|Inside the Arkansas Compound, Tales of Abuse and Neglect
By Michelle Roberts
September 21, 2008
If only she prayed hard enough, she could make Susan Alamo rise from the dead.
At age 12, having not set foot outside a religious compound in Arkansas since she was 4, Elishah Franckiewicz believed it was possible.
Day after day, she lay down beside the corpse, dressed in a wedding gown, for Susan Alamo was "the bride of God." And day after day, she endured beatings by church elders because the dead woman — wife to sect founder Tony Alamo — did not open her eyes.
"We prayed over her open coffin for months," said Franckiewicz, now 37 and an English teacher at an area community college. "When she didn't come back to life, Tony (Alamo) started losing his mind. He believed that it was because the devil was in the children, because we had weak souls."
On Sunday, the morning after federal investigators raided the Arkansas headquarters of Alamo's ministry as part of a child pornography investigation, Franckiewicz, for a brief moment, became that 12-year-old again.
In a resolute voice, she made clear how she and others in the greater Portland area endured and escaped unspeakable abuses at the compound. Franckiewicz fled in 1985 at age 15.
Franckiewicz said she and a loose network of adult compound survivors spent Saturday evening on the phone, calling one another from opposite ends of the country to discuss what they could do to help the six children who have been placed in temporary state custody as they are interviewed in the wake of the raid.
"We've been watching CNN," Franckiewicz said. "They announced that authorities were doing what they could to return the children to the parents again as soon as possible, which is the worst thing that could happen."
Franckiewicz says she was the first baby born at Alamo's first compound in California. Years after her escape, she testified against Tony Alamo, now 74, whom she describes as a "seriously dangerous man," in his tax evasion trial in 1994.
For that, he was convicted and served four years in prison for failing to pay taxes in the lucrative line of "Tony Alamo" brand sequined denim jackets he sold in the 1980s.
Franckiewicz said Sunday she decided to tell her story because she worries that the public will be swayed by Alamo's arguments that his group is being persecuted. At one time, she says, Alamo was married to 10 girls ages 15 and younger, including her two nieces.
Arkansas police said Saturday that they had received complaints from former ministry members about allegations of child abuse, sexual abuse and polygamy. In turn, they turned over information about the allegations to the FBI.
Alamo has publicly denied the child abuse allegations.
"I want to talk about this because I am so afraid that once again allegations are just going to somehow find a way of not coming to fruition," Franckiewicz said. "He's been on the news before. He's been raided before. Yet, he's still here. My story doesn't matter now. But there are people's stories who do matter. They're more recent. I want to tell mine so there'll be safety in numbers."
The early days
Tony Alamo wasn't always Tony Alamo. He was born Bernie Hoffman. In the early 1960s, he moved to Los Angeles and assumed the names Marcus Abad and Mark Hoffman and pursued a career in music. He was briefly incarcerated for a weapon-related offense.
Together, the couple established the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation in 1969 in Hollywood, Calif. The Alamos purchased the property north of Los Angeles in 1970.
Their followers worked for businesses owned by the Alamos or on nearby farms and lived in sex-segregated dormitories.
Punishments varied for those who disobeyed the Alamos. Penalties ranged from withholding food to beatings to being booted from the church. Those leaving the church were told they would die, go insane or turn into homosexuals.
Franckiewicz says she was the first child born into that compound, her parents among the group's original followers.
"A lot of people went there because they were desolate and down and out, homeless and, quite frankly, not all there," she said.
In 1973, she said, a magazine infiltrated the compound and wrote a scathing piece that, more or less, labeled it a cult. Soon after, in part to escape publicity, Franckiewicz says, the group relocated to a new compound in Arkansas and she, at 4, was brought along.
The new compound was operated much like the one in California. Followers were expected to get jobs out in the world, Franckiewicz said, but were ordered to give their entire paychecks to the Alamos' foundation. Shelter was provided. But everyone except the Alamos and their "right-hand people" were prohibited from keeping food in their own homes. Followers ate at the compound's cafeteria, often with spoiled food gathered from grocery stores and garbage bins.
Franckiewicz said bonds between parents in the compound and their children were often broken and the Alamos made all decisions.
"Whatever the leader says to do, happens," Franckiewicz said. "The parents of children in the compound are not what we understand as parents. They're not protectors. They're not nurturers. They do whatever Tony tells them to do to their children."
Children were taught in a school on-site and rarely if ever permitted to leave.
Nearly everything — including playing house — was considered "evil," Franckiewicz said. Instead of "cowboys and Indians," she recalls role-playing that "the deprogrammers" were going to come and "turn our minds evil."
"We didn't know that wasn't normal," she recalls. "We only knew what they told us."
Franckiewicz said she and other compound children never attended public school and were educated in the compound.
"We learned that, for instance, the Pope had JFK assassinated and that dinosaurs didn't exist."
She said that while she was never sexually abused, Alamo still acted strangely to her and other young girls.
