River Phoenix
A Deep-Dive Into His Childhood In the Family of God Cult, and His Mysterious Death.

River Phoenix died on October 31st, 1993 under mysterious circumstances, at just 23 years old. At his young age, he was already an established actor, and also had a fair share of trauma in his life.

His brother Joaquin and sister Rain were there at the Viper Room with him as drugs were being passed around.

Everyone could see that River was in bad shape, but by the time they called for help, it was too late.

Show Notes:
*This is not an exact transcript, but rather an outline of my notes.

River Phoenix’s parents were John and Arlyn Bottom. They met in California during the era of free love while Arlyn was hitchhiking, and they fell in love and got married in1969. River was their first child, he was born on August 23rd, 1970.

The family were pretty much drifters, especially when they were in the Children of God cult. They joined Children of God when River was 3.

Children of God was a religious group that was very hippie in nature but are well known for their questionable-- beyond questionable-- morals. They spread messages of spiritual revolution and happiness and free love and it was like, loosely based on some Christian principles. There’s a lot more that goes into their beliefs but I’ll let you look into that if you want to. It’s a lot.

The leader of the cult was David Berg, who they believed to be a prophet.

David Berg was this ugly, gross old guy. They also called him Father David or Moses.

Their beliefs began to include things like sharing sexual partners, and eventually, they started having sexual relationships with their children. In the 60s and 70s, a lot of people started looking at sex as this spiritual experience that should be embraced, and I think David Berg took that and expanded that to include some of his own beliefs. Sex was considered a form of love. And the belief of this particular cult, they said that children would enjoy sex just as much as adults and they truly pushed the idea that they could build healthy sexual relationships with children, even children who they were related to. Parents were encouraged to have sex with each other while their child was in bed with them, and children were to be initiated into sexual acts at the age of 4.

David Berg actually had a son who they like…. Tried to use him as an example of how to raise a healthy child with a sexual relationship. They actually kept a journal, it was more like a guide book and it explicitly details the sexual relationship between the little boy and multiple adults in the cult.

By the way, that boy ended up growing up and murdering one of the nannies that abused him, before killing himself.

If you wanna research that case, his name was Ricky Rodriguez.

The book about raising him was called “The Story of Davidito” or aka “The Davidito Book”. I’m pretty sure that’s one of those banned books.

You can actually look up videos of Ricky Rodriguez on the night before he commits this murder suicide. It’s interesting because the children in this cult didn’t go to school. They were supposedly homeschooled but for the most part, they had no formal education. They also didn’t socialize outside of the cult. So people have noted how in these videos, Ricky kind of sounds like a tough guy, like maybe he’s mimicking a bad guy or vigilante from a movie. And it’s believed that this might be because of his lack of socialization, so like perhaps movies were his only real window into the outside world and how people talk.

So children started being initiated into sex acts at age 4.

One survivor said that when she was abused at 4 year old and she complained, her agressor said that she "must have a demon inside ... because sex was love, and love was what God wanted [them] to show each other."

Aside from the freaking trauma that is sex abuse, can you imagine being told that something’s wrong with you for not liking it like that? Like you have a demon in you? These poor kids.

Anyway it seeeems like the John and Arlyn Bottom weren’t aware of the sex with children aspect of the cult. They were just into the hippie love and freedom kind of aspects of it. They were religious and spiritual and I think that David Berg kind of took advantage of people like them, who maybe want to believe in religion but also believe in a sort of freedom to embrace love and pleasure.

The Children of God stationed them in Venezuela to work as missionaries and fruit gatherers. They’re an international cult. David started going by Moses and he would send out these like newsletters that he called the “Mo letters” and this was how he would communicate with the members. Later on when authorities started looking into him for the child abuse and stuff, he went off the grid and nobody really knew where he was, and he kept this whole cult up through these Mo letters.

John and Arlyn were completely dedicated to the Children of God.

The family was so entrenched in the cult that John was designated “the Archbishop of Venezuela”.

