Anguished ex-cult member decried years of abuse before killing ‘molester,’ himself
Ricky Rodriguez was exhausted, scared, frantic. He’d just fled his Tucson apartment, leaving behind the body of 51-year-old Angela Smith. He’d stabbed her three times and slit her throat.
As a baby, the 29-year-old Rodriguez had been christened “Davidito,” the young prince and future prophet of the Children of God — a freewheeling religious sect founded in the late 1960s by Oakland native David “Moses” Berg.
But heading west into the desert last Saturday night in his Chevy Cavalier, all Rodriguez could think about was whether to kill himself. Or someone else.
He pulled out his cell phone.
At Elixcia Manumel’s Seattle apartment, the phone rang. She was not surprised to hear the drowning voice of her husband on the other line. It had been only a matter of time, she told The Chronicle, before Rodriguez committed suicide.
Rodriguez had disavowed the Children of God, now called the Family, five years ago, but he could not escape his own demons. His mother had set up the toddler for sex acts with his nannies — all part of her being a missionary for the international evangelical sex cult.
The former “Jesus baby” blamed his mother and was obsessed with revenge. On a Web site for former Family members, he proclaimed: “Something has to be done about these child molesters.”
Angela Smith, a former nanny of Rodriguez and confidante of his mother, seemed to be an easy target.
“Don’t let anyone ever tell you that taking someone else’s life is easy. It’s not,” Rodriguez told his wife on the phone. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
His wife sobbed.
“I miss you so much. Come die with me,” Rodriguez begged her. “All I ever wanted in life was to be loved.”
During the spiritual counterculture of the 1960s, Berg embraced a strange brew of evangelical Christianity, radical politics and free love.
By the late 1970s, his secretive cult, the Children of God, would be known as the Family, an “international Christian ministry” with thousands of members living in communes and missionary organizations scattered around the world.
In Berg’s search for new converts, he encouraged many female followers to expand the “law of love,” which promoted “sexual sharing” among members. They were sent forth into the world as “sacred prostitutes.”
They called it “flirty fishing,” after Jesus of Nazareth’s call that his followers become “fishers of men.”
Rodriguez was the only son of Karen “Maria David” Zerby, the current prophetess and spiritual leader of the Family International. Zerby was an early convert to the Children of God who became sexually involved with Berg in 1969.
According to several former members, Rodriguez’s biological father was a Spaniard named “Carlos,” one of many “flirty fishing” recruits who did not stick around long after their initial encounter with Children of God missionaries.
But that didn’t stop Berg from taking Ricky as his own spiritual son when the boy was born in 1975. Berg proclaimed the infant “Davidito” and anointed him the future prophet and spiritual leader of the Children of God.
“Davidito was almost like a mythological creature when we were growing up, ” said Jonathan Thompson, who was born into the cult two years after Ricky. “We were given comics and story books with prophecies about how he would one day take over the world as one of the two witnesses written about in the Book of Revelation.”
For his entire life, Rodriguez had lived in the secretive inner circle that clustered around his mother and Berg. They were always on the move — Greece, Spain, the Philippines.
Most of the sect’s thousands of members never knew where the leadership was located. They communicated with their far-flung flock through a series of missives entitled “Mo letters” and “Mama’s Jewels.”
Former members say there was rampant sexual activity in Berg’s inner circle among adults, teenagers, children and even toddlers.
Some of that sexual fondling was described in a Children of God publication, “The Story of Davidito,” which was given to adults and children as an activity to emulate.
One scene describes sexual activity between the 20-month-old Rodriguez and another one of his nannies.
Other pages show pictures of “Davidito” lying in bed with naked teenage girls.
“We were sexually abused from a very young age,” said a former “playmate” of Rodriguez who has left the group. “It was a lot sicker than they wrote about in the book. It was very morbid. We were the guinea pigs of our era.”
Rodriguez was a bit older when Berg, his spiritual father, came up with the idea of “Teen Training.”
Young teenage girls selected on a rotating basis would be sent to the boy’s room for sex.
“Of course, I didn’t have to have my arm twisted for that,” Rodriguez would write years later. “But I must say it was a bit awkward — especially since I was much younger than most of them were, and I could tell that a couple of them were uncomfortable with it.”
Rodriguez was about to turn 21 when he met his future wife, Manumel. This time she was the younger one, age 16, and one of the growing army of second- generation members of the Children of God.
