'After my mother, all I need is one bullet for myself'
The Family cult used free love as a mask for child abuse, accusers claim. So was it so strange that a former member turned killer?
BY THE time Ricky Rodriguez telephoned his wife, Elixcia, on a cold Arizona evening last month, there was no doubt in his mind that he was going to kill himself. The only question was whether he would die alone.
As he drank warm beer and drove along dusty Highway 10 to California, Rodriguez was thinking of the woman he had just stabbed to death in his apartment. And now he was on the phone, asking his beloved Elixcia to commit suicide with him. “I don’t want to be by myself,” he said. “Please come die with me.”
The night before, shaven-headed Rodriguez had sat in front of a video camera and displayed the weapons he would use to take out the people he considered to be his enemies. He loaded bullets into an automatic pistol. He demonstrated the sharpness of his US Marines combat knife. And for torture, for extracting information about those he wanted to kill, he held up an electric drill, a soldering iron and a 775,000-volt stun gun.
Looking into the camera, he says: “My goal is to bring down my own mother . . . and then all I need is one bullet for myself.”
Fast forward three weeks and you might think there would be universal delight in the US that Rodriguez had, indeed, used that bullet to blow out his brains. But you would be wrong. His actions have been pored over with incredulity, yes. But there is sympathy, too. And in some — perhaps misguided — circles, he is being hailed as a hero for reopening a wound that religious America thought had conveniently healed long ago: the alleged abuse of potentially hundreds of children by The Family, a radical “free love” church founded in the 1960s.
To watch his video is to visit the soul of a tortured young man. For Rodriguez was the heir apparent to The Family. His adoptive father, David Berg, was its founder. His mother, Karen Zerby, is its leader. And Angela Smith, the woman he lured to her death, is among a number of “nannies” accused of sexually abusing him as he grew up — abuse that was, literally, chronicled religiously. In short, he was the reluctant Messiah.
Rodriguez, who would have been 30 last week, was one of dozens of lapsed members of the church, formerly known as The Children of God, who have claimed that they were sexually abused by adults and “shared” sexually with other children in the movement over several decades. Now many of these apparent victims, including some in the UK, say that they owe a debt of gratitude to Rodriguez. For years, they say, they suffered in silence but now all America is talking about them.
The Children of God was founded almost 40 years ago in California. Berg, born in 1919, was a radical thinker who believed that he could spread the Gospel by embracing the Zeitgeist of the 1960s hippy counterculture. The result was a hybrid mix of free love and happy-clappy evangelism that some directionless young people found irresistible. Within ten years his Christian ministry had attracted thousands of followers worldwide. By the late 1970s, by then called The Family, the organisation had set up more than 150 communes and missions from Glasgow to Goa. Today there are about 12,000 members living in more than 100 countries.
Always on the move, Berg, who had renamed himself Moses, ministered to his flock through an endless series of “Mo Letters” that governed every aspect of life within The Family. In particular, they espoused sex, and lots of it — giving and sharing yourself with others as a means of glorifying Christ. That message may have been radical for a church, but had the sex remained between consenting adults, The Family might have been seen as merely eccentric. But in the early days, Berg advocated paedophilia and incest.
On May 20, 1980, in a Mo Letter entitled “The Devil Hates Sex But God Loves It!” he wrote: “The only way to get free of [the Devil] . . . is to get rid of his lies and his anti-sex propaganda, and believe the Lord and his Word and his Creation and God’s love and His freedom — that there is nothing in the world at all wrong with sex as long as it’s practised in love, whatever it is or whoever it’s with, no matter who or what age or what relative or what manner . . . and you don't hardly dare even say these words in private. “When If the law ever got a hold of this, they would try to string me up! They would probably lynch me before I got to the jail! When Paul said ‘All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient’ (II Corinthians vi, 12) he was as good as saying, ‘I can indulge in any kind of sex I want to, but I’ve got to watch out for the system because it’s against the law!’ We are free in privacy, and that’s about all, and we mightn’t be free if they discovered what we do in private! . . . there are no relationship restrictions or age limitations in His law of love . . . If you hate sex you are one of the Devil’s crowd! If you think it’s evil, then God and love are evil, for He created it! Come on, let’s love and enjoy it like God does!”
Such views, and Berg’s invention of “flirty fishing”, whereby young women followers were encouraged to use sex to recruit new members, rang alarm bells. Over the years, law enforcement authorities in Australia, France, Spain and Argentina have seized children from the cult, concerned that they were at risk of abuse. No abuse was proved and there were no prosecutions (in fact, some raids were criticised by judges). Yet today, both The Family and former members agree that instances of abuse did happen in the 1970s and early 1980s.
The church — or cult, depending on your view — says that in 1986 it brought in strict guidelines banning sex with children. But what about those for whom this was too late? Ricky Rodriguez said that his pain was unbearable. As Berg’s son he had been groomed as a future leader of the church, and that weighed heavily on his mind.
“He talked about suicide all the time,” says Elixcia Munumel, his 25-year-old estranged wife. We meet at a secret location in California two weeks after Rodriguez’s death. Elixcia, also a former member of The Family, says that she, too, was sexually abused, but declines to go into detail. She says that she and Rodriguez separated some months ago but were in contact every day until his death. When police found his body in a parked car on January 10, they pressed the redial button on his mobile phone. Elixcia answered.
“He was constantly sexually abused as a child but he rarely complained,” says Elixcia. “Because of his central role in The Family, I think he carried a burden of guilt over what happened to the other children.”
After Berg died in 1994, Ricky’s mother, Karen Zerby, took over the church (while still passing on Berg’s pronouncements from the grave).
When, in 2000, Rodriguez decided to leave The Family with Elixcia, he began to hear other stories of abuse. “He was such a kind and gentle person that when he heard about all this pain it affected him deeply,” says Elixcia. “When we left The Family we just wanted a normal life, but we had no idea of how to live one. Ricky was 25 but he didn’t even know how to open a bank account or use a chequebook. He got a job working nights and we got a cheap apartment in a rough part of Tacoma (near Seattle, Washington State). We were broke but we were so happy at first.”
The couple had met in 1996 at one of The Family’s missions in Budapest. Elixcia was living there when Rodriguez (universally known in The Family as Davidito) came to visit. Like many children born into the Family, Venezuelan-born Elixcia had never known a settled life; her parents divorced young and she was moved to communities in England (her father is British), Italy, Germany, France, India, Colombia, Austria and Hungary. When she met Rodriguez, she fell in love almost immediately.
“He always struck me as so calm and serene, but inside he must have been suffering. We would sneak down to the basement to read books and talk,” she recalls. “Books that weren’t approved of were frowned upon but Ricky was always rebellious. But he was sad, too. He was very intelligent but we wondered how much better he might have done if he’d had a proper education outside The Family. When we left, he insisted that I got a proper education. I sat the equivalent of a high school diploma when I was 22 [most students do this at 16] and now I’m training to be a nurse.
“He wanted me to move on and put The Family behind me. The problem for Ricky was that he couldn’t move on. He still had answers to find. We separated six months ago so he could go and find his answers. But we spoke every day.”
So what was this abuse? Remarkably, in Rodriguez’s case it was recorded in The Book of Davidito, a diary kept by one of the many nannies whom Berg had to care for the child. It was intended in Berg’s mind as a how-to guide to bringing up baby.
The keeper of the diary was a woman called Sara. Written in a jovial style, it details Rodriguez’s sexual progress from 10 months old, when there is an entry about him touching his penis, and chronicles his interest in women’s breasts and his puzzlement at watching other members make love in front of him.
In chapter 20, “Prince & Toddler”, when Davidito was 14 months old, Sara wrote: “Davidito is also jealous when Alfred and I begin loving up and tries to pull us apart, so the best thing for now is that we just not make love in front of him. Davidito loves to watch Dave and Sally go at it, though. He begins to pant and bounce along with them, then sits down in exhaustion with a big sigh when it’s all over, just like he’s been through it too!”
In chapter 31, “The Story of Lazarus!” when Davidito was 17 months old, Sara wrote: “Little David stood watching through the pool fence as a couple made love in the water. He imitated every motion . . . then went into the house to show Mommy the story of how to goose a girl!”
In chapter 36, “Learning Fun at 20 Months”, dated October 1976, Sara describes washing, then kissing, the baby’s erect penis. She adds: “I wonder what it’s going to be like when he begins to talk and asks me for more?”
And there is much, much more. Outside the Book of Davidito, there was Berg’s introduction of “Teen Training” in which a rota of underage girls were sent to the young Messiah’s room for sexual adventures.
But if Rodriguez became a human time-bomb, what happened to others? Before my interview with Elicxia, I spoke to four former members in the UK. One of them, Celeste Jones, 30, spoke to Rodriguez the day he died. Celeste was born into The Family; by the time she ran away in late 2000 she had lived in 20 countries.
“We were often communities of 50 or more, where all the adults were encouraged to look after all the children,” she recalls. “Children were considered sexual beings from birth, so a lot of the attention we got was grooming for when we grew up. We were told that it was wrong and selfish to refuse to share yourself sexually with others. In India in particular, the adults would often have orgies and the children would watch.
