Young man's suicide blamed on mother's cult
Press » CNN Anderson Cooper 360° » 2007-12-04
By Randi Kaye
Ricky Rodriguez as a boy with "Family International" founder David Berg
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The suicide of a young man and the murder he committed before he killed himself are being blamed on a cult led by his mother.
Also disturbing, former members who spoke to CNN say they witnessed Ricky Rodriguez having sex with his mother, Karen Zerby, the leader of the sect now known as "The Family International."
The sect's activities and history are detailed in a newly released book, "Jesus Freaks." The sect was founded in California in the 1960s by David Berg, who referred to himself as "Mo," short for Moses. Berg was a self-proclaimed prophet.
Former sect members tell CNN Berg encouraged adult-child sex. More often than not, they say, the chosen child was Rodriguez, the son of Karen Zerby, who Berg called his queen. Zerby became the leader of the sect when Berg died in 1994.
"Jesus Freaks" author Don Lattin says Berg "wanted his child to embrace sexuality, to be a sexual being as an infant and growing up."
Former members say Berg and Zerby wrote about their beliefs in papers distributed to members. It was Berg's how-to guide for raising sexual children. The Family International now says all "questionable publications were officially renounced and expunged between the late 1980s and early 1990s."
In Berg and Zerby's manifesto, Rodriguez was the main character.
Former member Davida Kelley told CNN, "I actually witnessed Karen Zerby having intercourse with her own son, Rick Rodriguez, at age 11." Kelley says she, too, had been abused by Berg, starting at age 5. "You were only required to have actual intimate intercourse with David Berg once you were, like, the mature age of, like, 12," she says sarcastically.
Berg was apparently so obsessed with sex he used it to expand his group around the world. Lattin says Berg sent women out to seduce men and lure them in to accept his gospel of Jesus. Lattin says Berg called the practice "Flirty Fishing."
CNN made several attempts to interview The Family International, but it refused. In a statement, the group acknowledged Berg taught sexual liberty without "instituting safeguards for the protection of minors." But it says that was corrected in 1986 and any infractions are an "excommunicable offense." The group also told CNN all of Davida Kelley's allegations are false and Zerby never abused her son.
Rodriguez, who escaped from "The Family International" in 2001, apparently was so deeply scarred that he was making plans to kill his mother. CNN has obtained a copy of a videotape he made two years ago, in which he warned, "She's gonna pay dearly, one way or the other," while brandishing a knife and loading guns at his kitchen table.
Within hours of finishing the tape, in January 2005, Rodriguez tracked down his childhood nanny, Angela Smith. Former member Kelley says "she was one of the many female adults that had intercourse with Rick Rodriguez."
In his first bloody act of revenge, Rodriguez murdered his nanny. He cut her throat and left her body in his Arizona apartment. But he was still on the hunt for his mother. Lattin says Rodriguez felt the need to take justice into his own hands because "most of the abuse was, like, 20 years ago, so the statute of limitations had expired. Most of it happened outside the U.S., so it's very difficult to prosecute."
A spokesman for the group told CNN its "policy for the protection of minors was adopted in 1986. We regret that prior to the adoption of this policy, cases occurred where minors were exposed to sexually inappropriate behavior between 1978 and 1986."
Some of those exposed to the alleged abuse may have chosen suicide to escape the pain. A Web site set up by people who grew up as children in the cult says at least 30 of them have committed suicide, though CNN has no way of verifying that.
Rodriguez became a part of that group. He failed to find his mother, something his wife says he couldn't live with. Elixcia Munumel remembers their last phone call: "He's like 'Baby, I love you.' He said, 'Come die with me.' "
Rodriguez died alone at age 29 in January 2005 on a deserted road, four years after he fled the sect. A single shot to the head ended the misery he fought so hard to escape. His mother is still the leader of the family. She has not been charged with a crime and lives in seclusion.