The Tragic Legacy of the Children of God
New Book 'Jesus Freaks' Explores Motives Behind a Violent Revenge
On Jan. 7, 2005, 29-year-old Ricky Rodriguez recorded his final thoughts as he prepared to embark on a violent rampage of revenge.
"Some of the things I'm going to try to do are rather shocking, and maybe not right in a lot of people's books," he said on a chilling videotape. "I'm just loading my mags here. Hope you guys don't mind if I do that while I talk."
Raised to be a prophet and a savior, Ricky was about to become an executioner, and a grim lesson in religious fanaticism.
"There is this need that I have," he said on the tape. "This need. It's not a want. And I wish it wasn't. But it is. It's a need for revenge. It's a need for justice. Because I can't go on like this."
His attempt to exact justice led to two violent deaths, including his own.
Rodriguez was once in line to be the next holy prince in the infamous Christian sect Children of God, now known as the Family International. San-Francisco-based reporter Don Lattin has been reporting on the sect since the early 1970s, and Rodriguez's chilling video pushed him to spend the last two years investigating the motives behind Rodriguez's violent legacy. The result is his just-released book "Jesus Freaks."
Lattin says he was intrigued by the video of Rodriguez, "the drama of loading the bullets and sharpening his knife. He loved action movies so, you think, he almost saw this as a movie. I just had to get to the bottom of this. What was really behind this?"
"What could turn a kid, who was raised to be prophet in this group that claimed to be Christian, claimed to have love and compassion for mankind … What could turn him into a kind of raging monster?" said Lattin.
Children of God
In the late 1960s David Berg -- the self-proclaimed prophet and Children of God founder -- began preaching a bizarre brew of sex and scripture. In writings and preaching, Berg advocated free love among his disciples, including adult-child sex.
"Berg was actually a genius because he would test drive these bizarre theologies, bizarre teachings, within his own inner circle," said Lattin. "So very early on, still in the late '60s, he would start having these sharing parties where he would go around naked with a bottle of the wine saying all things are pure and they'd have these orgies but no one knew that outside of the inner circle."
"These guys don't just drop out of the sky," Lattin said of Berg's appeal. "So why are people following this guy if he's a monster and a drunk and a maniac? [Because] Berg came directly out of the Christian evangelical tradition."
Though that notion infuriates most evangelicals, Lattin points to Berg's own mother, Virginia Brandt Berg, who was one of the first famous radio evangelists. Berg failed in the pulpit early on, spending years on the road as an itinerant minister. But when the tumultuous 1960s rolled in, Berg finally found his voice.
"There were these two very strong social forces going on," said Lattin. "There was the countercultural, the youth movement. All these people living on the street, in the road with backpacks, lot of drugs. And there was the beginnings of this evangelical revival in the country."
By the 1970s, Berg's following grew into the tens of thousands. His so-called "law of love" urged young women to win converts to the group by prostituting themselves, something he called "flirty fishing."
Ricky Rodriguez's mother was Karen Zerby, a close confidante of Berg's, and together they anointed Rodriguez "Davidito" -- the future prophet of the sect.
The Second Generation
Other children in the inner circle were given their own roles, including ex-member Davida Kelley, who became the princess to Rodriguez' prince.
"We were both raised and nurtured to be the future leaders of the Family or the End Time prophets, so to speak," Kelley said. "We were programmed to believe that."
"Going way back, I think we could refer to my generation as the second generation and … I would say we were experimental, test-tube kind of babies so to speak," she said.
Kelley says Berg was "obviously very inspired, very possessed and very fanatical, but he was also a pedophile." In fact, provocative adult-child photos and stories lace the pages of group's manual, entitled "The Book of Davidito." And according to Kelley, sexual interaction between adults and children was not just an expectation, it was a commandment.
"At that time, myself or other young girls who were in the Unit at the time as apprentices, so to speak, would be required to crawl into bed and interact with David Berg," said Kelley. "I lived with David Berg from the time I was born till age 13."
