Murder-Suicide Leads to Secretive Cult
CNN – Anderson Cooper 360° / Aired 2005-01-18 - 19:00 ET
ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: Good evening from New York. I'm Anderson Cooper.
Were the seeds of a violent crime planted years ago in a religious sect based on love?
360 starts now.
A murder-suicide leads to a secretive cult accused of shocking crimes, adults routinely having sex with children. Tonight, 360 investigates. What really happened to the so-called Children of God? And what led this one-time child prophet to kill?
[. . .]
Coming up next on 360, murder-suicide. Did the sexual practices of a secretive religious sect drive this young man over the edge? We're going to hear from former members of a group known as Children of God, and the family, plus the spokeswoman, shared their side of the story. We're covering all the angles, but you make up your own mind.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: The main reason is that I want there to be some record of the way I feel, my ideas, just who I was, really.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: A young man calmly loading cartridges into a clip for a pistol.
What you are watching here is a videotape made by a young man named Ricky Rodriguez, in which he talks about the murder he intends to commit, and then after the murder, his own suicide.
In case you are wondering what he's doing while he talks, he is taking those cartridges off the desktop, loading them into the gun that must be in his lap. This is a story about a group that once called itself the Children of God. The name sounds peaceful, idyllic. It conjures up the innocence of harmony and of the Garden of Eden.
But this same group, currently known as The Family, is now in the news because the young man you just saw, the young man who was at one point being groomed to be the family's leader, took violent, deadly revenge for what he claims was sexual abuse at the hands of those who raised him. And there are charges that there were many other victims as well.
We're going to look at all of this in depth tonight, a tale of God and love, sex and murder. In a moment, you'll hear from former members of the sect, who tell of routine sexual abuse of children. You'll also hear from a spokesperson for The Family, who says they are a Christian group doing good work.
Tonight, you can make up your own minds.
We begin with the story of Ricky Rodriguez. CNN's Rusty Dornin has that.
RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They called him the Prince. His mother is the leader of the religious group The Family, also known as the Children of God. He was the heir apparent. But according to his own final words on this video, Ricky Rodriguez became the avenger.
RICKY RODRIGUEZ: I don't want it to go on. I want it to just be over.
DORNIN: Last week, Ricky Rodriguez allegedly stabbed to death Angela Smith, another former member in Arizona. Rodriguez, police believe, then drove to California, shot and killed himself. A man family and former members say was enraged over what he claimed was sexual and emotional abuse against him starting in the '70s. His estranged wife told CNN affiliate KVLA Rodriguez called her after he murdered Smith. Elixcia Garcia refused to appear on camera, but talked about the tape he left behind.
ELIXCIA Garcia, RODRIGUEZ'S WIFE: He talks about killing himself and the gun that he was going to use for it. Talks about a lot of the pain that he experienced in life.
DORNIN: That pain, says Garcia, was what drove her husband to kill Angela Smith.
Clair Borowik, a spokesman for the group, told CNN, that's not true. She says to set the record straight, Angela Smith was never Ricky Rodriguez's nanny. Borowik maintains Rodriguez was never abused by Smith, although he was raised in a sexually permissive environment, which was encouraged by parents who were leaders of The Family.
In the '60s, flower children and so-called Jesus freaks flocked to David Berg and his message of free love. The subject of this documentary called "The Love Prophet." Berg encouraged women from the group to lure new recruits with sex. It was called flirty fishing, or f-fing.
They also just plain preached.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Help me have a born again experience.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jesus name.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Jesus name.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How is that for the first time?
DORNIN: Then Berg, calling himself Mo, short for Moses, began predicting the end of the world. The group began wearing sack cloths. Parents of many members began angry, and began protesting the group, calling it a cult.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, when I talked to her all by myself...
DORNIN: In 1986, the group admitted minors were subjected to inappropriate advances and banned sexual contact with children.
By the early '90s, the group was worldwide and still controversial. Hundreds of children of members in France, Spain, Australia and Argentina were taken from their homes. Some members charged with child abuse. But none were ever convicted.
The group says it has since apologized to former members for any sexual misconduct that may have taken place.
COOPER: Well, we don't take sides on this show, as you probably know. We like to look at all the angles on a story. In a few minutes, you're going to hear from a member of The Family. But first, two former members. Yesterday, I talked with a longtime member of The Family's inner circle. James Penn -- it's not his real name; it's the one he asked us to use. He also asked that we show him in shadow. He was associated with the group for 27 years, but hasn't been now since 1998. And as I said, he asked to be interviewed in shadow.
COOPER: Did The Family promote and then cover up the sexual abuse of children?
