Murder and Suicide Reviving Claims of Child Abuse in Cult

Anguished ex-cult member decried years of abuse before killing 'molester,' himself

New York Times/January 15, 2005
By Laurie Goodstein

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.

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,, 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."

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

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