Fringe Group at Center of Deaths
Almost 20 years after a fringe religious group renounced practices that included child sexual abuse and incest, a murder-suicide carried out in two states has brought the group’s sordid past back to the fore.
Last week, Richard P. Rodriguez, 29, the disaffected son of Karen Zerby, current leader of the communal Christian ministry known as the Family, allegedly killed longtime group member Angela M. Smith, 51, in his Tucson, Ariz., apartment. Then, after driving to Blythe, he apparently took his own life.
In a videotape recorded a day before the deaths, Rodriguez described his desire to exact revenge for an isolated childhood in which he was routinely sexually abused.
Sitting at the kitchen table in his Tucson apartment and speaking directly to the camera, Rodriguez, who had been groomed since birth as the church’s heir apparent, said he had been contemplating suicide ever since being forced as a young adolescent to participate in “teen training.” In a posting on the Internet in 2002, he described how the training required him to have sex with different girls in the cult each day.
On the tape, a copy of which was obtained by The Times, Rodriguez said that after leaving the group in his mid-20s, he had decided that suicide would not be enough: He would take members of the group with him. Although he hoped Smith would lead him to his mother, who keeps her location secret, he made clear he would settle for what he could get.
In the video, he displays for the camera a variety of weapons before picking up a long knife. “This is my weapon of choice,” he says. “I only want it for one purpose. That is for taking out the scum.” Smith was stabbed multiple times, police said.
Now the Family, which claims a membership of nearly 8,000 living communally and ministries in 100 countries, is scrambling to shore up its reputation as a worldwide Christian evangelical ministry in the wake of a police investigation, national media interest and accusations from former group members who say that a childhood of sexual abuse growing up in the commune drove Rodriguez to murder and suicide.
The group has issued statements disavowing any responsibility for Rodriguez’s actions, saying he was responsible for his choices in life. It also has gone on the attack, warning detractors that “the enemy will rue the day,” in a message they said came from Jesus Christ, and calling them “vitriolic apostates.”
“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,” said a statement signed by the group’s second-in-command, who uses the name Peter, on behalf of himself and Zerby. Peter also said that Smith was not a member of the group at the time of her death.
Originally known as the Children of God, the group began in the late 1960s, founded by David Berg, who preached the Gospel to the hippies of Southern California.
Like many other cults of the time -- including the People’s Temple, led by Jim Jones, who persuaded 900 followers to commit suicide in a mass ceremony in 1978 -- the group promoted unorthodox practices and demanded absolute obedience from its followers. Berg preached an anti-Establishment, apocalyptic creed, and as his movement grew, he started spreading a bizarre collection of prophecies, such as that a comet would doom America. He called himself “Mo,” short for Moses David.
But it was the free-love gospel, espoused by Berg and his followers in order to gather new converts, that made the group stand out -- and later led to allegations of child abuse and prostitution in at least a half-dozen countries. Many former members of the group have described a lifestyle that included orgies involving adults and young children, as well as directed sex between teenagers.
Berg, who died in 1994, also established what he called “flirty fishing,” in which female members used sex to become “hookers” for Jesus, a sexual variation on Jesus’ telling his disciples to become “fishers of men,” according to the Encyclopedia of American Religions.
Claire Borowik, a spokeswoman for the Family, told The Times that the group “came up out of the ‘60s with a high degree of liberality on the sexual side. When we began to have children, the degree of liberality continued in some cases in homes in which Ricky [Rodriguez] lived. This was banned in 1986.”
She said stringent policies were put in place calling for excommunication of any adult found to have been in “inappropriate contact” with anyone younger than 21.
In 2000, Rodriguez left the group on good terms, according to Borowik. A missive he posted on the Internet in 2002, though, expressed anger about the church’s abuse of children. The posting ended hopefully. He wrote of seeing twins in the park with their loving parents and realizing there was a different kind of childhood than the one he experienced. “It gives me hope,” he concluded, “that one day [the Children of God leadership’s] evil legacy will die with the Family, and it will be only a distant or, better yet, forgotten bad memory.”
By August 2004, in another message he posted on the movingon.org website, Rodriguez seemed far more pessimistic. He wrote that at the time of the first posting, he had hoped that he would one day be able to move on with his life. “I know now that will never happen,” he wrote in August. “I can’t run away from my past, and no matter how much longer I live, the first 25 years of my life will always haunt me.”
The August message ended chillingly: “Every day these people are alive and free is a slap in the face to the thousands of us who have been methodically molested, tortured, raped, and the many who they have as good as murdered by driving them to suicide. It would probably involve a great deal of sacrifice and would best be accomplished, I think, by people who have nothing to lose, such as myself.... I think there are others who feel this way, and I would really like to get in touch with them and exchange ideas.”
In his final videotape, Rodriguez acknowledged that his August posting was an attempt to recruit others into his revenge scheme. “I was as clear in that as I could be without spelling it out,” he said. But in the end, he said, he didn’t regret that no one else had joined him. “I’m glad that others of us haven’t gotten to the point that I’ve gotten to that we really don’t have anything else to lose. I’m happy. What it tells me is that people still have hope.”
The day before the deaths, Rodriguez spoke of his own hopelessness. “I really don’t have anything to lose, I think,” he said on the videotape. “I don’t want to go through my life the way it is now. I’ve tried for four years.... If it had just gotten a little better -- a little better even emotionally -- it would have given me hope. But it’s gotten worse.”
What Rodriguez said he wanted was justice for children he said were sexually and physically abused, and he drew a parallel with the war on terrorism.
“I feel like we’re in a war here,” he said. “I feel like everyone who has left [the Family] and in some way speaks out -- in some way tries to help somebody, in some way tries to help ourselves -- is a soldier in this war. It’s a war on terror because these [expletives] are the real terrorists.... Terrorizing little kids, driving them to suicide. Isn’t that like murdering them, basically?”
Borowik, the group’s spokeswoman, said the organization believed there had been seven suicides of members and former members in the last 30 years. Former members place the number at 31.
She blamed Rodriguez’s associates among other former members for his state of mind. She said they should have urged him to seek counseling. “I realize he had a lot of anger with his parents, but had he written and asked for help, they would have wanted him to have the help he needed,” she said.
Former Family member Daniel Nathan Roselle, a full-time student who knew Rodriguez when they were both growing up in the group, said in an interview that he urged Rodriguez to consider legal recourse the last time they spoke, five months ago. “I said, look, I’m working this legal thing, and I think we’re getting some traction here, and I think nobody’s voice is more eloquent on what happened than yours,” Roselle said.
At that time, Roselle said, Rodriguez never spoke of an actual plan. He said Rodriguez spoke of wanting to find out where Mama and Peter were.
“There was a lot of rage, but there were no specifics,” Roselle said when asked whether he had thought of alerting authorities. “I have to be honest with you. In the 10 years I’ve talked to others of us, there’s a lot of rage.”
Roselle and other former Family members were quick to say they didn’t condone murder. All said they mourned the death of Rodriguez and Smith.
“I wish it hadn’t happened. I wish he hadn’t died. It seems the only way anybody’s listening is that Rick and Angela died,” Roselle said. “It makes me cry.”
Roselle said he was sad rather than angry about his experience. He recalled being sexually abused once in Panama by a 20-year-old woman when he was 7.
“I remember the house and looking around at the couch and looking at any number of naked couples going at it, and then having someone come up and get into bed with me in my little mattress on the floor,” he said, fighting back tears. “We try to forget, and you can try to go on.”
For Rodriguez, that apparently wasn’t possible.
Times staff writer Cara Mia DiMassa contributed to this report.