That final Friday night In Tucson, Arizona, January 7th, 2005, the Messiah sat at his kitchen table wearing a maroon muscle shirt, sipping a beer. Sum 41’s new album, Chuck, played in the background. It’s a dark record, and it set the mood Ricky Rodriguez wanted. As midnight approached in the one-bedroom dump on the south side of town, he had a good buzz working.
Crowded on the table in front of Ricky was everything he needed: a Glock .40-caliber handgun, several high-capacity thirteen-round magazines, Golden Sabre hollow-point bullets, a K-Bar Marine Corps knife, an electric drill, a soldering iron, a 775,000-volt stun gun, a large fork, a thick roll of duct tape and a couple of gags. Duct tape wrapped around the drill’s handle would muffle its mechanical whine. Ricky’s dark hair was cut military short. The muscles in his arms bulged as he snapped bullets into magazines. “This is my weapon of choice,” Ricky said, picking up the K-Bar knife and looking into the new video camera he’d set up to record the last night of his life. “I only want it for one purpose. That is for taking out the scum.” For more efficient cutting, he’d filed the K-Bar’s blade to a seventeen-degree angle.
Angry as Ricky was, he also seemed relieved. Finally, he’d get some peace, some revenge and expose his mother, Karen Zerby, leader of one of the most secretive and destructive religious cults of the past 40 years, the Children of God, known today as the Family International. For decades, the group has operated in the shadows around the world, bombarded with allegations that its members practiced sexual and physical abuse in the name of God and engaged in organized pedophilia and incest. Zerby played a central and enthusiastic role in the abuse of young members, Ricky chief among them, even going so far as to have sex with her own son when he was 12.
“My own mother!” Ricky, 29, said into the camera. “That evil cunt. Goddamn! How can you do that to kids? How can you do that to kids and sleep at night?”
By Sunday, two people would be dead. In the weeks that followed, as details emerged of that bloody night in Tucson, a larger story unfolded – that of a charismatic, sex-obsessed father, David Berg, the founder of Children of God; a scheming, deluded mother; and a troubled child who did not want to fulfill his appointed role as savior, the young man who was prophesied to deliver the Family and its members “out of great sorrow and bondage.” In The Story of Davidito, the notorious 762-page cult-produced religious tome that graphically chronicles Ricky’s sexual abuse as a toddler, he is depicted as the Chosen One. It would turn out to be true in ways few could have ever imagined.
In the late 1960s, Karen Elva Zerby was a homely girl with beautiful eyes, looking for love. Lithe, with a bucktoothed smile, she wore a pair of thick glasses and her hair in a wavy bob. “She was sweet, but almost drab,” a friend says. “She had no sparkle.” Partial to farm-style pastel dresses and skirts below her knees, Zerby, at 23, seemed to have one main skill: the ability to take shorthand. In the small towns of Amsterdam, New York, and Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, Zerby had grown up in a strict household, the child of a Presbyterian minister. “Her parents were disciplinarians,” an acquaintance says. “She lived in fear of them.” Zerby’s father didn’t hesitate to use his wide leather belt on Karen, who suffered bruises on her legs and buttocks. A shy loner, she wasn’t allowed to play cards, dance, wear makeup or jewelry, listen to popular music or go to the movies. Evangelical preachers and missionaries who passed through her dad’s church made a deep impression on the naive Zerby, who was fascinated by their tales of saving souls. “As far as any sexual practice went,” Zerby later wrote, “I hardly knew what a penis looked like, except from books.”
The Zerbys moved from the East Coast to Tucson in 1964, Karen’s last year of high school. One January day in 1969, the restless young woman, who had recently left her secretarial job, decided to check out the Full Gospel Business Men’s meeting in Phoenix, attended by thousands of evangelicals. She was especially drawn to a recently formed group from Huntington Beach, California, called Teens for Christ, led by a 50-year-old preacher, David Brandt Berg.
Kicked out as pastor of a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Valley Farms, Arizona, in 1951, on suspicion of sexual misconduct, an angry and bitter Berg wanted to move far away from traditional Christian orthodoxy. What Berg was selling – that the corrupt modern world was doomed and only Jesus could lead a Christian revolution – proved irresistible to hundreds of idealistic young people, Karen Zerby among them. A week after meeting group members, she followed them to Huntington Beach. There, at a coffeehouse called the Light Club, Berg was dispensing his interpretation of the Bible to the hippies congregated in an area then considered the Haight-Ashbury of Southern California.
Reject society, he implored them. With his long white beard and prominent Adam’s apple, Berg evoked a crazed Santa. To his followers, he was mesmerizing. “Who are the real rebels of today?” he asked. “We are the true lovers of peace and love and truth and beauty and God and freedom; whereas you, our parents … are on the brink of destroying and polluting all of us and our world if we do not rise up against you in the name of God and try to stop you.” The hippies were hooked.
They even cheered his apocalyptic musings. America would soon be destroyed, Berg preached, for turning its back on Jesus; Berg himself would be a major figure in the Second Coming. He came to be known to his children as Moses David, or simply Mo.
