GROWING UP IN A CULT
A Young ‘Prophet’ Cannot Defeat the Demons of His Past
Raised in a sex-driven yet tightly controlled group, Ricky Rodriguez found one way out: murder and suicide.
Early one Sunday morning in January, an employee of the Palo Verde Irrigation District in Blythe arrived at his office building to a gruesome sight: a bloody body behind the wheel of a Chevy Cavalier parked in the driveway.
The driver, a young man, had a gunshot wound to his head. A Glock .40-caliber pistol lay at his side.
To the police detective who responded, it looked like a straightforward suicide.
Then a cellphone rang on the passenger seat.
On the line was the dead man’s wife.
She said her husband had called the night before to say he’d committed a murder.
She directed police to an apartment more than 200 miles away in Tucson, Ariz., where they found the body of a middle-aged woman. Her throat was slashed. She had half a dozen stab wounds.
Soon, authorities released a bare-bones story: Before driving across the desert and killing himself, Ricky Rodriguez, 29, had killed Angela Smith, 51. The two had known each other. Smith may have helped to raise Rodriguez.
The names didn’t mean much to most people. But the news was cataclysmic within the secretive religious society to which both had once belonged.
For more than three decades, the Children of God, now called The Family, had been a world unto itself. In that world, Rodriguez had been royalty.
He was the son of the group’s self-proclaimed prophet and prophetess, who led a fervent flock scattered in communes around the globe. When he was 2, they declared him a prophet too, announcing to followers that the boy would one day “deliver them out of great sorrow and bondage.”
That was not to be.
More than four years before his death, Rodriguez left the group’s tight confines, venturing out into the world with little knowledge of how it worked. Almost all he’d learned in life had come from one man, David Berg, who founded the group and kept its members isolated, indoctrinated with his views.
Born in 1919 in Oakland to evangelist parents, Berg had bounced around before finding his calling. He briefly ran an Arizona church, taught school and promoted “Church in the Home,” the show of the late Los Angeles radio and TV evangelist Fred Jordan.
He was nearly 50 when he landed in Huntington Beach and began ministering to hippies, with help from his own teenage children.
Huntington Beach in 1968 had dropouts and drug addicts galore, sacked out on the sand, with little purpose. It didn’t take much more than guitar music and free peanut butter sandwiches to lure them to the Light Club, a Christian coffeehouse where the Bergs set up shop as Teens for Christ.
“Uncle Dave,” as Berg started calling himself, invited his followers to join a “revolution for Jesus.” Berg told his converts to shed past lives, including their names, and offer up their assets to the cause. They would warn those in the “System” that the apocalypse was coming.
Group members fanned out across the country, gathering on Capitol Hill, and in Times Square to mourn the approaching death of America. They wore red sackcloth robes and yokes, smeared ashes across their foreheads and ominously shook long wooden rods.
The more converts he collected, the stranger Berg’s message became. Claiming that God now spoke to him directly, he declared himself “God’s Endtime Prophet.” God had ordered him, he said, to leave his longtime wife for his girlfriend, a pretty convert from Tucson in her early 20s. Karen Zerby, Berg explained, represented the new and pure “infant church.”
Now calling himself Moses or Mo after the biblical prophet, Berg told his followers that he would no longer live among them. He would cloister himself and dedicate his life to prophecy. He broke the news in a 1970 letter, which he called “I Gotta Split!” It was among the first of nearly 3,000 “Mo letters” he would mail out to his flock in the coming years.
Berg’s departure was well timed. By 1971, a group of parents had organized against the Children of God, which they were calling a cult.
As the anti-cult activists began “deprogramming” efforts, as they pushed for media coverage and government crackdowns, Berg left for London and soon urged his followers to spread their “colonies” across Europe.
And the changes in the group were more than geographic. Berg began preaching a new and potentially lucrative gospel of sex, which was proving an excellent way to recruit converts and their cash. He urged his female followers to employ “flirty fishing,” to troll for lonely men. He likened it to what Jesus did when he called on his disciples to be “fishers of men.”
Zerby, by then also known as Maria, was among the first flirty fishers. In a 1974 “Mo letter,” Berg told his flock about his prayer for her new endeavor. “Help her Oh God to catch men! Help her to catch men, be bold unashamed and brazen, to use anything she has Oh God to catch men for thee!… Oh God, help her, Oh Jesus to be willing to be the bait!”
‘Daddy … Shared Mommy’
Ricky Rodriguez was born on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands on Jan. 25, 1975. His mother, Berg’s consort Karen Zerby, had become pregnant by a Tenerife hotel waiter named Carlos, whom she landed by “flirty fishing.”
Berg and Zerby originally named the baby David Moses Zerby after themselves. But they openly celebrated his origins.
“Their life was love, and all because Daddy loved Mommy and shared Mommy to love another,” read one update about the happy event.
And why not share?
Sexual “sharing” was at the center of Berg’s ministry by that time. Nowhere was it practiced more fervently than at Berg’s house. People had sex in front of Rodriguez. The nannies had sex with their boyfriends. Berg had sex with anyone he fancied. Everyone had sex at an orgy that Berg organized. At the time, the boy was 3. He wandered from group to group, taking it in.
Rodriguez nicknamed Davidito (“little David”) was raised by a bevy of young group members, who served as his nannies. They didn’t just change his diapers. They lay naked in bed with the naked child, fondling him and urging him to fondle them.
His main nanny, Sara, described these acts in regular reports to the group’s followers, who by then numbered several thousand, in more than 100 communes across the globe. Later the updates were compiled in a book called “The Story of Davidito,” which, with its leather-like brown cover and title stamped in gold, looked for all the world like a Bible.
It became, in fact, the group’s bible of child rearing.
In its pages was a host of general baby-care advice: “Soap used too frequently is not good for the skin” and “Children should never be given skim milk.”
There were also plenty of photos of the beautiful boy with the big brown eyes and the bowl haircut.
In one photo, the baby lies on a bed with Sara’s face between his legs. “It’s a wonderful relaxation, a satisfaction created by the Lord,” reads the caption.
In another photo, Angela Smith, the woman he would kill 25 years later, lies beside the child and seems to be undoing his pants.
“Undressing … for Sue!” the caption reads. Sue was the name Smith went by at the time.
When the boy was 2, Berg wrote the following passage, which was included in the parenting reference work:
“God made children able to enjoy sex, so he must’ve expected them to! I did! All my life! Thank God! I love it! And it didn’t hurt me any! Nearly all kids do anyhow, despite prohibitions! And the only reason the System frowns on it is that the churches have taught sex is evil! Which is contrary to the Bible! How could God-created sexual enjoyment be a sin? The System is really screwed up! God help us! They’re the ones not normal!”
Throw a frog into a pot of boiling water and it will jump right out. But fill the pot with cold water and gradually turn up the heat, and the frog will stay put until it’s cooked.
This is the analogy used by one former member to explain how Berg’s followers came to accept his sexual ideas.
They joined the group with such idealism, said the former member, who goes by the name James Penn to protect his identity. They accepted that Berg was God’s prophet. They believed that Jesus spoke through him, updating the Bible for their benefit. Having that faith and having severed their ties with all outside sources of skepticism, they continued to believe, even as the water began to boil.
Berg’s texts about flirty fishing got bolder and bolder. Soon female followers were getting graphic instructions on exactly what to do with the strangers they picked up. The language was no longer biblical. It was simply vulgar even blasphemous.
Berg’s followers by now had come to accept his words as scripture. The tracts he sent out were given titles, their paragraphs numbered like Bible verses. Rev. Lovemaking 259:70, for example, refers to Berg’s tract “Revolutionary Lovemaking” and in particular to the passage: “For the Bible says plain as day, ‘Let her breasts satisfy you at all times!’ “
One of Berg’s daughters from his previous life, Linda, who now goes by the name Deborah Davis, said her father was obsessed with sex, including incest and pedophilia. She said that he molested her, when she was a girl, but that after she had reached adulthood, she successfully rebuffed him.
“It was like he started the group, and he could literally let his desires run wild,” said Davis, who left the group in the late 1970s and in 1984 published a book, “The Children of God: The Inside Story.” “There was no accountability. He was the prophet getting orders from God.”
On the Run
Rodriguez grew up on the run, his parents moving around the globe just ahead of authorities. Group members changed their names frequently including the young Davidito, whose name was changed along the way to Ricky Rodriguez.
