Sex cult's messiah turns killer

The 'gentle' heir to a Sixties sect killed his former nanny and then himself on an Arizona desert highway

The Observer/January 23, 2005
By Paul Harris

Ricky Rodriguez grew up being hailed as a messiah. Born into the notorious sex cult The Children of God, Rodriguez was raised amid a bizarre blend of free love and apocalyptic Christianity. Its founder, David Berg, prophesied that one day Rodriguez would lead it. Yet now he is dead. Two weeks ago 'gentle, caring' Rodriguez brutally murdered a cult member, and then shot himself in the head on a lonely stretch of desert road in Arizona. The deaths have shocked America and highlighted the dark history of the cult, which has branches in Britain and across the world.

It has revealed graphic allegations of sexual abuse, surreal beliefs and countless shattered lives in a group that sprang from the counter-culture of Sixties California. It is also a tale of 29-year-old Rodriguez's doomed struggle to come to terms with his past after leaving the cult and the terrible revenge he plotted against members he claimed had sexually abused him as a child.

Gradually a picture of his last days is being pieced together. Friends of Rodriguez said he had struggled to cope with entering the world outside after his exit from the Children of God in 2000.

For Sarah Martin, another former member, the first sign something had finally gone dreadfully wrong was when Rodriguez phoned her in the middle of the night just before the murder.

'He just said he had been up late doing a lot of thinking,' Martin said. Rodriguez told her he had sent her a video. Martin was pleased as she had often urged him to record his experiences of abuse. But by the time the it arrived in the post Rodriguez was already dead.

Martin watched the tape in horror to see the usually well-mannered Rodriguez swearing frequently as he displays an array of guns. He methodically loads bullets into a Glock pistol and vows revenge on his own mother, Karen Zerby, known as Mama Maria, who now leads the cult.

He also shows off a large knife, a drill and a soldering iron. He would use these as torture tools, he says in a commentary, to extract information from people about his mother's whereabouts. 'I was shocked. When I lived with him this man never swore. He was a very gentle person, very caring,' Martin said.

Exactly what happened is not clear. What is known is that Rodriguez met cult member Angela Smith, his former nanny, whom he had accused of sexually assaulting him as a child. Smith, 51, was later found dead with her throat cut in Rodriguez's apartment in the city of Tucson, Arizona.

Rodriguez then drove his Chevrolet Cavalier into the desert, rang his former wife to confess to the killing and fired a bullet into his own brain.

Former cult members said Smith was close to Mama Maria and privy to her secrets. 'He was after information. He knew that this woman was his mother's eyes and ears,' said Martin.

Certainly Rodriguez left no doubts in the video as to his intentions, vowing: 'We're in a war here. I'll get one person, that's for sure - the source of my information [Smith].' He would continue to hunt down his mother, even in the afterlife, he promised.

The cult that Rodriguez was born into was one of the strangest to emerge from Sixties America. Its founder, David Berg, was a former preacher who had been sexually abused as a child. He started the cult with a potent blend of free love and prophesies of the end of the world.

Women members became 'hookers for Jesus' to raise money for the cult, and went 'flirty fishing' to draw in potential converts by having sex with them.

The cult attracted a few celebrities, notably the parents of the late actor River Phoenix and former Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer. However, underage sex, incest and paedophilia occurred, and were even encouraged, by the cult leadership and their literature.

When Berg married Rodriguez's mother the young child - hailed as 'The Prince' - found himself proclaimed as the future leader of the cult. Dubbed 'Davidito', he was held up as an icon of the group.

A tome called The Davidito Book was distributed to members, chronicling his upbringing, and showed the baby Rodriguez watching orgies and having his genitals fondled. Smith is pictured on a bed with the young Rodriguez. A caption reads 'Undressing... for Sue!', the name Smith used in the cult.

However, the group was eventually hit by a series of scandals and underwent a radical image change. It apologised for any former abuse in 1994 and abandoned many of its previous sexual tenets, especially those involving children. It renamed itself The Family International, and now has about 4,000 adult and 4,000 child members spread over about 100 countries.

When Berg died in 1994, Mama Maria was elevated to leader. Her whereabouts is now kept a close secret. Rodriguez was heir apparent, but he shocked the cult by leaving. 'Davidito was central to our lives,' said former member Jonathan Thompson 'He was a Christ-like figure.'

Rodriguez befriended a network of disillusioned former members. Many, like him, saddled with the legacy of sexual abuse, were not equipped for a world outside the cult. They had little education and few relatives or friends.

Rodriguez struggled. He moved to Seattle with his wife but the couple separated. He became a vocal critic of those he said had sexually abused him. Thompson met him last summer. 'He seemed very, very sad and bitter about life in general.'

Many unhappy former followers of the Children of God have committed suicide. Martin's own brother has killed himself and her sister once slit her wrists.

Eventually Rodriguez's obsession with tracking down Mama Maria began to take over his life. He began posting threats on internet websites set up by former members of the cult.

'Something has to be done about these child molesters,' he once wrote.

The cult's spokeswoman, Claire Borowik, said claims of sexual abuse by Rodriguez and other former members had been exaggerated, and the murder of Smith was being used to unfairly tarnish the organisation. 'This has been the pattern in the past,' Borowik said.

She denied that Smith had abused Rodriguez. 'The blatant lack of respect for the loss of Angela's life is appalling. One would think she had committed the crime rather then been the victim.'

Internal memos sent by Mama Maria after her son's death have urged members not to believe what they read about it in the press or on the internet. They say bitter ex-followers are waging a campaign against the cult.

'They're trying to make Ricky look like a hero and role model, ignoring the fact that he actually murdered someone,' one missive from Mama Maria said.

'The media is being contacted and fed extensively by some of our most hostile apostates.'

But the now former members hope something will be done to reinvestigate their claims. It would not be easy. Many of the alleged incidents happened abroad many years ago and involved cult members who were not using their real names.

'An entire generation of adults who left the family have been trying to get justice for years, but they have been frustrated in their efforts,' said Dr Stephen Kent, an expert on the cult, at the University of Alberta in Canada.

Former members now hope the deaths of Rodriguez and Smith will finally lead to a full investigation of the cult's activities in the Seventies and Eighties.

'This is a tremendous tragedy for Ricky and Angela,' said ex-member Daniel Roselle. 'But we need justice now. Something good has to come out of all this.'

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