JAMES PENN, FORMER FAMILY MEMBER: Yes, the sexual abuse of children in the group came from the top down. It's evident in their writings. David Berg promoted it. He thought that was godly, and they, in their published writings, encouraged Family members to have sexual contact with children.
COOPER: And how would this -- I mean, was this done in groups? Was this done in private? Did everybody know about it? PENN: Anybody who read the literature had to know about it. There was no way you could avoid it. And it certainly went on. It was widespread.
COOPER: A spokeswoman for The Family told "The Los Angeles Times" that the group, and I quote -- "Came 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." They say The Family has changed its guidelines in '86 and they would excommunicate anyone who had sexual contact with children. Do you think this abuse is still going on?
PENN: No, there's no evidence that they're promoting it now, and I think that's the point that needs to be made clearly, because we don't need a witch-hunt here and further endangering young children. But to get back to your original point, they try to cast their defense in the fact that this happened in certain homes, and when they found out about it, they put a lid on it. But that's not the case. It was promoted by David Berg. It was promoted by Karen Zerby and Chris Smith, her husband...
COOPER: When you say promoted, what do you mean?
PENN: They told people do it. It went on in their house. They said that...
COOPER: What did they say? They said what?
PENN: They said that it is part of their law of love, which was some kind of doctrine they had. That it was perfectly OK to have sex with children. And as long as it didn't hurt anybody.
COOPER: So, an adult would have sex with the child, how old was the child?
PENN: It could range from 4 or 5, anywhere further up. I mean, once they let the genie out of the bottle, there was no control, and nobody really knows how much went on, except that it was widespread.
COOPER: Do you know for a fact that adults were having sex with 4, 5-year-old children or fondling them?
PENN: Yes, it's documented in a book, the Davidito book. There is documentation there of adults having sexual contact with Rick Rodriguez.
COOPER: You say you don't think it's happening now, but do they -- have they acknowledged in your opinion, enough of what went on in the past?
PENN: No. They've simply said that, well, we knew some of it happened and when we found out, we have put a lid on it. They have never acknowledged how widespread it was, and they've never acknowledged that they promoted it. And long after they officially sort of put a lid on it, they were promoting it privately, and it was going on in Zerby's house until the early '90s.
COOPER: You recently posted an apology to the second generation of Family members. In it, you wrote -- "As a first-generation member of the Family, I am guilty of building and maintaining a system that terrorized you. I created material that among other things, covered up the abuse of minors in the group and demonized many detractors. I was one of the oppressors." You stand by this?
COOPER: You feel guilty about this?
PENN: Yes. I have great remorse.
COOPER: You knew Ricky Rodriguez. When he left the family, I understand he actually spent time with you. He lived with you for a short amount of time. What happened to him? What was going through his mind, do you think?
PENN: Well, he did come and stay with me. And he had nowhere to go, because no one could really understand him. He was sort of a freak show, because he'd been raised as this poster boy all his life and nobody really understood. And I'd been there. And so he asked me if he could come and stay. And he was -- he was going through a great deal of change in trying to sort things out. But he said himself in a letter he wrote to me, that his emotions, he had them on ice for so many years, and now he's getting in touch with them, and he was feeling great rage and great anger at what had happened to him and what had happened to thousands of other children in the group.
COOPER: Why do you not want your face shown?
PENN: I'm not terribly proud of my time in the group. And I am trying to build a new life.
COOPER: Did you ever abuse children when you were in the group?
PENN: That's a pretty invasive question, wouldn't you say?
COOPER: Well, you don't have to answer it. Just -- you were talking about the group. Is there anything about your own activities in the group that you regret?
PENN: Yes. A great deal. I regret my time in the group. I regret all of what I did. It's the sense of regretting much of what you did for your adult life.
COOPER: Is there anything else you want people to know, James?
PENN: I'd like people to know that there's thousands of young people who grew up in the group who have left, and have many, many problems. And there's a sense of rage there. And I think until there's open and honest acknowledgement of the widespread abuse that happened in the group on the behalf of the leaders, that nothing is really going to -- no healing is going to take place.
COOPER: James Penn, I appreciate you being with us. Thank you.
PENN: Thank you.
COOPER: Well, 360 next, we continue on this story, the so-called avenger. More of Ricky Rodriguez's last words on videotape. This tape was made just hours before he killed a former member and then killed himself. His dark message before the murder-suicide.
