updates on disciplinary matters. Witnesses said he encouraged followers to report on each other. Those accused had a chance to respond in writing, but Alamo sometimes dictated decisions over the phone without seeing the letters, witnesses said.

Some were beaten with boards or faced punitive "fasts," where they would be refused food at the communal cafeteria, witnesses said.

After he got out of prison, witnesses said, Alamo's grip over his wives became even more pronounced.

Wives who crossed him over real or imagined slights ended up in a green home at his 15-acre complex in Arkansas known as "The House of Scorn," witnesses said.

There, the windows were boarded shut after the girl Alamo had "married" at age 8 ran away, the 20-year-old woman said. The former 8-year-old bride said she was helped by a waiting driver at a small store down the state highway.

One wife also got away after her mother sewed a cell phone inside her coat.

In Alamo's home, his bedroom sat just off the office, allowing him easy access to the women who would massage him to sleep some nights as a group. His wives lived up to four to a room, witnesses said. Metal grates covered the windows. Followers working as guards patrolled the grounds, keeping the curious away.

But if an unknown man approached the house, the girls knew to rush toward their shoes, neatly lined up near the front door.

"We were supposed to take our shoes and hide them so they didn't see how many people were staying in the house," one said.

The evangelist could spend the rest of his life in prison if convicted.

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