Common thread of sexual, spiritual abuse among cult defectors who killed themselves
Josh was 18 years old when he left the Children of God. Three years later, he sat down at his brother’s desk and shot himself in the head.
His brother, Chris, found the body. There was still color in Josh’s cheeks and the smell of gunpowder in the air.
Josh left two handwritten notes, one addressed to his young sons and one to his siblings.
“He did not leave a note for our parents, and I’m sure there was a reason for this,” Chris wrote in a remembrance of his brother. “Sometimes I wonder what they think about at night. … But they have their God, and their religion to cling to — the same God and religious beliefs that they placed above their children.”
New attention has been focused on the suicide rate among children of the Children of God since a Jan. 8 murder-suicide of two leading members. Leaders of the sect founded in the late 1960s by Oakland native David “Moses” Berg and now known as the Family International acknowledge that there have been at least 10 suicides over the past 13 years by those in that group who have left the Family, but defectors say the number is much higher.
Josh and Chris — who asked that his and his brother’s last name not be used — are among hundreds of young adults born into the sect but who later defected.
In Josh’s case, difficulties adjusting to life outside the Family may have contributed to his death on Jan. 26, 1999, in Show Low, Ariz., according to Chris.
Adding to Josh’s troubles, his brother said, was Josh’s participation in the Victor Program, created by the Family to discipline rebellious teenagers and adults in the sect.
“Josh was part of a detention and retraining program involving sleep deprivation, food deprivation, manual labor, silence restriction and isolation, ” Chris said.
Friends and family of the dead say the suicides are linked to years of sexual, spiritual or physical abuse they experienced growing up in one of the most secretive sects of the 1970s and ’80s.
No one outside the group paid much attention to the spate of suicides until Jan. 8, when 29-year-old Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez, the onetime heir apparent to the Family throne, murdered his mother’s personal secretary in his Tucson apartment, drove across the California border and then shot himself in the front seat of his car.
In a videotaped confession recorded before the murder-suicide, Rodriguez reveals that his original plan was to torture 51-year-old Angela Smith to get the information he needed to hunt down his estranged mother, Karen “Maria” Zerby, the current prophet and spiritual leader of the Family.
On the 45-minute-long tape, Rodriguez blames Smith, his mother and his mother’s husband, Peter Amsterdam, for years of abuse that he and others allegedly suffered growing up in the cult.
More than a dozen defectors told The Chronicle that sexual activity between children, teenagers and adults occurred in numerous Children of God communes — especially between 1975 and 1986, after which the Family maintains that it “enacted stringent policies to ensure the safety and protection of our children.”
But those who have been following the human fallout from that licentious period say sexual molestation was only one of many demons driving second- generation members to end it all.
Adjusting to life in the outside world after years of isolation and religious indoctrination, former members say, can be just as traumatic as dealing with sexual abuse.
“Sex wasn’t the only thing stolen from them. It wasn’t even the biggest thing,” said James La Matterly, a member of the Children of God in the early 1970s. “Their spirituality was stolen. God was stolen from them.”
T hey say “the truth will set you free,” but Marina Sarran isn’t so sure.
“Telling the truth can destroy you,” she said.
Sarran says that’s what happened to her friend and lover, Ricky Dupuy, who was 17 when he joined the Children of God in Tucson in 1969. He left the sect in 1992 and died of an intentional drug overdose in Loa, Utah, on June 2, 1996. He was 44.
Dupuy was not born into the sect, and his name is not on a list of 31 suicides provided by defectors. But in many ways, his story is the same.
“He had three severe suicide attempts,” said Sarran, who was 15 years old when she joined the Church of God in Italy in 1977.
“He felt like a freak. He couldn’t think straight,” she said of the period after he defected. “He’d say ‘my life is over.’ He was a lot like Ricky Rodriguez. He had fantasies about getting an AK-47 and taking out Karen Zerby and Peter Amsterdam.”
In 1993, Dupuy emerged as a leading defector and source of information about abusive practices inside the Children of God, which by then was calling itself the Family.
At the time, Dupuy revealed that many young cult members had been sent to the Victor Program. He called the retraining center an “oppressive and brutal system of thought reform” subjecting inmates to “mental, psychological and even physical abuse.”
Dupuy was invited onto the “Larry King Live” TV show in 1993 to debate officials of the sect. At one point, the officials denied that there were policies and doctrines that encourage molestation of children.
Asked by King how he knew there were such policies, Dupuy replied, “because I was ordered in the group to have sex with a 10-year-old by the leadership of the group.”
“Did you?” King asked.
