Tony Alamo in the SCV: A look back

A chain-link fence surrounds the Tony Alamo Christian Church in Agua Dulce on Wednesday, February 12, 2020. Dan Watson/The Signal
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Local church properties sold after history of controversy, abuse, polygamy

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Arkansas attorney W. David Carter has been to the Halfway House Cafe on Sierra Highway at least a couple of times in recent years.

He likes the burgers there.

His visits were follow-up attempts to confirm reports that 80 or so acres of land around the diner were, at one time, owned by the late Tony Alamo, founder of the controversial Tony Alamo Christian Church.

Carter is the lawyer who represented Alamo’s “six wives” in lawsuits that, in the end, netted two Arkansas court judgments totalling in excess of $1 billion.

The victims of sexual abuse — six wives and one child wife in training — were to receive the money from assets amassed by Alamo and his church.

In June 2013, Conner Eldrige, U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, ordered the forfeiture and seizure of 27 church properties in a bid to satisfy unpaid restitution to the victims.

“The seizure of assets was limited to the state of Arkansas,” Carter said. “When the order was issued, (parishioners) began gutting the churches. They tore out the copper wiring.”

Repeated efforts over a two-week period requesting a response and/or comment from church officials in California and Arkansas were not answered.

SCV property

The court-ordered seizure, however, did not apply to the seizure of several properties in and around the Santa Clarita Valley, including the church’s main SCV compound at 13136 Sierra Highway in Aqua Dulce, which was padlocked and fenced.

“They sold off all the property in Arkansas to pay victims in the judgment,” Carter said, noting the properties sold for $4 million.

“The (church) faithful came to cannibalize the compound. They stripped all the insulation and copper wiring,” he said.

“When we started taking all the property here, they scattered,” he said, referring to between 600-700 parishioners.

“I took two depositions from Tony while he was in prison in Illinois. He shared some wild, wild stuff,” Carter said. “He was a dangerous mix of biblical knowledge, charisma and sociopathy.”

Carter emerged from those jailhouse encounters with reports of Alamo owning 80 acres behind the Halfway House Cafe and ”millions of dollars” in water rights.

Although the cafe has nothing to do with the church, a month-long investigation by The Signal revealed more than a half-dozen parcels of land once owned by the church have since been sold — with none of the money finding its way to victims.

Promoter

Tony Alamo was born Bernie Lazar Hoffman on Sept. 20, 1934, in Joplin, Missouri.

He was a singer who, in the late 1950s, made his way west to Hollywood where he recorded more than a half-dozen pop songs under the name Tony Alamo, including: “Bonita,” “Heartaches” and “For All We Know.”

But, the songs didn’t make Alamo a lot of money.

Wheeling and dealing with celebrities in L.A.’s emerging rock music scene, Alamo carved out a niche for himself, however, selling his signature rhinestone-studded denim jackets worn widely by the likes of Michael Jackson and, most recently as retro gear by celebrities including Miley Cyrus.

His jackets made money, but his records did not.

One of Alamo’s songs, called “Little Yankee Girl,” was written by the late Bobbie Jameson, who reached a great deal of acclaim in the 1960s, thanks largely to the promotional talents of Tony Alamo.

“Tony Alamo is not a BMI songwriter and is not credited for writing ‘Little Yankee Girl.’ So he wouldn’t get royalties from BMI on that song,” said Jodie Thomas, spokesperson for the BMI royalties firm.

It’s around the mid-1960s that Alamo found a market convincing hundreds of vulnerable footloose hippies to join a church of his design.

In 1966, Tony Alamo married a woman named Susan in Las Vegas. A year later, the couple set up the Tony & Susan Alamo Foundation in the SCV.

Tony & Susan Alamo Foundation

On April 9, 1971, they purchased the property on Sierra Highway where the sprawling former church compound sits today.

In the years that followed, the couple purchased six other properties that fanned out from the main compound, reaching into a forest of towering pine trees.

At one point, the couple wanted to build a church with housing for parishioners on the land immediately south of the Halfway House Cafe, according to a request made to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in 1973.

The church also expanded in Arkansas, with a ministry set up near Fort Smith, in the northwest corner of the state. And, it was during the expansion that Susan Alamo died of cancer in 1982.

Six years after her death, ownership of the main compound property on Sierra Highway, assessed to have a value of $325,000, was transferred on paper to the Music Square Church Inc., belonging to Alamo.

A similar name designation was made for each of the adjacent properties reported by the tax assessor to have an assessed value for all the local properties of at least $1.7 million.

