BLYTHE, Calif. – The crewcut young man stares into the video camera and recites a plan to kill his mother, her husband – and anybody else affiliated with The Family International, a church with roots in the sexual revolution of the 1960s.
Between expletives, he vows revenge for physical and sexual abuse he claims was inflicted on him, his sister and “thousands” of other children by older members of an organization with communal homes scattered worldwide.
“Anger does not begin to describe how I feel about these people,” says Ricky Rodriguez, who loads bullets into a handgun and admiringly strokes a hunting knife. “I’ve seen how ugly humans can get.”
Hours later, Rodriguez – groomed to inherit leadership of The Family, a church once known as the Children of God – would stab to death a prominent former member in Arizona, then drive to this California desert town and shoot himself in the head.
The murder-suicide earlier this month has refocused attention on a group accused of rampant sexual, physical and psychological abuse of child members from the 1970s to the mid-1980s.
“They’ve left a trail of broken minds and bodies,” said Daniel Roselle, a former member from Los Angeles who helps edit an Internet site where ex-members post allegations.
A church spokeswoman in Washington, Claire Borowik, acknowledged that some adults may have had sex with children before public criticism prompted a prohibition in 1986. But Borowik denied allegations of routine abuse and described the suicide of Rodriguez, 29, and his killing of Angela Smith, 51, as a tragic aberration.
The Family gets singled out because of its “more liberal attitude toward sexuality,” Borowik said. Among other things, the church believes couples can have consensual sex outside marriage.
Stephen Kent, a sociologist who has interviewed dozens of current and former members, said sexual abuse within the group was “extensive and widespread” before the mid-1980s.
“Critics say it can never attain legitimacy until it addresses the very real abuses that the children of that first generation experienced,” said Kent, a professor at the University of Alberta.
Like other apocalyptic sects, Family members believe they are destined to lead a battle against Satan as Jesus Christ returns. The group runs charities in 100 countries and produces inspirational audio and videotapes, according to its Web site. It claims 8,000 full-time members.
John La Mattery, a former member who is now a mortgage broker in San Diego, said the charities merely enrich church leaders Karen Zerby – Rodriguez’s mother – and her husband, Peter Amsterdam.
Rodriguez’s suicide was the latest in a series by former members who find themselves unable to cope with memories of The Family, according to La Mattery. He claims that as a 9-year-old he was forced to have sex with a 29-year-old woman at a communal home in Japan.
Members of The Family say the group is the victim of a smear campaign.
“There are many accusations and lies that have been written about The Family,” a member in Japan, Joshua Schaaf, 27, wrote in an e-mail. “We have experienced this religious persecution over our history and have each time come through it victorious.”
The group was founded in the late 1960s by a self-styled prophet from Oakland named David Berg, whose preaching attracted a following among Southern California hippies.
Berg, who called himself Moses and preached free love, created a secretive, authoritarian network of communes known as the Children of God. Members cut ties with their families and were encouraged to have sex with each other and with strangers to attract new members.
Rodriguez was designated “prince,” the Family’s future leader, by his mother and Berg, his stepfather. In writings posted on the Internet, Rodriguez said his preparation as an adolescent included forced sex every day with different girls and women. In the video, he said those experiences give him nightmares.
“There’s this need that I have. … It’s a need for revenge,” he said on the tape. “It’s a need for justice.”
His goal, he said, was to kidnap Smith – a longtime Family member who the group said recently took a leave – and force her to reveal the whereabouts of his mother and Amsterdam.
Borowik, the church spokeswoman, declined to make either one available for an interview. “This is a time of mourning,” she said.
Rodriguez had been living in Tucson, Ariz., for several months, working as an electrician. According to Borowik, he had left the church in 2000 to pursue his education. He killed Smith in his Tucson apartment Jan. 8, then drove more than 250 miles west to Blythe, a small town along the Colorado River.
Before his suicide, Rodriguez mailed copies of the video to his wife – herself a former Family member – and two friends, police said.
Borowik said the young man’s emotional troubles developed only after he left The Family.
“When he was in the group, he was happy, well-adjusted,” Borowik said. “He never considered himself as an abused individual until he started contacting our strongest opponents. That’s when he started to reinterpret his whole life.”
Associated Press Writer Arthur Rotstein in Tucson, Ariz. contributed to this report.
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