Ex-sect members fear new violence
They worry about more suicides -- 'dropping like flies'
San Francisco Chronicle/2005-01-17
By Don Lattin, Chronicle Religion Writer
San Diego -- Former members of an international evangelical sect rocked by the murder-suicide of two leading members said Sunday that more violence may be in the offing for the troubled Children of God.
Many young people who say they suffered years of physical, sexual and spiritual abuse growing up in the sect say that the latest deaths are part of a series of suicides by former members.
"We're dropping like flies," said one former member of the sect, Daniel Roselle. "There is a lot of anger out there. I'm not worried about more violence against others. But I am worried about more suicides."
Roselle gave The Chronicle a list of 25 second-generation members of the Family International/Children of God who have allegedly committed suicide during the past 10 years. Leaders of the sect deny that all of the people listed have committed suicide -- or are dead.
Dozens of these second-generation cult members -- who have demanded that their parents and movement leaders take responsibility for the abuse -- gathered in a hotel ballroom in San Diego on Saturday night to pay tribute to their fallen brethren.
They no longer belong to Family International, a freewheeling Christian sect formerly known as the Children of God, but many of these defectors still see themselves as part of an extended family of spiritual survivors.
They came together over the weekend to memorialize Abe Braaten, 27, a second-generation Children of God member who died Dec. 14 after falling from the roof of a building in Kobe, Japan.
His siblings -- including one who saw him moments before the fall -- say his death was yet another suicide among a survivor of the abuse.
Nine days ago, on Jan. 8, another second-generation member, Ricky Rodriguez, 29, shot himself after stabbing a former nanny to death in his Tucson apartment.
Rodriguez, the only son of sect leader Karen "Maria David" Zerby, grew up in the Children of God as "Davidito," the revered prince and future prophet of the self-styled Christian cult.
In a video shoot hours before the murder-suicide, Rodriguez confessed to the slaying of his nanny, 51-year-old Angela Smith, which he said was revenge for years of sexual abuse he suffered growing up in the Children of God.
The video tape, which shows Rodriguez loading his gun and admiring the edge of his knife, ends with a call for other defectors to get justice from their childhood abusers.
The raging, profanity-laced video has sent fear rippling through the families of former and current members of the sect.
"It's a war now between ourselves and our parents," said John La Mattery, 27, a friend of Braaten's, who said they met in Japan when both boys were 14 years old. "This is the cream of the crop coming back to get them."
Braaten's Japanese-born mother, Yumiko "Phoenix" Taniguchi, is one of the top leaders in the Family International today.
Braaten's sister, China (pronounced "Cheena') Taniguchi, said her brother's death, followed so closely by Rodriguez's suicide, has been a wake- up call for second-generation defectors.
"Ricky was the poster child for us kids," Taniguchi said in an interview Sunday.
Leaders of the Family International and the Family Care Foundation -- a not-for-profit charity located in Dulzura (San Diego County) with close ties to the sect -- have declined repeated attempts for interviews during the past week.
But in a prepared statement e-mailed to The Chronicle, Family spokeswoman Claire Borowik said, "We have examined the list posted of supposed suicides and have found several instances where the deaths were definitely not suicides, or were unconfirmed as police could not ascertain if the death was accidental or not."
Borowik said Braaten "was at a party and had gotten very drunk," adding that "it wasn't possible to ascertain as to what actually happened, whether he fell or jumped."
Nonsense, said Sam McNair, 25, who was with Braaten just moments before his death.
McNair said Braaten suffered a sudden nervous breakdown and was babbling about the founder of the Children of God, the late David "Moses" Berg, before he fled McNair's Kobe apartment, ran to a nearby building and leapt to his death.
E-mail Don Lattin at firstname.lastname@example.org.