“Yes,” Dupuy said. “It was to get me in so deep that I would be afraid to ever come out and speak against the group.”
Dupuy later testified in a British child-custody case that he and another adult man had been asked by the child-care directors at a Family home in the Dominican Republic in November 1983 to allow two girls to masturbate them.
In his 1995 court decision, Lord Justice Alan Ward concluded that Dupuy had, in fact, been “asked to share with the girls who were only 10 and 11 years old. The little girl presented herself in a sarong with no panties. She masturbated him.”
Ward identified the two girls as the daughters of two high-ranking leaders of the Family.
Sarran said Dupuy had been haunted for the last three years of his life by the abuse he committed, the confession on the Larry King show and the years of his life wasted in the Children of God.
Before killing himself in 1996, Dupuy made the following entry on the last page of his journal:
“What have I done with my life? Wasted it in the insanity of some maniacal bunch of pathological deviates. … Some things are worse than death, and my continued existence in this unspeakable state is one of them.”
O n the night of Dec. 24, 2004, Sam McNair, 25, and Abe Braaten, 27, were kicking back in McNair’s apartment in Kobe, Japan. Their wives were at Braaten’s place with the kids, just a five-minute drive away.
Sam and Abe had knocked back a beer or two and were watching a movie on tv.
“All of a sudden,” McNair said, “he was like ‘Sam, um, I’m not feeling so good. My heart is pumping real fast.’ And I felt his heart and, swear to God, I never felt anything like that before. It was beating super fast. It was that quick. At that point, I thought he was having a panic attack.”
Like many young people who grew up in the Children of God, Braaten had trouble adjusting to life in the real world.
“Yeah, he talked about suicide when he was living with us,” said Braaten’s sister, China Taniguchi. “This is the thing about Abe — every time it came close to his birthday, he would get super-negative. Just like, ‘Oh my God, I’m already at this age, and I’m still doing nothing. … What am I going to do with my life?’ ”
Taniguchi said her brother — who left the Family in 2000 — was seen as an especially rebellious teenager and was often sent off to the Family’s Victor Program for re-education.
“I mean, I barely saw my brother because he was always shipped off to some other place to learn some lessons — to get ‘victory’ over some problem he had,” she said. “It makes me so mad. I think that had a lot to do with the problems with self-esteem.”
The mother of Braaten and Taniguchi, Yumiko “Phoenix” Taniguchi, is one of the top leaders in the Family International today.
On that December night in Kobe, Braaten was really flipping out, McNair recalled.
He got tense. Then cold.
McNair gave him a blanket, and Braaten curled up into it.
“He started getting more and more negative and then started saying, ‘I gotta go. I gotta go.’ He was getting incoherent and mumbling ‘Moses … David … mind control.’
“I said, ‘Abe. Don’t be talking about that now. Let’s do something else.’ I turned on the lights and tried to make him comfortable. I didn’t know what was going on. I was just doing my best not to freak out.”
McNair blocked the door so his panicking friend couldn’t get out of his apartment, but Braaten jumped out the first-floor window and ran down the street.
Minutes later, he climbed to the top of a four-story building a few blocks away and leapt to his death.
Steve Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, has spent years studying the sect. He said the rash of recent suicides in the Family “shows the impact of their child-rearing practices” in the 1970s and 1980s.
“This is just the beginning of a major uproar among the second generation, ” Kent said.
C laire Borowik, a spokeswoman for the Family International’s office in Washington, D.C., disputes McNair’s account of Braaten’s death and the bleak picture defectors paint.
“It wasn’t possible to ascertain whether he fell or jumped,” Borowik said. “He left no indication of intent and had shown no signs of depression.”
In a written statement, Borowik said the Family was aware of only 10 suicides among former members over the past 13 years. She said that 32,000 people had been in the Family over the past 35 years and that its current full- time membership stood at around 8,000.
“We have even been accused of causing River Phoenix’s death,” Borowik said, “even though he had left the Family at 5 and been involved in a world of drugs.”
Phoenix, a promising actor and perhaps the most famous person born into the Family, died in 1993 of a drug overdose. He was 23.
One year earlier, Ben Farnsworth, a teenager who was raised in the Family and sent to one of the sect’s re-education camps, jumped to his death from a building in Hong Kong.
That suicide inspired a May 2, 1992, letter to Farnsworth’s father from Zerby, the current leader of the Family International.
“Even in his death, Ben is going to have a very good effect on the Family, ” Zerby wrote. “I think it’s going to have wonderful repercussions with our teens being very greatly strengthened by this.”
Jan. 27, 2005
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer