Group, P.A. woman's slaying intertwined
Killer, Son of Sect's Leader, Blamed it for Childhood Abuse
San Jose Mercury News/2005-01-18
By Elise Ackerman and Kim Vo
For years, Angela Smith's parents had asked her to leave a religious group she had joined in the 1970s. As the new year began, Smith finally seemed ready. She had recently moved to Palo Alto and landed a steady job.
But Smith, known to some friends by the nickname "Joy," never got the chance to put her past behind her.
During a trip to Tucson on Jan. 8, she was stabbed to death by Ricky Rodriguez, the estranged son of the missionary group's leader. Rodriguez then drove west, to the California border town of Blythe, where police say he killed himself with a single shot from a semiautomatic handgun.
"My husband and I kept telling her to get out of the group," Smith's mother, Jo Kauten, said in a tearful conversation from her home in Winchester, Va.
Smith, 51, was the executive secretary to Rodriguez's mother, Karen Zerby, the spiritual leader of Family International, and to the group's late founder, Oakland native David Berg.
On its Web site, The Family says it is a Christian fellowship with 12,000 associates working in more than 100 countries. But the Washington, D.C.-based group also has been accused of child abuse in a number of countries.
According to the New York Times, before his death Rodriguez sent three videos to his wife and other family members in which he said he was avenging children like himself who had been beaten and subjected to sexual abuse.
Claire Borowik, a spokeswoman for The Family, said in an interview that the group has been vindicated in the abuse cases and called the criticism the work of "vitriolic ex-members."
In a statement, Borowik added that some of those ex-members had prompted Rodriguez to display violent tendencies after he left the group in 2000.
And, she said, Smith had in fact left The Family two months ago because she was ready for a change after three decades of missionary work.
The Family was founded in 1968 in Huntington Beach under the name the Children of God. Its founder, Berg, took on the name Moses David and was known to some of his followers as "Mo," according to the group's Web site.
Scandal dogged the group after claims of brainwashing and child sexual abuse surfaced in the 1970s. Authorities from France to Argentina to Australia have raided the group's homes and taken children into custody.
The group's leaders have said they are targets of religious persecution. In her statement, Borowik acknowledged that minors had been "subject to sexually inappropriate advances" but said the group had tightened its policies in the 1980s to forbid sexual contact with children.
Nevertheless, "Historically they've been known as one of the most horrifically abusive and destructive cults in American history," said Rick Ross, director of the New Jersey-based Rick A. Ross Institute and affiliated with www.cultnews.com.
Ross said he had interviewed several former members of the Children of God group, including Berg's daughter and granddaughter, who said they had also been abused. Berg died in 1994.
Though its leaders say the group has been reformed, Ross said, doubts remain because many of its longtime leaders -- including Zerby -- still run the organization.
Ross, who has been tracking cult groups for two decades, said he wasn't shocked by the Rodriguez murder-suicide.
"It doesn't surprise me because so many of these children suffered so much," Ross said. "There have been many suicides over the last several years. There's a tremendous amount of pain."
At a Web site for children whose parents belonged to The Family, www.moving on.org, members sorted out their tangled feelings about the deaths.
"While the facts regarding these events are still not clear, what happened to Ricky Rodriguez and Angela Smith was a horrible tragedy, and something that we sincerely hope is never repeated," the Web site's editors wrote.
A Moving On representative did not reply to an e-mail seeking further comment.
News of Smith's death has been especially painful to the staff at Palo Alto's Restoration Hardware, who remember their co-worker as an exceptionally kind and trusting spirit. "Always something sweet," said Gretchen Mills, who took a chance and hired Smith though she had no retail experience.
According to her mother, it was Smith's first job in years that was not connected to Family International.
Mills said Smith caught on quickly, winning over customers and staff with a ready smile and warm personality. She brought snacks for the stock team and would interest herself in the details of her co-workers lives -- remembering to ask about dates and doctors appointments.
Said Mills, her boss: "There was nothing creepy about Angela."