“Later, when I was still only 5, 6 or 7, there was fondling with men and I was expected to perform fellatio. At 5 we were paired off with boys and expected to explore sexuality. But it went beyond that — Berg would say this was children exploring their own sexuality but it wasn’t. There was a time when I was scheduled to visit one tent on a certain night, then another on a different night. And I wasn’t alone. It was grotesque exploitation of children.
“When I spoke to Ricky the day he died, he said he despaired because no one would listen to us and the abusers had gone unpunished. I tried to encourage him to give testimony for a legal case. But he had given up.”
Celeste had a sister within The Family, Kristina, 28, who was taken out of the church by her mother when she was 12. Because she spoke out against the group after her departure, she was regularly blocked from seeing Celeste, who remained inside the cult. “One of my first memories is of [a named person] performing oral sex on me while I was lying on the top bunk of a bed,” Kristina recalls.
“We were indoctrinated in sex from the start. When we were very young we’d be made to perform sexually provocative dances that were videotaped and sent to Berg. Other men would masturbate while they played with me. I saw one man sexually abusing a baby while he was changing her nappy.”
In 1995 Kristina gave evidence before a landmark child custody hearing that effectively safeguarded the future — so far — of The Family in the UK. An attempt by a grandmother to gain wardship of her grandson from her daughter, who was a member of The Family, failed. After the longest-running custody hearing in Britain, Lord Justice Ward decided that the child would be safe inside the organisation, though he did express deep concerns about its past behaviour.
Today, The Family says that it has moved on. Abi Freeman, its spokeswoman for the UK, where there are up to 100 members, says: “Mistakes were made in the past and we have apologised for them. In 1986 David Berg renounced his earlier teachings relating to children. Today, anyone having any inappropriate contact with children will be excommunicated. We hope it doesn’t happen at all but, as in society in general, there are no guarantees. Safeguards have been in place for almost 20 years. Academics who have studied The Family have verified that it is a safe place for children. This is what Lord Justice Ward concluded: there were problems but we have eradicated them.”
While preparing this article, I was inundated with e-mails from “second-generation” members of The Family stressing that they had had a first-class upbringing and enjoyed carrying out good works. Repeatedly, young people e-mailed me to say: “I have never been abused!”
There are clearly many people in the organisation carrying out charitable work. They run projects helping tsunami victims in South-East Asia and landmine victims with prosthetic limbs. They are teaching in Eastern European orphanages and working to raise Aids awareness in Africa.
But concerns remain. The other two women I met in the UK (who did not wish to be named) say that they were forced into incest on the basis of Berg’s teachings from unexpunged Mo Letters that they claim are still in circulation. Perhaps significantly, three people identified as child abusers in Lord Justice Ward’s 1996 judgment remain linked to The Family through an associate organisation, the Family Care Foundation, of which Smith, Rodriguez’s 51-year-old murder victim, was a founding director.
When I went to the isolated farmhouse outside San Diego, California, that serves as the FCF’s headquarters, I was led from the premises by its executive director, Lawrence Corley. He refused to answer any questions.
Former members of The Family claim that Smith — real name Susan Kauten — had been one of Rodriguez’s nannies and had abused him. He makes no mention of that in his pre-murder video, and all other accounts suggest that she was a kind, selfless person who carried out good works all over the world. Her brother John says that his family has been upset that Rodriguez, and not Smith, has been portrayed as a victim. However, until recently she had been close to Rodriguez’s mother, so he might have transferred some of his maternal loathing on to her.
Rodriguez arranged to meet her in Tucson, Arizona, took her out for dinner and killed her in his apartment. Police say that she died of multiple stab wounds, possibly as Rodriguez tried to extract from her the whereabouts of his mother. These days Karen Zerby stays in hiding, afraid of damaged people such as her son. She issued a statement saying that Ricky had changed after leaving the church and listening to the unfounded claims of “apostates”. She added that she forgave him.
At one point in his video, Rodriguez looks at the screen, holds up his knife and says: “This is my weapon of choice. I only want it for one purpose. That is for taking out the scum.” Then he adds: “Anger does not begin to describe how I feel about these people and what they have done . . . how can you do things like that to little kids?” After killing Smith, Rodriguez drove off in his car and called Elixcia Munumel. “I knew straight away there was something wrong,” she says. “He was often suicidal and would call me and I would talk him down. But this was different. I knew this was it.
“He kept saying ‘My God, what have I done?’ I knew someone was either hurt or dead but he wouldn’t tell me. We talked and cried for hours. He said he just wanted to have a normal life like everyone else.
“Then he said: ‘Elixcia, never let anyone tell you that killing someone is easy. It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do’.” Shortly afterwards, in a town called Blythe, Rodriguez said goodbye, put his gun to his right temple and pulled the trigger.