"He was very creepy," she recalls. "He would grab my face and he'd rub my face and my shoulders and run his finger down my neck. Many times as he was stroking my face, he'd spit in my face. We were thankful that he just did that and not beat us."
Death and beatings
When Susan Alamo died of cancer April 8, 1982, things got even stranger at the Arkansas compound. According to news reports at the time, Tony Alamo claimed publicly that she would be resurrected. Local radio stations made fun of the announcement, Franckiewicz recalls. "They were playing, 'Wake Up, Little Susie,' over and over again."
The event was a turning point in Franckiewicz's life.
"As a child in that environment," she said, "I believed 100 percent that she was going to rise from the dead."
Week after week, she recalls attending prayer vigils, and even lying down and curling up next to Susan Alamo's rotting corpse. "She smelled," Franckiewicz said. "She was cold and really, really hard. She was dead."
Soon, children were being subjected to horrible beatings for every day Susan Alamo remained dead. "That's my worst memory," she said. "The beatings were severe. We were hit with 2-by-6 boards drilled with holes."
She recalls having to get into a bathtub with her clothes on before getting undressed — the fabric stuck with dried blood to her open wounds.
Franckiewicz said it was extremely painful because children "started telling on each other in hopes of getting a lesser punishment."
At one point, Franckiewicz said a thought passed through her mind: "When Grandma Suzie wakes up, she's really going to be mad that these kids are being beaten like this."
Immediately, she was terrified that God was going to tell Tony Alamo that she'd had the thought. The beatings went on, but Tony Alamo never mentioned it.
"Something turned inside me," Franckiewicz said. "It wasn't that I thought everything he said was a lie, but now I knew at least one thing that wasn't right.
"He couldn't read my thoughts."
About six months after she died, Susan Alamo was placed in a mausoleum.
Franckiewicz was despondent. She comforted herself by lying on the mausoleum marble, running her index finger in the grooves of Susan Alamo's carved nameplate, still praying the dead woman would rise. Franckiewicz said she felt guilt and shame, as if she were responsible for Alamo's continued death, and all the souls that wouldn't be saved as a result.
The next year, in 1984, at age 14, Franckiewicz ran away. "It was 'Little House on the Prairie' meets 1985," she said. "At first, I didn't tell the police where I was from, but they knew."
Franckiewicz said social workers became involved and eventually sent her back to the compound with regular state welfare checks. The beatings stopped. But Franckiewicz was still afraid. The day the social worker was scheduled to close the case, she followed him to his car.
"I told him he couldn't leave me there," she recalls. "I told him, 'You don't understand what's going to happen to me if you do.' He said, 'I don't have a place to put you, sweetie.' He left me there, and that night I was beaten unconscious."
Soon after, she said, a man came to the compound to visit his brother. He stayed for a while and noticed Franckiewicz. "He said I was the saddest person he had ever seen," she said.
Ten years older than she, Steve Franckiewicz promised that he would rescue her. One time, someone caught them talking in the compound's tape library, which housed all of the recordings of Tony Alamo's sermons.
As a result, Steve Franckiewicz was kicked out of the compound and Elishah was "beaten within an inch of my life."
Six months later, in a car disguised as the one driven by her grandparents, Steve Franckiewicz drove into the compound and whisked her away.
By the time anyone knew she was gone, they were already several states away.
In 1985, the year Elishah Franckiewicz fled, the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of Alamo's church. Three years later, he was charged with child abuse for ordering followers to beat an 11-year-old boy. But charges were dropped for lack of evidence.
The child's parents sued Alamo and won a $1.5 million judgment.
In 1991, Alamo ordered his followers to bring along his first wife's body when they evacuated the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation compound in Crawford County, Ark. The compound was about to be raided by federal marshals in the wake of a civil lawsuit against Alamo.
The following year, a Memphis, Tenn., grand jury indicted Alamo for evading income taxes in the late 1980s. Soon after, Alamo became a fugitive.
In 1994, he was convicted on the tax charges after Franckiewicz and others who grew up in the compound testified, saying that they had been abused as children and had helped him falsify documents. At his sentencing, former church members testified that Alamo was a polygamist and had several young wives. Alamo served four years in prison. At the time, he owed the government $7.9 million.
Franckiewicz said her parents left the compound several years ago but "really still believe much of what was taught there."
She and her siblings, including one who lives in Portland, have no contact with them.
After a slow courtship, Franckiewicz married Steve. This week, they will celebrate their 22nd wedding anniversary. They have an adult child who's in college. After leaving the compound, Franckiewicz's English language skills tested below those of people for whom English is a second language. But she persevered. Today, she holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at Davis after graduating with highest honors and holds a master's from California State University.
Franckiewicz says she hopes that in telling her story, others will share theirs.
"Tony Alamo says he has an army — the army of God," she said. "We, the survivors, have one, too. Each other."
Michelle Roberts; email@example.com
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