Almost three years after Children of God cult member Richard Rodriguez murdered Angela Smith and then committed suicide, a San Francisco journalist and a cult escapee are publishing books to spread awareness about the dark side of cult life.
Rodriguez’s actions on Jan. 8, 2005, received instant publicity and drew attention to Tucson, where Smith’s murder took place. The tragedy occurred after Rodriguez suffered years of abuse at the hands of his father and other cult members, including Smith.
Desperate for revenge, Rodriguez invited Smith to his apartment and stabbed her. He then drove across the California border, pulled out a handgun and shot himself.
“It’s such a sensational, bizarre story,” said Don Lattin, a San Francisco-based journalist whose book, “Jesus Freaks,” about Rodriguez’s life, came out last week. “I wanted to know how this could happen.”
David Berg, Rodriguez’s father and founder of Children of God, attracted thousands of followers worldwide. His practice sprung from Christian Evangelicalism but drastically distorted Biblical readings.
Berg believed that if you truly loved someone, you would share everything, including your possessions, your spouse and your body. This belief applied to children as young as two or three years old, who were scheduled for “sharing naps” during which they would have sex with each other.
Rodriguez grew up in this environment of molestation, mind control and physical abuse.
Rodriguez felt angry, depressed and helpless, according to journal entries written in August 2004 and posted online by Movingon.org, a Web site helping former cult members find acceptance.
In seeking to understand why people join and stay committed to cults, he said that many organizations seem harmless at first glance.
“They are idealistic and often are very intelligent, and they want to save the world and change things,” he said. “But when the leaders go off the deep end, they project it onto the group, and the group takes on the leader’s craziness.”
Lattin said he has spoken to more than a dozen “second-generation” members, children who were born into the cult, and that many are severely traumatized.
“A lot of the kids are so damaged,” Lattin said. “Not just because of the sexual abuse, but because they were so isolated from the real world. Ricky (Rodriguez) was the ultimate example of this.”
Some children, like now-26-year-old Juliana Buhring, have been able to remake their lives in the outside world.
Buhring grew up in a branch of Children of God after her parents joined in the 1970s.
“I’ve had to start building a new identity and discover who I am,” she said.
“It all starts to hit you, that you’ve not been given the normal life chances of anyone else,” she added. “You’re like a child. You don’t even know how to write a friggin check.”
Buhring, co-author of “Not Without My Sister,” spent the last two years working on the book with half-sisters Celeste and Kristina Jones.
“I wanted to set the record straight and say this is what happened, and it wasn’t a small handful of people,” she said.
The bestselling author said she was molested as a toddler and was severely punished for her rebellion against “the family.” Discipline included beatings, starvation and solitary confinement. For two months she was kept in a small, windowless cell with Celeste after Celeste’s mother alerted authorities to look for her.
“We all knew something was wrong, we just didn’t have the words to describe it,” Buhring said.
Finally, in her early 20s, she had the courage and ability to leave. Because she was an adult and openly challenged the cult, they were willing to let her go.
“It’s like jumping off a cliff and not knowing how far you’re going to fall,” Buhring said.
Buhring estimates that three-fourths of her generation in the cult has left, but that many struggle with depression, drug abuse and prostitution – or end up committing suicide.
“The average citizen has no idea about this,” said Michael Trauscht, a former Deputy Pima County Attorney who is now the legal officer of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
Trauscht said he has helped remove more than 100 children and adolescents from cults in Arizona since 1975.
“Only if someone’s family member joins (a cult) do people learn how serious or dangerous it is,” Trauscht said. “Anybody can be brainwashed, no matter how rough and tough you are.”
Lattin is scheduled to appear on ABC’s “Nightline” and CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360°” this month, and Buhring’s book will hit U.S. stores next year.
“I hope people will take the book as a cautionary tale of what can happen when you put too much faith in one person, when you let someone else tell you what’s true, rather than try to think for yourself,” Lattin said.