Bill Clinton, then governor of Arkansas, called him “Roy Orbison on Speed.” Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj have worn his designer denim jackets. And Benjamin Risha, Rebecca Gay and Jessica Cooper say they spent their childhoods abused and brainwashed by him.
In the new SundanceTV docuseries Ministry of Evil, premiering Feb. 27, former members of the Alamo Christian Foundation, alongside lawyers, historians and even his former stepdaughter, recount the life and brutality of the late pastor Tony Alamo.
Alamo, along with his wife Susan, founded the Christian cult in 1969 Los Angeles, capitalizing off the hippie movement. After attracting hundreds of self-described “Jesus Freaks,” the couple relocated to the outskirts of Alma, Arkansas, in 1976, where Susan grew up and outsiders were far and few. There, they amassed millions, protected under religious tax-exemption laws while unpaid workers—many of them children—assembled his designer Tony Alamo of Nashville denim jackets by hand and ran the bustling Alamo Restaurant where Parton once famously performed. The jackets were a huge hit in the ‘80s, worn by the likes of Mike Tyson and Dolly Parton; one was even featured on the album cover to Michael Jackson’s Bad. Thanks in no small part to unpaid child labor, Alamo was able to build a $10 million business empire.
When Susan died in 1982 after a battle with breast cancer, that’s when the trouble really began. Her passing left Tony to run the controversial businesses and cult all by his lonesome, and under Tony’s rule, the physical and emotional abuse first brought upon by Susan went into overdrive (she was known to punish adherents for not praying hard enough after she failed to resurrect the dead). Then in 1991, the IRS revoked the Alamo’s tax-exempt status and seized their lush 150-acre property, known as Georgia Ridge. For Risha, Gay, and Cooper, however, this was just a normal childhood.
“As a child, I had a very fun life,” Risha told The Daily Beast.
He and the nearly 500 children born into the cult spent 95 percent of their time walking trails and playing games. But by night, Alamo and his henchmen turned abusive, paddling them upwards of 100 times. “One of my friends passed out from the pain. His eyes rolled back, and we thought he was dead for a moment,” Risha recalled. Witnessing horrific abuse at 13 changed his perception of Alamo and the cult. He knew he needed to get out.
Risha was raised by the Alamos after his biological parents fled the cult. Alamo often warned Risha if he were ever to flee as his parents did, he’d join them in hell. In 1987, Risha accidentally uncovered his personal documents while working in Alamo’s office. Learning his parents were still alive, he quickly contacted his long-lost father for a plane ticket and fled a week later to the Fort Smith Regional Airport. He was 17 years old.
For the docuseries, produced by World of Wonder and Peacock Productions, Risha and Gay returned to Georgia Ridge in October 2017 for their first extended visit since fleeing decades ago. They walked through the mansion, where the regular beatings occurred. “There was no light in it. It was kind of dark, which was symbolic of the darkness of that room,” Risha said. Gay experienced vivid, traumatic flashbacks: “I could still hear the screams of the kids echoing, lost in those walls.”
The first episode of the series debuts on what will be Gay’s 30th anniversary of fleeing. After refuting a conversation Alamo claimed they once had, her mother banished her from the cult. So in 1989, Gay was left with no other choice than to go live with her similarly-exiled father, afraid he—as Alamo had warned—would harm her. Her father never did. “There’s a part of me that has survivor’s guilt because I got out,” Gay said. “I left my friends behind, and they suffered.”
Many of the ex-members say they now live with complex PTSD due to their chronic exposure to trauma. Jessica Cooper left Alamo in 2001 at 29 years old. But being on the outside with her husband and raising seven children—with no work experience—proved too overwhelming. She pleaded with her sister, who was still living in the cult, to convince Alamo to let her back in. Cooper thankfully never did return, and seventeen years later, she is now a successful real estate agent in Richmond, Virginia, with a college degree from Regent University.
Her father, Tommy Scarcello, is rumored to be one of several highly-secretive leaders of today’s Alamo Ministry Foundation. A representative for the Alamo Christian Ministry refused to provide details to The Daily Beast on the group’s current leadership. “According to what I’ve been hearing, he’s been a part of a lot of atrocities that have happened there,” Cooper said of her father. They haven’t spoken since 2012 when her sister died. “He bought every bit of lie [Alamo] could sell, and now he is that guy in some ways. As far as I know, he never did anything to little girls, but he is a moneymaker there.”
In Ministry of Evil, several former members describe their underage marriages to Alamo, claiming he raped them and forced them to live in a house together, separated from their families—who were unaware of the illicit marriages. In 2008, he was charged on numerous counts of transporting children across state lines for sexual activities. Cooper, who says she was never sexually abused by or married to Alamo, testified against him at the trial. Shortly after his arrest, Alamo told the Associated Press, “Consent is puberty.” In 2009, the cult leader received a 175-year sentence. He died in 2017 at the age of 82 in federal custody.
While the docuseries ends with Alamo’s death, ex-members of his cult are still reeling from his reign of terror. “A lot of my friends have developmental, psychological issues that they’re still trying to work out today,” Risha said. “Most of them have not gotten any type of therapy.” After watching the docuseries, Gay experienced a 12-hour extreme bout of depression. She doesn’t believe Alamo truly paid for his crimes. “He spent eight years in jail getting free health care, all of his meals, and a warm bed,” she said. “Meanwhile, we’re all out here hacking out an existence trying to get over the emotional trauma, and this guy gets to die.”