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Murder and Suicide Reviving Claims of Child Abuse in Cult

The New York Times, USA
Jan. 15, 2005
Laurie Goodstein
www.nytimes.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Saturday January 15, 2005

Growing up in the 1970′s in a religious cult known around the world as the Children of God, Ricky Rodriguez was revered as “the prince.” The group’s leaders were his mother and stepfather, and they taught that their son would guide them all when the End Times came.

He was so special that his unconventional upbringing – by a collection of often-topless young nannies – was chronicled in “The Davidito Book,” which was distributed to cult members as a how-to guide for rearing children. And children the cult had in multitudes.

Last Saturday in Tucson, Mr. Rodriguez, now 29, invited a former nanny, Angela Smith, to go to dinner. He took Ms. Smith to his apartment, stabbed her to death, went to his Chevrolet, drove west across the California border to a small desert town, Blythe, and called his wife on his cellphone to explain why he had killed Ms. Smith, the police in both states and Mr. Rodriguez’s wife said.

Then with one shot from a semiautomatic handgun, the police said, he ended his life.

The group lives on. What was known as a 60′s cult that attracted members like the parents of the actor River Phoenix and Jeremy Spencer, the Fleetwood Mac guitarist, is now called the Family International.

A spokesman in Washington, Claire Borowik, described the organization as a Christian fellowship with 4,000 children and 4,000 adult members who lived in 718 communal houses in 100 countries. The group sends aid workers and missionaries to disasters like the recent tsunami. Its musical troupe, the Family Singers, have at various times sung in the White House.

The Family

Many teachings and practices of The Family fall outside those of mainstream, orthodoxy Christianity to such an extend that the movement is considered to be, theologically, a cult of Christianity.

But Mr. Rodriguez’s murder-suicide is reviving accusations by former members about routine physical, emotional and sexual abuse that they say they experienced as children.

There is evidence of the practices in documents that the cult’s leaders consider so damaging that they acknowledge they twice sent out “purge notices” to their followers with explicit directions about which pages to burn, which photographs to white-out and which to excise with Exacto knives.

Mr. Rodriguez recorded a videotape the night before he killed Ms. Smith and committed suicide. The video, which was provided to The New York Times by Mr. Rodriguez’s wife, was taped in his apartment in Tucson and shows him loading a gun and showing off other weapons.

He said he saw himself as a vigilante avenging children like him and his sisters who had been subject to rapes and beatings.

“There’s this need that I have,” he said. “It’s not a want. It’s a need for revenge. It’s a need for justice, because I can’t go on like this.”

Mr. Rodriguez is not the only suicide among people reared in the Children of God. Some former members who keep in touch with one another through a Web site, movingon.org, say that in the last 13 years at least 25 young people reared in the cult have committed suicide.

In response to questions, the Family strongly insisted in an e-mail message from Ms. Borowik that the formers members were intentionally inflating the count by including accidents, overdoses and people who are alive.

For the Family International, the latest murder-suicide threatens to revive a past that Ms. Borowik said she thought the organization had put behind it. The Family announced in 1986 that it had changed its guidelines and would excommunicate anyone who had sexual contact with children, she said.

The group survived investigations into child abuse in Argentina, Australia, France and Spain in the 90′s. Although some members were briefly jailed, there were no convictions of top leaders.

Ms. Borowik attributed Mr. Rodriguez’s crime not to his past, but to his current “peers.” She said that when he left the group in 2000, he came in contact with former members who are “virulent vitriolic apostates, which we have a small circle of, who want to do damage to our movement.”

They failed to point him in “positive directions,” she said.

Mr. Rodriguez’s mother, Karen Zerby, known as the Queen or Mama Maria, still leads the Family. Her whereabouts and travel schedule are kept secret, even from most group members, Ms. Borowik said, “because of her spiritual ministry to so many people.”

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Ms. Zerby refused an interview request submitted to Ms. Borowik.

Mr. Rodriguez’s wife, Elixcia Munumel, from whom he had recently separated, said he had spent the last few years trying to find his mother and his half-sister, Techi. He wanted to see his mother prosecuted for child abuse, and to free Techi from the group, Ms. Munumel said.

