New book calls cult practices madness
2005 murder in Tucson followed tale of sex abuse
Press » Arizona Daily Star » 2007-11-11
By Stephanie Innes
Ricky Rodriguez's anger was fierce. The years he spent growing up in a controversial Christian sect had apparently taken a toll.
He claimed to have suffered years of horrifying, traumatic sexual abuse and told acquaintances he wanted to kill his mother. He moved to Tucson to prepare for the slaying.
But rather than his mother, he ended up killing one of his former nannies — a woman who'd also been his mother's personal secretary.
A new book chronicles the sad, strange events leading up to Jan. 8, 2005, when 29-year-old Richard P. Rodriguez, known as Ricky or Rick, stabbed 51-year-old Angela M. Smith five times in his Tucson apartment and slit her throat. He then fled west on Interstate 10 and made it as far as Blythe, Calif., before committing suicide.
Author and journalist Don Lattin will be at The Screening Room in Downtown Tucson today to talk about the chilling murder-suicide, chronicled in his book, "Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge," which was released last month by HarperOne.
The book and today's event, which begins at 5 p.m., detail the history of The Family International, also known as The Children of God.
Rodriguez was one of 13,000 children born into The Family between 1971 and 2001.
Though a spokeswoman for the group says Rodriguez's actions were those of an "obviously disturbed young man acting out his misplaced anger," Lattin says he's one of several co-called second generation Family members who grew into deeply troubled adults. Some have gone public with reports of depression, addiction and suicide attempts.
"I understand why Ricky did what he did. All the children who grew up in our generation, all of us pretty much were sexually abused," said Juliana Buhring, 26, who grew up in The Family and left three years ago.
Buhring and two of her sisters authored a book about their experiences titled "Not Without My Sister," which was released in Europe to positive reviews this summer. It is scheduled to be released in the U.S. by HarperCollins later this year.
"What Rick did was really the only way he felt he could get justice — to cut off the head so the body would die. He'd had no closure, no restitution," Buhring said. "I've felt the kind of rage he did. You feel so violated and robbed. The normal childhood that you would expect, we did not get that."
Buhring has been living in Tucson for the past couple of months, helping to set up a U.S. location of a non-profit group that advocates for children who have been sexually abused in groups like The Family.
She will be at today's event at The Screening Room, as will Tucsonan Rosemary Kanspedos, who is Rodriguez's aunt. Though Burhring will speak at the event, Kanspedos will not.
Kanspedos' sister is Karen Elva Zerby, who is Rodriguez's mother, the one he'd wanted to kill. Zerby, who keeps her whereabouts a secret, is The Family's "spiritual overseer."
When asked to discuss her sister, Kanspedos, whose parents still live in Tucson, declined. What she would say is that the second generation of The Family should not be forgotten, which is why she supports them.
"They have something to say," she said.
Angela M. Smith, who changed her name in 1993, was once Zerby's personal assistant. Back then she was known as Susan Joy Kauten, and was part of an inner circle of members of The Family known as The Unit, who were extremely close to leader David Brandt Berg. Kauten also served as one of Rodriguez's nannies and teachers.
Lattin said adults in The Unit had sexual intercourse with children on a regular basis. He believes Rodriguez was sexually abused when he was still a toddler, and there were claims that he'd had intercourse with his own mother. His mother, through The Family International, has denied it.
"There's so much documentation of the abuse — it's pretty hard to deny it happened," Lattin said in a telephone interview. "It's pretty hard to say Ricky wasn't abused, and his case wasn't the worst of it."
The abuse was part of a practice called "sexual sharing," according to Lattin and former members. They say the group taught that there were no age limits on when someone could have sexual intercourse, and encouraged sexual intimacy between adults and children, including between biological family members.
Zerby is the daughter of a Methodist minister who served in the Wesleyan and Pilgrim Holiness churches. She moved to Tucson with her family as a teenager and enrolled in the University of Arizona, but Lattin reports that she dropped out after a year and got a job to help pay the bills.
The book says Karen Zerby's life drastically changed in 1969 when she encountered The Family, then called Teens for Christ, at an evangelical convention in Phoenix. She was 22 and became sexually involved with Berg, then 51 and married, Lattin writes. Berg christened Zerby "Maria."