The frequent moves, those who knew him say, took a toll on the boy. He grew painfully shy and awkward, especially in the presence of other group members, who saw him as a superstar and knew everything about him including personal details that he found humiliating.
As a boy, Rodriguez would watch Berg having sex with different young women, who were put on a “sharing schedule” to satisfy the prophet’s needs. As part of his “teen training,” Rodriguez was assigned a different older teenage girl each afternoon for sex. He could see that this made some of the girls uncomfortable, and that bothered him, he later wrote. This was sex by decree, not by choice.
Bit by bit, Rodriguez was questioning the life his parents lived. He knew that they were worshipped. He was taught to worship them. But he also saw how they lived. Berg was often drunk, erratic and demanding. Those who refused to follow his orders were swiftly punished. Children were beaten and sometimes sent to harsh retraining sessions. By the time Rodriguez was a teenager, he later said, he frequently contemplated suicide.
Changing Sexual Views
By the mid-1980s, sexually transmitted diseases had become a serious problem within the group. So had negative publicity, especially about The Family’s attitudes toward children and sex.
Berg by this time was not well, and his leadership role was declining. Zerby was beginning to take his place and starting at least publicly to change some of the group’s key stances on sex.
In 1986, the leadership officially imposed a ban on sex between children and adults. In 1987, it ended the practice of flirty fishing, all but banning sex with outsiders.
At the same time, the group started purging its literature, destroying sexually themed videos including ones in which preschool-aged girls danced naked in tribute to Berg and slicing sections out of books and pamphlets. Copies of “The Story of Davidito” suddenly lost the sex references.
But the cleanup efforts came too late for the group to avoid legal consequences.
In the early 1990s, authorities in Spain, Argentina, France and Australia organized raids on Family communes, removing hundreds of children and, in some cases, arresting the adults. The raids were unexpected and frightening, especially to children who had been raised to think of the outside world as bad and scary. In the end, partly because of the authorities’ tactics and partly because The Family had changed some of its more outrageous practices, all of the group’s children were returned to their homes and all charges were dropped.
A British court case proved more problematic. In 1992, a woman petitioned British authorities to remove her newborn grandson from her daughter, a Family member. Lord Justice Alan Ward began an investigation.
In 1995, he ruled that the baby should remain with his mother, noting that he believed The Family had in recent years changed its ways. But most of his 300-page decision was aimed at documenting the group’s past behavior.
“I am totally satisfied that there was widespread sexual abuse of young children and teenagers by adult members of The Family,” Ward wrote.
Ward put much of the blame on Berg, who had died the year before, at 75. He said The Family should denounce its founding prophet.
Claire Borowik, The Family’s current spokeswoman, said the group broke with some of Berg’s teachings long ago. But she stopped well short of denouncing the founder, who to this day group members must accept as “God’s Endtime Prophet.”
“We renounce certain parts of his writings that should not have been written,” she said of Berg.
In 1994, she said, The Family’s leadership apologized to children who had been harmed. The group offered them a chance “to come forth and talk to their parents, seek counseling.” The Family offered the services of a psychologist, but no one requested them, she said.
“We dealt with this issue back in the early ’90s,” she said. “It’s not like it’s a brand-new issue and nobody has ever taken responsibility.”
Love in Budapest
It took a long time for Rodriguez to find a way to leave The Family. It took love, which came to him in a Family-run home in Budapest. Rodriguez moved there about nine years ago, to get some distance from Zerby. At first he was treated as he’d always been. People made a fuss.
“He was the idol, the image of what everybody wanted to be like. He was our version of a Hollywood celebrity,” said Elixcia Munumel, who lived in the Budapest home.
She soon noticed that he didn’t like that kind of attention.
He worked as a handyman, she said. She worked in the kitchen and quietly watched him.
“I’m a very, very shy person, and he was also very shy,” she recalled. One day, she mustered the nerve to tell him that lunch was ready.
One night soon after, most of the others in the house were off at a Family-organized dance. Rodriguez and Munumel, who had both stayed behind, began talking. He invited her to his room. He taught her to play cards. They talked all night, she said.
The next day, he left a rose on her pillow.
The closer they got, the more Rodriguez opened up. He told her that he’d secretly been studying the Bible to see what it really meant, even though his mother wanted him to read only Berg’s interpretations.