COOPER: As you've seen already, the young man whose strange, short life that we're talking about this evening, or talking around perhaps, left behind a chilling videotape. You can't call it a confession, really, because he'd not yet killed a woman who he knew from childhood and then himself, but he would. He would do that within hours.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RODRIGUEZ: The main reason is that I want there to be some record of the way I feel, my ideas, just who I was, really. I've met, got to know some ex-members here and there. Some more than others. I wanted to explain some of the things that I've been doing and thinking, and some of the frustrations that I've had. And anyway, I don't know. I'm just -- I guess it's my -- sort of my last grasp at immortality. I know that I'm not immortal and I know that this video is not going to make me so.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: All the while, he's loading cartridges, bullets into a clip. Ricky Rodriguez -- excuse me, Ricky Rodriguez was the heir apparent to the religious group known as The Family, also known as the Children of God before that.
A few minutes ago, we heard from one of the former members of the first generation of that group. Now let's hear from one of the younger generation about what happened to him, what he says happened to him. Here is my conversation earlier with Daniel Roselle, another former member of the group.
COOPER: In terms of abuse that you personally saw, that actually happened to you, what can you tell us? What can you describe?
DANIEL ROSELLE, FORMER FAMILY MEMBER: Well, I personally was abused at 7 years of age in Panama City, although The Family has certainly released statements denying that I was abused. This will happen, I suppose, if you come up and speak about the abuses that happened, especially if the people you are pointing to are the ones who consider themselves in a position to either confirm or deny whether you were abused.
COOPER: And in what context did this abuse happen? I mean, are you talking sexual abuse? ROSELLE: I'm referring specifically to an instance where I was abused during an orgy, a Family orgy in Panama City.
COOPER: So this is hard, I think, for myself, for a lot of people to understand. I mean, without going into sort of too graphic detail, I mean, why were you present at an orgy? You know, what was the situation?
ROSELLE: Well, briefly the history of The Family is that they started experimenting with sexual freedoms. First amongst themselves, and then using religious prostitution to appeal to outsiders and to gain converts to their cause. And then they extended this abuse to children.
It may seem (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and this maybe the difficulty that we've had over the last few years convincing people to listen to our story, but the fact of the matter is, that there are writings from The Family that describe just such abuses. They extended this sexual freedom to their very own children. And not only did they extend it to them, but they exchanged photographs of sex between children and adults. They filmed the videos of 3-year-olds and 6-year-olds and 13- year-olds dancing nude before the camera, and then they brought us into their sexual lives.
COOPER: Daniel, I want to read you a statement, you alluded to it before.
COOPER: This is a statement from The Family. I'm sure you probably heard it before.
COOPER: "The allegations forwarded by Daniel Roselle have no basis in fact. According to his parents, he never suffered any abuse during his time in The Family, and he had declared this openly prior to his engagement in his actions against The Family. We have a policy of investigating claims of abuse from our members and former members. Daniel never lodged a complaint or requested investigation."
Is that true? Did you ever lodge a complaint?
ROSELLE: Well, first of all, I would say that I've been speaking about the abuses for a long time. And let's address their claim that they have a system for addressing these abuses. And I would challenge whoever their spokesperson is, I would challenge them to present to whoever the media that they're speaking to, I would challenge them to present this system. We've been begging them. And when I say we, I say the victims that were abused. We have been begging them to come and show us, to talk to us about the abuses. I would challenge them to present to the media their system for dealing with this. There is no system that we've seen to date. There is no apology that we've seen to date.
COOPER: To your knowledge, has anyone been punished for any of the abuse?
ROSELLE: No. If punishment means to be excommunicated from their group, then this has happened, yes. But no one has been referred to the authorities. In fact, they seem to take efforts to hide these people, or if anything, to just try to pacify the victims one at a time, or to tell them to give it to God or turn it over to Jesus. But there has been no effort to reach out to us. In fact, we've been the ones reaching out to them for the last years.
COOPER: I know this is really tough for you, and I know this is not something you want to do. I know you don't want to be on TV, and I know you're doing it because of what happened to Ricky...
COOPER: ... and what you believe could happen to others who have grown up in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there.
COOPER: And I know you still have family members in this, so it's a tough thing for you to talk about it. We really do appreciate you coming on tonight and talking about it. Thank you very much.
ROSELLE: Thank you, Anderson. I appreciate your time.
COOPER: As always, want to look at all sides, all the angles. Coming up next on 360, you're going to hear from a spokeswoman for The Family, speaking out about all these allegations and about what she says the group really is all about. What's fact? What's fiction? Covering all the angles, next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
ROSELLE: I would challenge them to present to the media their system for dealing with this. There is no system that we've seen to date. There is no apology that we've seen to date.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
COOPER: That was Daniel Roselle, issuing a challenge to the group he left some years ago.