Lattin writes that Berg anointed himself Endtime Prophet and Zerby was his queen. He promised that as prophet he would lead the Endtime army, Jesus would return and The Family would be raptured to heaven.
Zerby hooked up with The Family at a time when its anti-establishment, pro-Jesus message was picking up huge momentum in Tucson and other parts of the West and Southwest. They considered the term "Jesus Freak" a compliment.
Locally, North Fourth Avenue was one of their favorite places to evangelize, but they also sent missionaries to the parking lots of local department stores, Lattin said.
Those who joined The Family were encouraged to renounce all worldly possessions for the collective good. Buhring said anyone who wants to leave must face the outside world with no money and little education.
Lattin's book recounts that Rodriguez was born Jan. 25, 1975 in the Canary Islands — the result of a "flirty fishing" expedition. In order to "fish," women in The Family would go to clubs, flirt with men and talk about Jesus. Often, sex was involved.
Rodriguez's biological father was a waiter in the Canary Islands, whom Berg and Zerby had befriended. But Berg was always considered his spiritual father, Lattin writes. Berg christened Rodriguez "Davidito" and said he and his mother, "Maria" (Zerby), were destined to be the witnesses credited with ushering the apocalypse in the 11th chapter, Book of Revelation.
Buhring grew up idolizing Rodriguez, whom she called a shining star in the group. He was the group's "Little Prince," she said. When he left the group in 2000 and started to speak up about his experiences, Buhring said group leaders began telling members that Rodriguez had fallen into the thrall of embittered ex-members, and that he was now possessed by the devil.
Like other members of The Family, Buhring grew up all over the world, and has several sisters and brothers, some of them half-siblings — 17 altogether. She believes she's lived in 25 countries. That's one of the reasons she says it's so hard to prosecute anyone over the abuse she and others say occurred. Other reasons include statutes of limitations and name changes of many members of The Family, she said.
"How can you prosecute an American citizen who is abused in the Philippines? It's just really difficult," Buhring said. "There's a lack of information when you are in the group — you are isolated and no information comes in from the outside. And there were people in leadership positions who were former pedophiles. The group protects them."
The Family spokeswoman Claire Borowik said the group has issued seven apologies since 1993 to former and current members regarding complaints they made about growing up in the group, and that The Family has a zero tolerance policy about the abuse of minors. The group's policy on protecting minors was adopted in 1986, and prior to that there were cases when minors were exposed to sexually inappropriate behavior, she said.
"This was addressed in 1986 when any sexual contact between an adult and minor was officially banned, and subsequently in 1988 declared an excommunicable offense," Borowik said.
The Family says Lattin's book is laced with "inaccuracies, misconceptions and erroneous conclusions lacking a factual base — not to mention, sketchy research." The group accuses him of religious intolerance and of leaving out the motivating force of their movement, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. Borowik says there are currently about 10,000 members of The Family worldwide.
Lattin, a former religion writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, stands by his book. In addition to telling a story, Lattin hopes the book serves as a cautionary tale.
The Family's focus on apocalyptic aspects of the Christian faith "uses fear to inspire and control — fear of eternal damnation, fear of not being one of the elect," he writes. "It was no great leap for his (Berg's) followers to go from a belief in Jesus as the only way to salvation to a conviction that The Family was the only road to heaven.
"But for some, especially those closest to Berg, it was a deadly leap," he adds.
More data on Family
- More information about The Family International/Children of God is available at its Web site, www.thefamily.org/
- Some former members of The Family International maintain a Web site at www.xfamily.org/ index.php/Main_Page
If you go
Journalist Don Lattin will speak about his book, "Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge," at 5 p.m. today at The Screening Room, 127 E. Congress St. The book is about a religious group called The Family International and a related murder in Tucson.
Lattin's talk will be held in conjunction with the screening of a film titled, "Cult Killer."
Author and former Family International member Juliana Buhring will also speak.
Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. Students get in for half price. To buy tickets, go to www.riseinternationalcic.org or call 461-5939.
The event is a fundraiser for RISE International Community Interest Company, a non-profit group based in England. The group says its mission is protecting children from abuse in so-called religious or spiritual groups, and advocating justice for people who say abuses were committed against them as minors growing up in such groups.