“He said it contradicted a lot of what we were taught,” said Munumel.
The couple moved in with Zerby at her home in Oporto, Portugal, where they began to make plans to break away.
Rodriguez confessed to Munumel his growing disdain for the group and said its sexual practices had always bothered him.
That was common ground. Munumel was about to turn 21, at which time, according to The Family’s revised policies, she would no longer be off limits sexually to adults. “Two adults, men, were waiting to get a piece of me,” she said.
In early 1999, they told Zerby that they were heading to The Family’s compound in Mexico. Instead, Munumel went to England and Rodriguez to the United States.
When he reached San Diego, Rodriguez persuaded Zerby to buy him a car to drive to Mexico. Instead, he sold the car and used the money to finance his escape with Munumel.
She had gone on to Venezuela to see her mother. Rodriguez got his first real job, working on a fishing boat in Alaska.
When they met in Tacoma, Wash., they were married in a minister’s home.
Life was a struggle. Despite their years of home-schooling, the couple knew nothing about checkbooks or job interviews. Even when they learned what resumes were, they had nothing to put on them. They rented the first apartment they could afford. They were shocked, Munumel said, to learn later that it was in the worst part of town. They were also surprised to move into an empty space, which they had assumed would be furnished, as were the communal homes they knew.
Rodriguez tried to protect Munumel.
“He was the strong one for us,” she said.
But he still didn’t really know how to live in the world. He didn’t know how to talk about his past. When pressed, he told people that his parents had been missionaries.
It’s a common problem, say others raised in The Family. How do you explain your history to outsiders? Where do you begin?
“Because of the stigma associated with membership and former membership, people get out of these groups and don’t know where to turn. There is little understanding, even from their families,” said Janja Lalich, a sociology professor at Chico State University, who is the coauthor of two books on cults. “People look at them as freaks.”
Often members of such groups end up turning more and more to one another, which is what Rodriguez eventually did. He started posting messages on www.movingon.org cyberspace clearinghouse for former members who spent their youths in The Family.
But even on that site, Rodriguez stood out from the crowd. He couldn’t escape being the famous Davidito.
In June 2002, he wrote about the pressure of being in The Family’s royal family: “We were supposed to be super-kids, commissioned with taking over The Family when Berg died, and leading God’s Endtime Army through the Great Tribulation!”
His recollections caused a stir.
“Rick, your letter was great! And you have all the necessary credentials (on account of being Zerby’s only son) to actually do something to stop her,” wrote someone named yellowman.
“Ricky, I am sorry for what you went through but you have got to know where they are or a way to turn them in. Someone has got to put a stop to this,” wrote patijo.
Back in Tacoma, Rodriguez began focusing on just such a plan, Munumel said. He didn’t know where his mother was; she took great pains to conceal her whereabouts. But he was determined to find her.
“Ricky was on a mission,” his wife said.
He took up an Indonesian martial arts form involving knives. He was very intense about it, said his teacher, Kevin Schmitt, who gave lessons at his home studio in Puyallup, Wash.
“I remember having that conversation with him that, ‘I don’t want to teach you this if you’re going to hurt somebody,’ ” said Schmitt, 43.
Rodriguez told him he had no such plans, but he also said that he’d thought in the past about killing the leaders of The Family.
“He told me stories about having sex when he was 7 years old,” said Schmitt. “He felt badly about the girls who had to do that…. He was more concerned about what happened to the other people than what happened to him.”
Sarah Martin, 31, of San Diego, who left The Family at 18, became a close friend of Rodriguez’s after the two exchanged e-mails on movingon.org.
She, too, felt that he harbored a sense of responsibility. It was as if he had never gotten over the prophecy that he would take his people “out of sorrow and bondage.”
“He carried this huge weight on his shoulders,” she said. “He often thought that this was maybe his purpose, to help the thousands of others who had been abused, to put an end to his mother’s abuse.”
Last summer, Rodriguez left Munumel in Tacoma and drove to San Diego.
There, he stayed with Martin and other ex-Family members. He got a job working for ex-Family members too. But his daily routines were a ruse. He had come to California to stake out the Family Care Foundation, a charity with ties to The Family. He wanted information on his mother’s whereabouts.