$1.7 million land value

On July 25, 1989, the main church property on Sierra Highway was sold to the 21st Century Holiness Tabernacle Church for $1, according to county land documents. County assessors listed the value of the property at well over a half-million dollars.

But as the church grew in numbers, with more than two dozen churches built in Arkansas alone, so did the controversy surrounding it.

In 1991, Alamo ordered his followers to pack up as the federal government moved in to seize church property.

Three years later, Alamo was convicted of tax evasion and began serving a four-year sentence in Texarkana.

Church properties in the SCV underwent some silent changes.

On Dec. 13, 2006, the church — at that point named the 21st Century Holiness Tabernacle Church — filed a sales transaction selling the property to itself for no money at all.

A similar transaction was made for the adjoining parcels of land less than two years prior to Alamo’s arrest on child-abduction charges.

Thousands of parishioners living on church land locally and in Fouke, Arkansas, were confronted by FBI agents — joined by sheriff’s deputies and protective services agents — in the early hours of Sept. 21, 2008.

FBI raids

Four days after the joint raids, FBI agents caught up with Tony Alamo as he made his way back to the Sierra Highway compound, arresting him in Flagstaff, Arizona.

As his criminal trial unfolded in Arkansas, church officials took a second look at their holdings in California.

On Feb. 28, 2014, the 21st Century Holiness Tabernacle Church sold its local property to Sinergia. This time the sale price for the main compound was reported by the assessor to have been $1,020,000, with a value assessed by the county to be $489,200.

As properties of the church were being sold privately in California, its founder Tony Alamo died in federal prison in Butler, North Carolina.

Current owners

Four months after buying the church properties, Sinergia began selling each of the parcels of land.

The 11 acres behind the Halfway House Cafe were purchased by Dennis and Rita Brock for just over a million dollars.

Tony Alamo and his church owned close to a dozen acres — not 80 — that wrap around the Halfway House Cafe, according to records maintained by the Los Angeles County Tax Assessor’s Office.

Dennis Brock, who owns and operates the Brock Express Trucking company located about a mile south of the cafe on Sierra Highway, owns 10.7 acres of former church property.

“I bought it because of the zoning,” Brock said, noting the land is zoned for industrial use.

Brock bought the land from a company named Sinergia USA Ltd. LP, managed by attorney Robert A. Bonita, based in Rancho Mirage. He paid just over $1 million for the property on June 25, 2014.

Sinergia bought the land from the 21st Century Holiness Tabernacle Church, Alamo’s church.

In fact, Sinergia purchased at least seven properties from the church in February 2014, including the church’s main compound at 13136 Sierra Highway.

“I purchased it and subsequently sold it,” Bonita said this past spring.

Asked about the church and its parishioners, Bonita said, “We have zero relationship with the church. We simply bought the property from them.”

About parishioners living at the main compound, he said: “They were allowed to remain there” until he sold the property.

“We ended up selling it two years ago (2017) and they were required to vacate the premises.”

Compound sold

The main compound property was sold to a company called Aqua Garden Inc., owned and operated by California entrepreneur Stuart Millman.

“It’s currently vacant,” Millman said this spring. “Our plans are to either sell it or lease it, for someone to purchase it or develop it, commercial or otherwise. That land could be developed into residential homes.” 

“We’ve had inquiries from different agencies,” he said, adding any kind of commercial business will do, and the property is equipped with an industrial kitchen.

Proposed uses for the land have included a nursing home, retirement home, veterinarian clinic and summer camp. Most recently, a new planned charter school, Eagle Collegiate Academy, announced its plans to begin operations at the location in fall 2021. Charter school founder Ogo Okoye-Johnson confirmed the organization plans to lease the property.

Millman, through Aqua Garden, also purchased three of the other seven neighboring parcels of land once owned by the Alamo church next door to the compound.

Two of the remaining former church sites were sold to Rogelio and Justina Martinez, and one was sold to Thomas Haughton.

Water rights

So while church land was bought and sold, Carter remains committed to following up on another Alamo claim that he owned “millions of dollars in water rights” allegedly amassed by Alamo before his death.

A check with officials at the SCV Water Agency revealed no substance to the claim.

“He reportedly had cash squirrelled in places we never found,” Carter said.

And, while there may be a return to the Halfway House Cafe for a burger and a fresh search for overlooked assets, Carter’s next road trip is likely to Kentucky.

“There’s a farm in Kentucky owned by the church,” he said, “a house, some farmland.”

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