Alamo cult survivor Benjamin Risha describes horrifying beatings in documentary: 'I wanted to know what life was like beyond this'
Benjamin Risha and his parents (pictured) were members of Tony Alamo's cult. (Courtesy of Benjamin Risha)
Benjamin Risha initially had a seemingly idyllic childhood with horses, swimming pools and 300 peers he considered as brothers and sisters.
He wasn't aware he was being raised in an apocalyptic cult.
Risha and his parents were members of the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, a group led by ruthless preacher Tony Alamo.
He chose to come forward in a new Investigation Discovery docu-series titled “People Magazine Investigates: Cults,” which explores how destructive and terrifying groups can be to unsuspecting followers and their families.
Tony Alamo is escorted to a waiting police car outside the federal courthouse in Texarkana, Ark. on July 23, 2009. (AP)
Alamo had started out as a street preacher and his apocalyptic ministry grew into a multimillion dollar network before he was convicted of sexually abusing young girls he considered his wives.
He died in 2017 behind bars at age 82.
Risha told Fox News he wanted to clear up some misconceptions about his life within the compound.
“If you look on the Wikipedia page, it claims Tony Alamo took drug addicts off the streets,” he explained. “Really, most of the people there were not drug addicts. Some of them were hippies. They had done drugs. But they weren’t drug addicts. They were people who had a grand idea of creating a utopia where they could live in peace with each other in a commune setting.”
Alamo, who claimed to have been a music promoter with clients such as The Beatles, began preaching on the streets of Hollywood in the 1960s alongside his wife Susan. Initially they attracted hippies and youngsters alienated from their parents.
Risha’s mother, a hippie, was enamored with the group’s musicians and how they attempted to spread a message of bringing peace to the world. She joined the Ministries in 1970 after driving cross-country from New York to California.
Susan Alamo. (ID Network)
In 1974, Risha’s mother was paired with his father for an arranged marriage set up by Alamo and Susan.
“In their opinion, and this was preached throughout my life, Jesus Christ would not come back to Earth unless there was peace between the Arabs and the Jews,” Risha explained. “My dad being an Arab and my mom of Jewish descent, they were forced to be married… My mom didn’t love my dad. She thought he was a funny guy, she liked him, but there was no love there.
“Tony and Susan Alamo broke her… She flat out said no… But then they sent her to work in these rose fields in Bakersfield. She would work for hours and come home with bloody hands… She gave in. She agreed to marry my dad.”
Risha’s parents weren’t the only couple forced to pair up within the Ministries by the Alamos.
“They would pair up people that didn’t like each other,” he explained. “It’s a really weird thing. There would be people in this group that really loved each other. But they said ‘No, no no.'
Benjamin Risha and his father. (Courtesy of Benjamin Risha)
"And if they left or were kicked out, [the Alamos] got to keep their child… I think a lot of people knew Tony and Susan had ulterior motives, but they went along with it because they hoped they could change it. But over time, they couldn’t.”
Witnesses claimed Alamo made all the key decisions in the compound, including what children were taught in schools, who received clothes and who was allowed to eat.
Risha would end up being adopted by the Alamos after his parents escaped the church. His mother left when he was six months old in 1975 and his father would follow in 1984. And while Risha described Susan as “an angel” who prayed with him every night, it wouldn’t take long for him to notice Alamo wasn’t a loving father figure.
“When I was about 4 years old, they had this jewelry box,” he recalled. “I dropped it... The jewels fell out. I tried to put them back in the box, but I just couldn’t. I remember Tony just calling me a thief and yanking me up by my arm. He dislocated my arm… I remember Susan laying it into him, calling him an idiot, kicking him out of the house for the night.”
Alamo jackets. (ID Network)
Former followers said Alamo grew increasingly unhinged after his wife Susan died from cancer in 1982 at age 59. Devotees prayed for months for her resurrection, and her body was eventually placed in a crypt on the ministry’s compound in Dyer, Ark.
When Alamo wasn’t preaching, he developed a successful design business that manufactured elaborately decorated jackets for celebrities.
The iconic black-studded leather jacket worn by Michael Jackson on the cover of his 1987 album “Bad” was an Alamo creation. However, those jackets were reportedly manufactured using child labor in his compound.
Risha said Alamo’s behavior grew increasingly violent.
“There was a thing called being 'put on report' where you would go before him and he would judge you based on whatever, like you didn't eat your spinach on Wednesday — that was a punishment,” he explained. “I was starting to get more and more punished with the other children.
"From spankings and beatings to fastings where he would literally take food away from you for a couple of days… When Susan was in the cult, there were just spankings when kids were bad. But when she died, there were public beatings.”
Risha recalled one moment when he was about 9 years old and had reported another boy to Alamo for touching his bicycle.
A young Benjamin Risha. (Courtesy of Benjamin Risha)
“Tony backhanded him, kicked him in the stomach with his steel-toed boots,” he claimed.
Another child, just a few years younger than Risha, had reported his own mother to Alamo.
“He was made to smack his mother,” said Risha. “He had to do it three times before the smacks were loud enough for Tony to approve of them… His control was absolute. No one told him no. It was pretty horrible.
"Something as simple as falling asleep in church could get you in trouble, even though it was the third time you’d been at church that day, and you had already worked and gone to school and prayed for several hours. We would be nodding off. But if someone went to sleep? God forbid you got caught. It was pretty bad… I wanted to know what life was like beyond this.”
There was also the young boy who was paddled 100 times for allegedly holding a girl’s hand. Risha said that by count 43, the child’s eyes began to roll behind his head from agony.
Tony Alamo. (ID Network)
The Washington Post reported Alamo was accused in 1991 of child abuse after an 11-year-old boy told police he was paddled 140 times by four men on orders from the disgraced preacher. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges, saying too much time had passed.
Risha ran away in 1992 at age 17 and was able to track down his biological parents. He claimed he wasn’t aware of any sexual abuse Alamo was committing on young girls.
“There were rumors that he had multiple spiritual brides,” he said. “But they weren’t young girls.”
Alamo was convicted in 2009 on charges that he took underage girls across state lines for sex, including a 9-year-old. Five women testified in court that they were “married” to him in secret ceremonies when they were minors, including one when she was 8 years old.
Benjamin Risha today. (ID Network)
Risha said that when he first learned of Alamo’s death, he was initially relieved. But something changed.
“I found myself looking in the mirror,” he said. “I’m looking back at myself, this man now, and realizing so much of my life involved maneuvering around this human being so he wouldn’t come after me… So much time had gone by. And I can’t get that back.”
Risha said he has been faced with anger issues and PTSD, resulting him in getting therapy for the last 10 years. But he hopes sharing his story will serve as a warning to others on how easy it is to be lured by a cult.
“It’s much more common than people even realize,” he said.
This episode of "People Magazine Investigates: Cults" is currently available for streaming on IDGO.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.