“We clicked right away,” said Manumel, who went by the name “Nicole” when she was in the Family. “We knew we were different than everyone else. He took me in his arms and said he would take me away.”
And that’s exactly what he did. In 2000, Rodriguez could no longer handle being “Davidito.” He had to escape.
Rodriguez and Manumel tried to settle down in Seattle, but their marriage wasn’t working.
“It was hard for Rick to be with me,” Manumel sad. “I was going to medical school, and it was hard for him to see me doing so well. I had found a way to move on with my life. He just couldn’t do it.”
Rodriguez moved to Tucson, where he was trying to get his life back together. But according to Manumel, who is now a nurse, and others who knew him, he was determined to get back at his mother, his nannies and others he blamed for his early sexual abuse.
According to Manumel, Rodriguez had not seen his mother since 2000, when “The Unit” — as the inner circle was called — had landed on the southern coast of Portugal. By this time, Berg had died.
Rodriguez began meeting with other disgruntled second-generation members of the Family, and writing postings on their Web site, www.movingon.org.
“Someone needs to put an end to it,” Rodriguez wrote in an Aug. 14, 2004, posting, ominously titled “Still Around.”
“Because only then can we feel some semblance of justice.”
His opportunity for “justice” came when Rodriguez learned that one of the nannies in the “Book of Davidito” was staying in Tucson.
She was Angela Smith, just 18 years old when she joined the Children of God in the early 1970s.
In the book, she is photographed with the toddler prophet. In another photo, she lies naked and seductive in a bathtub with another of the child’s teenage nannies.
According to several former members, Smith served in recent years as the personal secretary of Rodriguez’s mother, Zerby.
Smith also was on the board of several organizations with ties to the Family, including the Family Care Foundation, a California nonprofit public benefit corporation in the San Diego area. She was also on the board of Elder Haven, a Tucson nursing home run by some of Zerby’s relatives.
According to police, Rodriguez learned that Smith was coming to Tucson for an Elder Haven board meeting, and he arranged to meet her for dinner.
“She was the first person he had access to,” said Manumel, Rodriguez’s wife. “He wanted people closer to his mom, but Angela just came along. He wanted to get other people, but he was just too exhausted. Angela was (his mother’s) eyes and ears.”
Police in Blythe (Riverside County) found Rodriguez’s body parked in the driveway of the Palo Verde Irrigation District, dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Authorities called the last number on the dead man’s cell phone. Elixcia Manumel answered. She suggested that someone go over and check out Rodriguez’s Tucson apartment.
On Sunday morning in Tucson, homicide Detective Benjamin Jimenez drove over to Rodriguez’s apartment on North Los Altos Avenue. Smith was dead on the floor.
It was a murder-suicide, former Family members say, spurred by the haunting echoes of a life wrecked by sexual, psychological and religious abuse.
On Friday, a video that Rodriguez made the night before he killed Smith surfaced in which he displays his weapons and talks about the abuse he and other kids suffered in the Children of God. “Unfortunately,” said one defector who saw the tape, “there’s a rallying cry of sorts for others to ‘take out’ their perps.”
Attempts to reach Angela Smith’s family were unsuccessful. The Family keeps secret the whereabouts of Rodriguez’s mother, and officials at its Washington office did not return phone calls.
But in a written statement, Claire Borowik, a spokeswoman for the Family International, said Smith’s “memory has been slandered by individuals who never met her, nor knew Ricky Rodriguez throughout his entire childhood.”
After leaving the Family in 2000, the statement said, Rodriguez “became estranged from his mother” and “began to manifest violent tendencies.”
“In searching for a motive for this tragic crime,” Borowik said, “journalists should take care to not casually write off Angela’s death and justify the actions of an obviously disturbed young man.”
Borowik goes on to say that “Family leadership officially addressed … questionable past actions of individuals regarding discipline, education or sexual misconduct,” adding that “apologies were published” and “Ricky Rodriguez received ample financial and emotional support to assist him in his transition.”
Yet in his August posting on www.movingon.org, Rodiguez made it clear that his transition to the real world was not going well.
“No matter how much longer I live, the first 25 years of my life will always haunt me,” he wrote. “I was so brainwashed with 25 years of s — that I had no idea which end was up. I just knew that I had to get away from my mom. ”
Jan. 15, 2005
Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer