Revenge of a son on cult of free love

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

The Sunday Times/January 23, 2005
By Sarah Baxter

New York -- When Ricky Rodriguez was a boy he was revered as a prince and future prophet of the free-love cult the Children of God. He was also sexually abused by cult members with the encouragement of his mother and stepfather. Earlier this month, in a gruesome act of revenge, Rodriguez stabbed to death his mother's former secretary, Angela Smith, then shot himself.

In a video he made just before the killings, he fondled a knife and vowed to "bring down those sick f******", including his mother, the cult's leader Karen "Mama" Zerby, also known as Queen Maria.

The murder and suicide in Tucson, Arizona, has convulsed the Christian missionary sect, now known as The Family International, and revived allegations of rape and sexual abuse by former members.

Rodriguez, 29, was known to all members of the Children of God as Davidito. His late stepfather, David Berg, founded the cult in the 1960s and sent female members "flirty fishing" for new members as "sacred prostitutes".

Berg was an advocate of free love who sanctioned child abuse and incest. Former members describe him as a paedophile who devised a religious philosophy to justify his longings.

In The Story of Davidito, a manual for cult members, Rodriguez's sexual abuse as a toddler is described explicitly and enthusiastically. There are pictures of him lying in bed with naked teenage girls and attending orgies. One photograph portrays him undressing in front of "Sue" (Smith). Another shows Smith naked with one of his nannies.

In the video he made the night before Smith's murder on January 8, Rodriguez blames his mother for the abuse he suffered: "It happened to thousands of us . . . some worse than others. My mother is going to pay for that. If I don't get her and life goes on, I will keep hunting her in the next life. There is this need I have . . . It's a need for justice because I can't go on like this."

From the videotape it appears that Rodriguez intended to torture Smith, 51, into revealing the whereabouts of his mother. Although Smith had been living outside the cult in recent years, she remained a valued member of 30 years' standing.

"We're in a war here," Rodriguez vowed on film. "I'll get one person, that's for sure - the source of my information."

Rodriguez invited Smith to his apartment in Tucson and stabbed her several times before slitting her throat.

The sect claims to have communes in 100 countries, including Britain, Japan, India, Greece, Portugal, Thailand and the Philippines but does not disclose where its leaders are.

Zerba's present husband, Peter Amsterdam - known as King Peter - circulated a memo to members last week, saying: "There are some people who are exploiting this tragedy and trying to use it to their own ends to hurt Mama and me and the Family and tear down our work for the Lord." He said Rodriguez had been "overcome by forces of darkness."

Rodriguez left the "Family" in 2000. He married another cult member, Elixcia Munumel, who became as disillusioned as he was, but they had recently separated. After killing Smith he rang his wife in distress. "He said the hardest thing for him had been that as (Smith) was dying, she didn't understand what she had done wrong."

Disaffected people born into the cult had formed a group called to share their experiences. Celeste Jones, 29, who lives in the Midlands, is compiling a dossier in the hope of bringing charges of sexual abuse against members of the "Family."

Jones spoke to Rodriguez on the telephone the day before he killed Smith. "He sounded very depressed and upset," she said. "He had felt all his life that he was just a pawn in the game, a political commodity."

Jones was raised in the cult and attended orgies from the age of five. "They would show you what to do and put you with adults and children. By the age of 11, I was sick of sex because I had seen it all and done it all."

The Family International presents itself as a Christian fellowship. In 1986 it publicly renounced sex with children.

Abi Freeman, 47, a spokeswoman at its commune in Luton, said that in the early days of the Children of God "nobody thought to say the sexual freedom we can enjoy as consenting adults does not extend to children".

The group claims a "small core of apostates" is fomenting trouble, but the term infuriates Jones. "I didn't choose to join," she said. "I was a child."

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