Even if it took force, he would find someone to tell him. That person, he soon decided, would be Angela Smith, who had been the secretary of both Berg and Zerby. She’d served on the board of the Family Care Foundation and of Elderhaven, the nursing home his grandparents run in his mother’s hometown of Tucson. He told Martin that Smith had long been his mother’s “eyes and ears.”
In early fall, he left for Tucson on the assumption that Smith would eventually show up there.
In Tucson, he quickly got a job with electrical contractor Mark Flynn, who with his wife, Denise, befriended Rodriguez. He was a hard worker, Flynn said. “If I had 10 workers like Ricky, I’d be a millionaire in a month.”
But although Ricky accepted his boss’ dinner invitations and seemed to like the couple, he never confided in them about his past, saying only that he’d traveled the world with his missionary parents.
He also got to know his mother’s relatives, who sensed his despair. He stayed for the first month with Zerby’s sister, Rosemary Kanspedos, her husband, Tom, and their children. The simple interactions seemed to move him, like the day he spent time with his uncle and aunt, installing a new fan in their kitchen.
“He looked up at me and said, ‘I never knew a family could be like this,’ ” Rosemary Kanspedos said.
When Rodriguez wasn’t at work or with his family, he was spending time at a shooting range, firing off rounds and taking a course to get a concealed-weapons permit. He was also waiting for Smith to cross his path.
If Smith hadn’t been carrying a cellphone, if the phone’s address book hadn’t had a listing for Mom, the Kauten family of Winchester, Va., might have had to wait longer to learn of her fate. She had legally changed her name along the way. Finding her next of kin would not have been easy.
John Kauten Jr. said his sister, Susan Joy Kauten, had left home at 18.
“She was just like many of the flower children. I think she hooked up with somebody that seemed to care,” her brother said.
Years passed without word from her. Then she started checking in sporadically. Last year, Smith had gone home to help nurse her dying father. She told stories about her work: helping the poor, teaching children good hygiene. She spoke of her travels to Italy, Spain, Portugal, Russia, Japan, Argentina. She also announced a decision to take some time away from The Family.
Visiting Elderhaven in Tucson, she had gotten to know an elderly resident and then had gotten to know his son and had fallen in love with him, her brother said. In November, after her father died, they had moved into an apartment in Palo Alto, where she found work at a Restoration Hardware store.
Kauten said his sister had always had a good heart. If she’d ever harmed Rodriguez, she hadn’t meant to do so: “Something may have happened somewhere that maybe was inappropriate, I don’t know. But if she did anything like that, I know she thought she was doing good.”
The sentiment echoes something Rodriguez told Munumel when he called her on his cellphone to say his goodbyes, as he drove across the desert after killing Smith.
While Smith lay dying, he told his wife, “she still didn’t understand what she had done wrong.”
I Got Stuck’
The night before he killed Smith and himself, Rodriguez videotaped a farewell message in which he tried to explain what he was about to do.
He affected a Rambo-style bravado, looking straight into the camera, holding up the hunting knife with which he planned to stab Smith and the Glock he would soon use on himself. He swore constantly, loading shiny bullets into magazines and showing off a drill whose sides he’d padded to dull the noise if he used it for torture.
He said he’d tried hard to fit into the everyday world.
“But I got stuck on this one thing. I got stuck. Because there’s this need that I have, this need,” he said. “It’s a need for revenge, it’s a need for justice, because I can’t go on like this.”
Several times, he mentioned his plan to kill Smith as a first step in his larger plan to kill his mother. But his logic seemed to have blurred and, just as frequently, he said he was unlikely to accomplish the greater act of vengeance.
Sometimes, he said, he felt like scrapping the plan altogether and just killing himself. He said he’d created an elaborate fantasy about it. He would rent himself a fancy hotel room, “spend a night with a nice, nice hooker,” then end it all gently, slitting his wrists in the big bathtub.
But in the end the boy who was supposed to deliver a sect “from bondage” still seemed to be searching for a way to fulfill the prophecy.
He wanted to do something for his people, he said, for the other victims like himself.
“I’m trying to do something lasting,” he said, adding that he hoped people would look back and understand.
He hoped they’d see that “OK, maybe I didn’t technically do the right thing, but I tried to do something to help,” he said.
“I didn’t just fade away.”