John and Arlyn would have 4 more kids throughout these years-- Rain, Joaquin, Liberty, and later, Summer.

By the time River was just 5 years old, he and his sister Rain had to go out and busk to afford food for the family. River would play guitar and they would both sing songs in the streets.

"But if he didn't bring home enough loose change that day, the family wasn't going to eat. So it was a lot of weight in a lot of different ways, on a very young child."

In the 70’s the cult started a form of recruiting called Flirty Fishing, where they would have the females kind of go out and pick up men and like, flirt or have sex with them to “show gods love and mercy” and get them to join the cult.

Before they got out of the cult, when River was 4 years old, he was sexually abused.

There’s not a lot of information about this. It seems like his friends and family don’t want to talk about it. River has briefly spoken on it publicly.

“The cult was a traumatic time for River Phoenix. After "block[ing] out" the experience for years, he told Details (via LA Weekly) that he was sexually assaulted when he was only four years old.

Likely as one way to try to erase those horrible memories, Phoenix was "completely celibate from [ages] ten to fourteen," per LA Weekly. “

**He has an interesting use of terms like “lost my virginity at 4” and “celibate from 10-14”*** These phrases are not meant for children :(

When the word about Flirty Fishing emerged, as well as the word about the child abuse, that’s when the Phoenix family decided to leave the cult. The family started to see that the directions they were being given by the Children of God and the things that were being preached, were directly at odds with what they believed and what they had read in the bible.

Arlyn was reportedly really hurt when she found out the truth about the Children of God. She was deeply religious and spiritual and had dedicated her life to spreading the word of God.

Leaving the cult wouldn’t be easy though, they had no money and no support in Venezuela, so they went to a pastor named Steven Wood for help. He had been a friend of the Children of God so the family told him that they were trying to leave the cult and needed help. He gave them room and board while they tried to find a way to get back to the United States. In exchange, River and Rain would perform Christian songs for the church’s Sunday service. One of the more popular songs they sang was “You’ve Got to be a baby” and River would sing it not just in English & Spanish, but also in French, Japanese, and Swahili.

After 4 months, Steven was able to get them on a cargo ship that was taking a shipment of tonka toys to Florida.

As Rain recalled to The Guardian, watching "a group of fishermen thrashing fish against some nails sticking out of the side of the boat" inspired the family to go vegan.

After they left the cult, the family almost never discussed the Children of God, but River’s mother quoted him as saying: “They’re disgusting. They’re ruining people’s lives.” It seems like River may have discussed his childhood with some people he was really close to, and none of those people have revealed those secrets. According to George Sluizer (director of Dark Blood), River told him about his difficult childhood.

By the way, this cult still exists. They’ve rebranded a few times so it’s now called The Family International, and they don’t publicly condone child sex abuse anymore, but the leader of the cult is now Karen Zerby, who was the wife of David Berg and mother of Ricky Rodriguez. So idk, it’s hard to believe much has really changed.

By this point, the family had 4 kids-- and Arlyn (who now goes by Heart) was pregnant with the 5th child, Summer. The family also changed their last name from “Bottom” to “Phoenix” to symbolize their new beginning.

When they got to the US, this was a total culture shock.

They stayed with Arlyn Phoenix's parents for a time in Florida.

Here, River and Rain would continue to play music and busk for money.

Calling her brother "a bit of a guitar prodigy," Rain shared with The Guardian that she and River "spent a lot of time singing round the fire at home after dinner, making little four-track demos in our room, or when we would be round at people's houses, we'd just break out the guitar and start singing."

The family ended up in LA by the time River was 9. There, River and his siblings were spotted by talent agent Iris Burton while busking on a street corner."

Arlyn got a job in a talent agency as secretary and had kids audition for everything.

John seeeeems liek he didnt like his kids in show business. That’s just how it seeeems.

When River appeared in Stand By Me, he pretty much became a teen heartthrob overnight and started receiving thousands of letters in fanmail. That role really thrust him into the spotlight.

It didn’t take him long to become an A-list actor. It’s said that he was just a spectacular actor, even from a young age. It usually didn’t take more than one take for him to get it right. Corey Feldman also talks about how incredible he was in Stand By Me in his dramatic scene, enough to even impress Corey, who was also said to have been an incredible young actor.

The family was loving and close, but John was complicated. John had problems with alcohol and, from an extremely young age, River felt as if he, not his father, had to support the family.

Rob Reiner (directed Stand by Me) noted that the family was close but something was off about John (dad), thought he was an alcoholic or something. Its said he and river didn’t really connect.

In 1991, River formed the band Aleka’s Attic. He was really, really passionate about music-- more so than acting. And he was really determined to make good music. The hard part was that people wanted to see the band play JUST because River Phoenix was in the band. He wanted them to like the band because the music was good. When they had gigs, they tried not to use his name, but the word got around pretty easily that it was indeed River Phoenix’s band.

The movie My Own Private Idaho which starred River Phoenix actually features a song by Aleka’s Attic.

In My Own Private Idaho, River met William Richert where they became close friends.

Some say that River saw william as father figure.

William has spoken out about River’s death a lot. For one, he hates that people call him a drug addict because in his perspective, River dabbled but he wasn’t a low-down complete addict.

In 1992, River Phoenix was cast in the film The Thing Called Love where he met actress Samantha Mathis. Samantha Mathis was dating John Leguizamo at the time, but she broke things off with him and started dating River.

Samantha recalled that River once told her that he had to make just one more big film so he could put away enough money to send his youngest sister to college.

“River said to me in that last year: ‘I just have to make one more movie to put away enough money so my youngest sister can go to college,’” Mathis recalls. “I don’t know if that was true, but I remember him saying that.”

The death--

Before I get into the events of October 30th and the early hours of October 31st, I want to say something. If you hear me say something that you think is wrong or inaccurate, just give me a second. There are a lot of different accounts of this night, including eye witness accounts and what the investigators have said, and a lot of the witnesses and reports contradict each other. So just let me tell you all of the things. I promise I look into this stuff deeply, but when the witnesses are people like Johnny Depp, Joaquin Phoenix, Samantha Mathis, the Red Hot Chilli Pepper band members, I feel like it’s unfair not to include somebody’s statement or invalidate it. We don’t know if people are being untruthful or remember things differently, or simply had completely different perspectives of what happened. So I’m going to tell you all the versions of that night that seem to be relevant.

It’s well known that River Phoenix was a heroin and cocaine user, however, exactly how heavy of a user is debatable.

Like I said, William Richter is a close friend and says he just dabbled. His family and friends also said that he wasn’t an addict. And in their defense, he was using on and off and it seems like maybe he only turned to drugs when he was going through an especially dark time. One thing I will say is I’ve had friends who were addicted to drugs and sometimes they can get really good at hiding it.

According to the 2013 book, Running with Monsters, by Phoenix’s friend Bob Forrest, Phoenix had spent the previous days on a massive drugs binge with Red Hot Chili Peppers’ guitarist, John Frusciante: “[River] stayed with John for the next few days, and probably didn’t get a minute of sleep. The drug routine stayed pretty consistent for all of us. First, smoke crack or shoot coke directly into a vein for that 90-second, electric brain-bell jangle. Then shoot heroin to get a grip and come down enough to be able to carry on a conversation for a few minutes before you start the cycle again,” Forrest wrote.

Regardless, he was using heroin and cocaine sometimes. And it’s one thing if you use those drugs and combine them all the time. But when you start using and stop using and start and stop again, there’s no way to know where your tolerance is and that makes overdosing all the more likely.

From what many people believe, River had been more-or-less clean for the last few months of his life. In fact, Samantha Mathis says that he didn’t use drugs at all while they were together. (I will note, Samantha has changed details about her account of the night in question throughout the years, so take that as you will.)

On October 30th 1993, River was working on the last film he would appear in-- Dark Blood. Interestingly, his father warned him not to do this movie. Apparently his father, John, had been living on a farm in Costa Rica at this point, and he flew in to urge River to take a break from the movies and go spend some time in Costa Rica with him. Apparently, this was super unusual. Supposedly, John hadn’t been in touch with the family lately and had no interest in River’s career, so River and his friends thought it was pretty shocking.

Nonetheless, River did the movie. One of the reasons was that he really, really wanted to work with actress Judy Davis.

Judy Davis is an Australian actress who is held in very high regard. She’s done tons of movies, she’s got like a billion awards. She’s internationally famous.

Apparently, she’s also a raging bitch.

By all accounts, Judy Davis was difficult to work with on the set of Dark Blood, but more specifically she was making River’s time on set a living hell.

The director George Sluizer recalls how she was always whispering things under her breath, or making complaints about River.

Before long, the sight of Judy was making River’s skin crawl.

River was known to be exceptionally sensitive. Those close to him recall him suffering during the next 7 weeks of filming, saying that he would sometimes call his friends in tears.

The director (I’m just gonna call him George) said that River asked if they could save the love scenes for last because he just didn’t feel like touching and kissing Judy (who played his love interest).

According to George, River appeared not to be on drugs during the filming. However, on the day of October 30th, he kind of stumbled in looking rough and it was clear to him that River had been using drugs the night before.

(this is just George’s account, we don’t know if it’s fact.)

That day the filmed a scene between River and Judy, it’s the scene where they’re in the room full of candles. They like hold each other and get all smoochy and then the director yells “cut!”. Judy instantly pulled back and walked off set. The lights go down and the crew starts moving around. And for some reason, River just stands there, not moving from his place. The lights went off and with the candles in the background, you could see River’s silhouette. He reportedly then turns to the camera and just starts walking towards it. Like, you just see his black silhouette slowly walking towards the camera. That’s when a crew member saw him and noticed the camera was on, and he went and turned it on.

A couple of days after River died, they saw the footage and realized that this spooky clip of River walking towards the camera is the last ever recorded clip of him.

After a rough day of filming, River retreated to his hotel room where he let loose with his friends and his siblings, Joaquin and Rain, who had just come in to visit.

Now this next part is where the stories start to split.

What we know is that River and his girlfriend Samantha Mathis were hanging out with Joaquin and Rain at The Viper Room.

The Viper Room was a nightclub on the Sunset Strip that was partly owned by Johnny Depp. They would have performances there, and that night, Johnny’s Depp band was supposed to play, along with

Flea and John Frusciante from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Gibby Haynes of the Butthole Surfers, Al Jourgensen of Ministry, and Depp.

We know the four were hanging out at the club, but while some accounts say they all went together, some accounts say that River actually arrived at the club with John Frusciante from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and they were both fucked up when they got there. He said River was clearly unsteady and on something.

This was said by Bob Forrest, a musician and friend of River’s who was at the Viper Room that night.

Some other accounts say that Samantha, Joaquin, and Rain, wanted to go out to the Viper Club, but River didn’t want to and they ended up kind of dragging him there.

Samantha’s account says that she didn’t want to go, she had a bad feeling about it and River actually convinced her to go.

Then there’s another account that says that he was invited to play a set at The Viper Room.

River was good friends with Flea, the guitarist of RHCP so it’s possible that Flea invited him to play a set, possibly with the rest of the band.

As soon as they all got to the club, cocaine was being passed around. Some accounts contradict Bob Forrest, saying that River was actually avoiding drugs that night in preparation for playing with the band.

But then, somebody informed River that he would not be able to play. Some reports say that there were just too many musicians that night and there was no space for him and that Flea may have been the one to give him the news.

There are some people, however, who believe that Johnny Depp personally told him that he couldn’t play.

This might not be relevant, but apparently there are people out there who believe that Johnny Depp didn’t like River, and was possibly threatened by him because they were around the same age and River was getting more roles, and bigger roles. Also River was preparing for a role where his the actress playing his love interest was apparently dating Johnny Depp.

From what I gather, this is just an opinion some people have. If Johnny Depp really did have a problem with River, it’s not something many people knew about or talked about. So it’s very possible that’s just a rumor made up to fulfill someone’s conspiracy theory. Idk. Even celebrities can have crazy theories and by the looks of it, all these guys were on a lot ofdrugs.

Regardless, River wasn’t allowed to play and that hurt. He was really looking forward to playing with his buddy Flea, and at this point he felt kind of left out and singled out.

Well now that he wasn’t going to be playing, he started looking for drugs. Some say that he went to the bathroom and did a speedball, which is a combination of cocaine and heroine. He instantly started feeling sick.

Another account, and this has been said by eyewitnesses, is that River was given a drink immediately before he started feeling sick.

According to William Richert (who was at the club) Samantha Mathis told him that John Frusciante approached their table and gave River a little plastic blue cup and said “drink this Riv, it’ll make you feel fabulous.

River drank it right down and suffered an immediate reaction. His neck bulged, his back twitched, and he complained, “something’s wrong.” He then vomited at the table. He then said to John “what did you give me?”

Richert goes on to say that Mathis later changed her story.

River was in pretty bad shape. He was sweaty and pale.

What happens next is-- well this is Samantha Mathis’ account.

she went to the bathroom. “I knew he was high that night, but the heroin that killed him didn’t happen until he was in the Viper Room. I have my suspicions about what was going on, but I didn’t see anything,” she says.

When Mathis came out of the bathroom she saw what she thought was Phoenix in a scuffle with another man, and the two of them being pushed out of the club’s side door by a bouncer. When she went out on to the street after them, she saw Phoenix drop to the ground and go into convulsions on the pavement. Thankfully, this was before the paparazzi had became ubiquitous so no one took photos, but it also meant no one was around to help.

“What have you done? What are you on?” Mathis shouted at the other man. “Leave him alone, you’re spoiling his high,” he retorted.

Mathis desperately tried to get back into the club to get help, but the side door was firmly shut. So she ran around to the main door, searched through the club for Phoenix’s siblings and they all dashed outside.

Btw, Johnny Depp, Flea, John, and the whole band are on stage playing a song at this exact time.

River was convulsing on the side of the street. People were standing their watching, and like seeing this famous person on the ground clearly in need of help.

5 minutes went by before Joaquin was the one to snap into action and call 911. Remember, Joaquin is only 19 while this is all happening.

This phone call would almost immediately be leaked to news stations.

-Joaquin 911 call-

River’s breathing got really shallow. By the time paramedics got there, he was no longer breathing and had no pulse.

River was pronounced dead at the hospital. He had died from an overdose of cocaine and heroin.

It was found that he didn’t have recent track marks, so they determined that he couldn’t have injected the drugs. That’s why a lot of people believe that he snorted cocaine and heroin in the bathroom.

While it’s not super duper common, it is possible to snort heroin and some people do do that, but it’s very potent and it’s really easy to misjudge your dosage and risk overdosing. From what we’ve heard, it sounds like River may have shot up heroin, snorted coke, and smoked meth. Snorting heroin doesn’t sound like his usual way of using, but maybe it was just easier to snort at the club.

If we think about the account that he was given a drink with heroin and cocaine, there’s reasons why it could and couldn’t have happened.

Ingesting heroin and cocaine in a drink form isn’t a common thing people do. From what I’ve read, some would call it a “waste of drugs” and supposedly, it hits your body a lot slower than injecting it would. So if that were the case, he wouldn’t have died so quickly.

However, he allegedly had 8x the lethal amount. I feel like him using 8x the lethal amount in the bathroom by himself, is A LOT at once. And I feel like it would be easier to overdose a drink like that and have someone chug it. But I really don’t know shit about how those things are ingested or how long it takes.

But for just a second just to examine this argument, let’s say John really did give River the drink. Did John know what was in the drink? He told River it’d make him feel fabulous, so it seems like he did. It’s possible he even told River what was in it and River agreed to drink it. Except Samantha says that River asked him “what did you give me?”

Some believe that maybe John made the drink for himself, as he also apparently got sick and threw up that night. When River went looking for drugs, maybe John was like “take this!”

And maybe John didn’t know the amount in the cup was actually lethal. It’s said that John was a heavy drug user, while River was on and off. So since John presumably had a higher tolerance to the drugs, I guess it’s possible that John could mix himself the drink, drink some of it, get a little sick but ultimately survive.

And if that were the case, it’s fair to presume that River had a lower tolerance and didn’t take the drink as well as John thought he would.

Plus, if it’s true that the two of them had just gone on a days long drug binge, maybe John legit thought River could not only handle it, but that it was just what he needed to cheer him up.

And also, maybe he actually did a line of coke or something right before taking the drink, or even after (probably not). And maybe the drink wouldn’t have killed him right away. And like, some did say that he arrived to the club fucked up, so if that’s true, and he was already fucked up and THEN he took the drink…. You know? We just don’t know exactly how much he used and how high his tolerance was. I tried to find out, but everybody and their mama has their own version so here we are, listening to everyone’s personal opinion and perspective.

Some people go as far as to wonder if someone else mixed the drink and sent John to give it to River. Someone like Johnny Depp.

But I doubt it. Haha. Just want to say it because it’s a theory out there. I think it’s comical though.

Something interesting and it’s something William Richert said.

In an interview, he talks about how he spoke to Phoenix just a few days before his death. No, in fact, he yells about it. He expresses disdain for the mystery surrounding River’s death. I’ll link this video on the website btw.

But he starts going off about how his brother and sister, Joaquin and Rain, didn’t act appropriately.

He says that Joaquin didn’t tell the paramedics that River was overdosing-- he just told them that he was seizing. William is pissed about that because they could have maybe injected him with something and saved him if they had known that. I don’t know why Joaquin didn’t mention it, but I want to assume it’s just because he was panicked and wasn’t thinking. Because everyone could see that he was on drugs, and Joaquin was only 19 here, he wasn’t even actually old enough to be at the club. I can only imagine he’s thought back on that night too and how things could’ve been done differently, because his siblings really looked up to him.

But I do think it’s interesting that William Richert, as close with River as he was, has huge suspicions about his death and he’s maddd about it.

Phoenix's father was angry at John Frusciante over his son's death. In an interview, he said, "If I find him, I'm going to kill him. He's very rich and very young, 23 like River, but he's a terrible addict who's become a pusher..." The family never pressed charges against anyone for their son's death.

During his acceptance speech for Best Actor at the 92nd Academy Awards, Joaquin Phoenix honored his brother by stating "When he was 17, my brother [River] wrote this lyric. He said: 'run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.'

He and his wife Rooney Mara named their son River.

William Richert also named his son River.

What breaks my heart the most is that he spent his whole life under so much pressure. Pressure to support his family when they were living on the road, and then when he became famous, he felt the pressure to keep up their lifestyle and support not only the family but to pay for all the house staff.

He never even got the opportunity to do his music as he so passionately wanted to. He spent his whole life working for other people, playing roles and worrying about getting his siblings fed and off to college. By all accounts, River Phoenix was a wonderful human being and an amazing big brother. This story is truly tragic and I wish we could see what kind of person he would have become had he survived, how strong of an actor and musician he would be today.

Other notable members of the Children of God cult include Rose McGowan, and Fleetwood Mac’s Jeremy Spencer (who is still in the cult).

*Special guest: Summer Kinsey

Photos & Videos

David Berg's creepy ass

William Richert, close friend of River Phoenix, speaks about the night of River's death at the Viper Room.