When asked if she ever witnessed Ricky being sexually abused, Kelley said "Oh yes, of course … [by] all the adult women. Most of them, at least, in the Unit."
Kelley says she even witnessed Karen Zerby, Rodriguez' mother, abusing him.
In 1986, after a series of official investigations and lawsuits, the Family International officially renounced sexual contact between adults and children.
'A Time Bomb Waiting to Go Off'
In 1994 Berg died, and Zerby took over as leader, and as the second generation grew up, critics says the years in The Family left many scarred.
"There have been dozens of people who have committed suicide, and the family disputes this and says, 'well, some were drug overdoses.' Well that's another way of killing yourself, a drug overdose," said Lattin.
Despite that claim, most current members of the family, including some young people ABC News interviewed in 2005, insist stories of abuse and second-generation suicides are overblown.
"If it was categorical, if it was widespread, how come I never suffered abuse," a member named Anna asked . "How come I who have over 100 friends in the Family International all over the world, how come none of them ever told me they witnessed abuse or experienced abuse?"
After years of struggling with his faith, Rodriguez left the sect in 2001 but never came to terms with his past. He sought to bring his mother to justic.
The night after recording the videotape, Rodriguez went searching for his mother, who had long ago gone underground. Seeking a clue to her wherabouts, Rodriguez arranged a meeting with Angela Smith at his Tuscon, Ariz., apartment. Smith had been a trusted assistant to his mother.
Rodriguez killed Smith, and then he drove several hours into California. Sometime after midnight, he pulled into a parking lot in the city of Blythe and fired a single round, ending his life.
"Ricky was a combination of emotions that he was feeling," said Lattin. "He was incredibly angry at his mother and his leaders. He was also very guilty -- he blamed himself for a lot of the abuse that went on. He was just a time bomb waiting to go off."
"Man, if I don't get to her … I'm going to keep hunting her in the next life, let me tell you," Rodriguez said on the tape. "And I'm going to keep going until somebody gets her or I get her -- justice will be done. Believe me."
Lattin says Zerby has never been brought to justice. "No leaders of the family have been brought to justice for this, for what they acknowledge was child abuse. People say, 'why? How could that be?' Well, there's a statute of limitations. A lot of this happened a long time ago and almost all of it happened outside of the U.S. by people who kept constantly changing their names," he said. "So even the victims, the kids themselves, often don't know who abused them."
Zerby remains the spiritual leader of the Family International, though the group refuses or is unable to report her whereabouts. They also continue to deny that Rodriguez suffered any abuse as a child and take no responsibility for his suicide.
Family International spokeswoman Claire Borowik said via e-mail this week that she was unavailable for an interview, referring us her last on-camera comments delivered two years ago to ABC News, just after Rodriguez' death:
Jay Schadler: Why do you think Karen Zerby is nowhere to be found?
Borowik: We don't look on it as nowhere to be found. She's very present in her writings.
Schadler: Do you know where she is?
Borowik: Do I know where … no. Not necessarily, no.
Schadler: You don't? The Pope is a spiritual lead. We know where he is. Karen is a spiritual leader. And we don't know where she is. And her son just committed suicide.
Borowik: I'm aware of that.
Jay: So why don't we know where she is?
Borowik: That's her policy. That's all I can tell you.
Borowik also sent a written statement in response to Lattin's book. It reads, in part,
"Lattin's effort to analyze the life and motives of Ricky Rodriguez and the murder/suicide he committed in 2005 was undoubtedly a challenging task … Although Lattin's book does contain some sound research and factual information, it is laced with inaccuracies, misconceptions and erroneous conclusions lacking a factual base -- not to mention, sketchy research. Information provided by a handful of apostates with a clearly delineated agenda to demonize the Family is deemed credible, whereas information proceeding from current Family members is deemed questionable, at best" (CLICK HERE to read the full statement).
With the group's leader still in hiding, the story of the children of the Children of God remains unfinished. Each child will have to write his or her own ending.