American's Death A Bangkok Puzzle
Many Think Her Article on U.S. Sect Was a Factor
The New York Times/1974-04-09
By JOSEPH LELYVELD
Special to The New York Times
BANGKOK, Thailand, April 4 - The controversial American sect called the Children of God has suddenly found itself in the middle of a sensational murder mystery here. The victim was a young American woman named Claudia Ross, who worked as reporter on The Bangkok Post an English-language newspaper.
Her last article, which appeared five days before she was stabbed to death in her bedroom early on March 29, was presented as an expose of the Children of God. She characterized the sect as "a parasitic cult of Bible-pounding automatons" whose "dogma preaches hate."
The article recalled charges of kidnapping and extortion made against the Children of God by parents in the United States and Britain, who said the sect actively sought to cut them off from their offspring. Miss Ross implied that a similar effort would be made by the tiny contingent the sect has sent here-10 Americans and a New Zealander, who set up their center last month in a former noodle shop. A lengthy answer from the Children of God to the "slanderous, Iibelous and erroneous statements" in Miss Ross's article was carried by The Bangkok Post in an edition that was coming off the presses at about the time she was murdered.
Police See No Link
Her article had suggested a comparison between the "fanatic loyalty" of the Children of God and that of the followers of Charles Manson, who were involved in a sensational multiple murder in California in 1969. The Nation, another English-language paper here, took up the suggestion and compared her murder to that of the actress Sharon Tate, a victim in the Manson case.
Two days passed before the Thai police started to indicate to the local press that the Children of God were not regarded as suspects. The police are understood to have received a report from Interpol, the international police agency, saying that the sect had never been linked to violent crimes in countries where it has proselytized.
Nonetheless, the Children of God continue to be mentioned in virtually every article and conversation about the murder. There has been no evidence to connect the group to the crime except the victim's article, but that went so far in portraying its activities as sinister and potentially criminal that the connection is easily made.
In part that is because nothing else about the group has, been printed here; in part it is a reflection of the uncertain political situation in Thailand, where conspiracy theories grow spontaneously. There has even been speculation that the police were dropping the Children of God as suspects because they saw the crime as an opportunity to smear the student movement that overturned the military-dominated Government last October.
Press accounts, noting that Miss Ross was close to the most outspoken of the student leader's, Seksan Prasertkul, reported that the police were searching for a political motive for her murder. The Children of God themselves seem oblivious to the speculation swirling around them. When they were visited at the former noodle shop, they were just starting a period of their rigorously scheduled day they call "inspiration." This involves the spirited singing of religious songs rendered in a rock-music style, including one, which they described as their theme song, that has as its refrain the line: "You got to be a baby to go to heaven."
Childlike Trust Is Basis
The point of the song, like the sect's aim, seems to be that faith is essentially- an act of childlike trust. After the singing most of the young zealots went upstairs to memorize passages from the Bible and letters they receive from the sect's "chief shepherd," David Berg, a former American traveling preacher who now calls himselfi Moses David. But the "elders" -two young men and a woman -stayed behind and willingly answered questions.
The Children of God adopt Biblical names; the chief spokesman calls himself Gibeah, which he found in the first book of Samuel. Two years ago he was a college student in Los Angeles named George Dunbar.
Miss Ross signed the group's guest book with a false name the one time she visited the noodle shop, Gibeah said, and never identified herself as a reporter. The first reaction of the group to the killing was shock and sorrow, he said. The members also worried that the incident would prove to be a setback to their proselytizing efforts in this predominantly Buddhist country, but, he said, on reflection they realized that "God is going to use it for His glory."
According to Gibeah then are 4,000 Children of God dispersed in small "colonies" in 65 countries.