We've heard a lot about this religious group, The Family, this evening, but nothing much directly from them, until now. We are joined in Washington, D.C. by Clair Borowik, who is a spokesperson for the group. Appreciate you being with us, Ms. Borowik. Thanks very much.
CLAIR BOROWIK, SPOKESPERSON, THE FAMILY: Thank you for having me.
COOPER: I want you to respond first to Daniel Roselle's challenge. What system do you have in place to make sure that sexual abuse doesn't continue to happen and to have accounting for what did happen?
BOROWIK: Well, it's very clear that we have a concrete system in place. Our communities came under investigation from 1989 to '93 by courts on three continents, who examined over 600 of our children and never found a single case of abuse.
COOPER: Actually, I mean...
BOROWIK: They were acquitted...
COOPER: I don't want to -- I know there was never a court case, but I mean, forensic officials, apparently, according to Reuters in Argentina, which did throw out the case, did say there were signs of anal and vaginal injuries in children.
BOROWIK: That was the first reports that came out in the media, but after that, those were denied and there was no indication at all. Basically...
COOPER: But do you say no abuse ever happened?
BOROWIK: No, I never said that. Actually, we have explained very clearly that prior to 1986, we did not have policies in place that would disable that kind of contact. We've had a liberal environment. And there were no stringent policies that had been laid down.
COOPER: Wait, I don't understand, though. I was alive in 1986 and even the '70s and late '60s. Why did you need a policy? I mean, most people don't need a policy saying don't have sex with 4-year- olds. That's, I mean, why do you need a stringent policy? Isn't that just kind of common sense?
BOROWIK: Well, the way our group operated, we have a belief that God created sexuality, and he created as something pure if it's done in a loving fashion. However, when this -- when the group first grew and evolved, there was not any rule system down for just a lot of things. So as the group evolved and grew, we put down stringent policies in 1986...
COOPER: Right. But I mean...
BOROWIK: ... forbidding any kind of contact between adults and minors.
COOPER: ... there wasn't a policy probably saying don't shoot yourself in the head, but people weren't shooting themselves in the head. Why -- I don't understand why you needed to write a policy if there wasn't rampant sexual abuse? Why do you need suddenly a policy in 1986?
BOROWIK: Well, there wasn't rampant sexual abuse, but some cases did come to light where there was contact going on or sexual improprieties that young people were uncomfortable with. When these cases surfaced, it became clear that there had to be a very stringent policies. Now, mainstream churches are just addressing this issue over the last five years. We addressed it two decades ago.
COOPER: Well, let me address that, because first of all, James Penn, the former member we talked to, former inner circle member, said that this was part of -- this was something promoted by David Berg, the founder, and all these people who have come forward say, you say you've addressed it, but you haven't named any names of people who had sex with children. And you haven't turned anyone over to the authorities, have you?
BOROWIK: You'd have to go on a case-by-case basis.
COOPER: Well, tell me any case...
BOROWIK: How could we do that...
COOPER: Tell me any case of the 10,000 or more members you have that you've turned over to the authorities for having sex with children.
BOROWIK: If there is an issue that needs to be turned over to the authorities, it's in the right of the parents, which we have clearly articulated.
COOPER: You just compared yourself to a religious group, so I am assuming you're talking about the Catholic Church, which has -- has, you know, whether they've done it rightly or wrongly or slowly, they have turned over names, and they have made apologizes, and they have revealed names. Have you?
BOROWIK: We have made apologizes actually. We've published official apologizes. One of those was made very public through a court case. We've published apologies on five (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...
COOPER: Have you turned over anybody to the police? Have you named any names publicly?
BOROWIK: It would be up to the individuals involved. If they want to report somebody, if they feel that they were abused, it's in their court. We wouldn't be able to do that, because it would be a personal allegation by a person against an individual. And for example, Daniel Roselle, he was perfectly in his rights to go to court, if he felt the abuse took place, which his parents say did not occur.
COOPER: Right, he would say you're putting the emphasis on the alleged victim. You know, you as a religious order, perhaps would bear some responsibility to try to purge...
BOROWIK: Perhaps, Anderson, you have to understand how our fellowship is organized. We are small communities of people that live together. Each community is autonomous.
BOROWIK: So when you talk about The Family, for example, Daniel lived with his family and maybe another family. So... COOPER: OK, so...
BOROWIK: It would be in his court to tell his parents, I was abused, which he never did until he began this campaign to bring harm to The Family.
COOPER: Clair Borowik...
BOROWIK: He had never said that before.
COOPER: OK. Well, we appreciate you being honest, being with us and talking frankly about this. Thank you very much, representative of The Family.