She said that Mr. Rodriguez had moved to Tucson because he had heard that his mother and half-sister had stopped through there on Christmas 2003 to see his grandparents, who run an old-age home there and that he hoped they might visit again.

“He always wanted to do something to make right his mother’s wrong,” said Ms. Munumel, who left the Family with Mr. Rodriguez and is studying for a nursing degree. “He felt he owed it to all of those who never got justice.

“I’m not justifying what he did and I’m not saying it was right, because it was a life that was taken. But I want people to understand that what he did was out of pain and hurt and years of that pain building up and not being able to have that weight lifted.”

The founder of the Children of God was David Brandt Berg, a son of Pentecostal evangelists. In the late 60′s, he attracted a group of hippie followers who styled themselves as revolutionary Jesus freaks.

Ms. Zerby was his second wife. Promoting a gospel of free love, Mr. Berg urged his female followers to go out and offer sex to lure converts, according to histories of the organization. He called it “flirty fishing.”

The group hopscotched the globe, and its history has been well documented by scholars. Internal documents that former members provided this last week also fill in details.

In the Canary Islands, Ms. Zerby gave birth to Ricky, whom the group called Davidito. Church documents show that the father was a handsome hotel clerk in Tenerife. Mr. Berg adopted the baby, but he was cared for day to day by a coterie of young female members, including Ms. Smith, the nanny who was killed.

“The Davidito Book” was written by a nanny known as Sara, and it was among the documents that the leaders ordered purged. But some former members saved their copies and sent e-mail excerpts to one another this week in an effort to fathom Mr. Rodriguez’s violence.

In several pages of the book that former members sent to The Times, the toddler Ricky is described or else pictured as watching intercourse and orgies, fondling his nanny’s breasts and having his genitals fondled. All that is recounted in a tone of amusement and delight.

Ms. Borowik, the spokeswoman, said in a lengthy telephone interview that Mr. Rodriguez had been reared in an atmosphere similar to “a nudist colony,” where sexual freedoms were taken for granted. She cited scholars who said the sexual practices appeared to cause no harm to the children and a psychologist who evaluated Ricky as a teenager and found him well adjusted.

“He was never taken advantage of,” she said. “Rather he was allowed to explore his sexuality freely. He was allowed to explore as a young boy what comes naturally, and usually in our society, we do not allow such exploration.”

In interviews this last week, more than a dozen people who grew up in the cult gave detailed accusations about experiencing or witnessing sex abuse of minors.

“At the time, I didn’t think of it as abuse,” Peter Frouman, 29, of Austin, Tex., who left in 1987, said in a sentiment echoed by many others. “I had no concept that normal people didn’t do this sort of thing. I thought it was perfectly normal for parents to have sex with their children, and children to have sex with each other and with adults.

“When I was 11, I had sex with a 28-year-old woman, and it was with the approval of everyone in the room. I found out later that my mom was watching.”

In 2002, Mr. Rodriguez posted a memoir on the movingon Web site saying Mr. Berg, who died in 1994, had sexually abused his granddaughter and daughters. In Mr. Rodriguez’s account, the group’s founding father came off as a debauched pedophile and his mother as cold and violent toward the children.

Mr. Rodriguez, like others, gravitated to other former members who seemed the only others who could understand the strange world that they had inhabited. Some discussed whether they could work through the legal system to lock up their former abusers. But many said they despaired.

Tracking down people was difficult. Pseudonyms were the standard in the Family, and members often changed their names. They live in isolated, often clandestine, communes all over the globe.

“It happened everywhere – in the Philippines, Japan, Greece,” said Celeste Jones, a former member in England. “So where do you go for legal redress?”

Mr. Rodriguez called Ms. Jones in the 24 hours before the killing, saying he could not go on. “I was telling him, “Things will be taken seriously,’ but he didn’t believe it,” Ms. Jones said.

The police said the last telephone call that Mr. Rodriguez made was to his wife, Ms. Munumel. She said he told her he that had done something very wrong, to avenge not himself, but his sisters. He then asked her to call the police in Tucson because he had killed a former nanny.

Ms. Munumel said, “He said the hardest thing for him had been that as she was dying, she didn’t understand what she had done wrong.”

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