“Most of us were middle-and upper-middle-class kids who found that chasing materialism didn’t work and felt that there had to be something bigger and more satisfying,” says Vashti, a California teen beauty queen who joined the cult in 1969 and has since left (like many former members, she asked that her last name not be used). “Because we had it all, we were looking for the vacuum to be filled by God. We wanted to change the world.”
“When somebody says they’re speaking for God, your critical-thinking skills shut down,” says Judy, who also joined in 1969, at the age of 20. “God is the ultimate power trip over people’s minds, and Berg had a completely hypnotic way about him.”
Ashes smudged on their foreheads, clad in red sackcloth robes and carrying shepherd’s staffs, members of Teens for Christ hit the streets in cities across America, from New York and Washington, D.C., to Chicago – what they referred to as the “mission field.” Strumming guitars, they handed out stacks of literature to passers-by in exchange for donations. In those early days, money raised on the mission field went primarily to charities. “Our duty is to the lost souls,” intoned Berg, who traveled in a Dodge motor home with his wife, Jane, and their four children, Aaron, Hosea, Deborah and Faithy. A reporter covering the group quoted Matthew 5:9, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.” Berg liked the name, and it stuck.
Though small – about 125 members strong – the group that Karen Zerby joined in ’69 was growing fast and was already well-defined. Berg and his followers lived an ascetic life in their two main bases: a five-story building in L.A. and a ramshackle ranch in West Texas. No premarital sex was allowed – not even dating or kissing or handholding. A “buddy,” assigned to each new member, followed the recruit everywhere, even to the bathroom. Berg named Karen Zerby his personal secretary, and she rarely left his side.
Benevolent as he seemed, Berg ruled as a dictator, centralizing all decision-making power at the top. And he had a blowtorch temper, fueled by alcoholism; Mo often addressed the membership drunk. “Berg convinced himself, and us, that he was the greatest man who ever lived, second to Jesus,” says Sam Ajemian, an early recruit. “You did things his way or you were out. No other opinions were allowed.”
Members separated themselves from society, what they derisively called “the System” – outsiders were “Systemites” – by setting up spartan communal homes, abandoning their past lives and possessions and taking biblical names such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah. Disillusioned with fame, Jeremy Spencer, slide guitarist with the original Fleetwood Mac, left the band abruptly in 1971 to join the Children of God, shaving his head and answering to the name Jonathan. (The late River Phoenix grew up in the group, as did the actress Rose McGowan.)
Sect life was rigidly structured. Mornings began with Bible study. A home leader then announced God’s orders of the day, such as sweeping floors and cooking. Leaving the home for any reason required formal permission. Berg’s goal was simple: absolute control. He ordered Zerby to diet and change her hair and clothing. On Berg’s command, some parents lived separately from their own children.
Unbeknownst to most of his followers, however, Berg was not practicing what he preached. In the late spring of 1968, Berg’s domineering mother, Virginia, had died. Virginia Berg had terrorized her son – viciously beating the youngster after discovering that a maid fondled his penis, and threatening to castrate him as punishment for compulsive masturbating. Now, after years of repression, Berg’s sexuality burst free, and the nature of the group was about to change forever. The catalyst was Karen Zerby.
In April 1969, barely three months after Zerby joined the Children of God, Berg began an affair with her. Blithely, Mo swept aside scriptural morality and embraced polygamy, taking Zerby as a second wife. It all seemed so clear – in the Bible, Solomon, David and Abraham each had more than one wife. Why not Mo, God’s prophet?
By midsummer, Berg had dumped Jane completely after twenty-five years of marriage. He signaled the shift in his teachings in a letter sent out to his followers – one of the first of nearly 3,000 “Mo Letters” written over the next twenty-four years, which arrived with paragraphs numbered like passages from the Bible and were taken as Scripture by the faithful. Berg announced he was replacing the “old church” with the “new church”; “old wine” with “new wine.” God had told him to do this in a prophecy. “Karen was a virgin until that time and starved for attention,” says an ex-member. “This was a relationship like nothing she had never experienced.”
Many other sexualized prophecies followed. Gradually at first, then enthusiastically, Berg’s followers bought his new line, in much the same way that Mormons swallowed founder Joseph Smith’s proclamation that polygamy was the teaching of angels a century earlier. It was a lifestyle that moved them closer to the Almighty. Mo wrote, “If you’ll even take a look at Bible History, you’ll make the shocking discovery that most of God’s greats had oodles of wives, women, mistresses, harlots and what have you!” Leaders of the communal homes took these words to heart, and the sexualization of the group spread. Wife-swapping and orgies became sanctioned and scheduled events – usually controlled by the men. Deborah Berg later recalled, “[My father] was a man imprisoned by his own lusts, consumed with the desire to satisfy self, regardless of the consequences or the lives he would hurt or destroy.” Those lives would come to include hundreds of adults and, in time, children as well.
Inside the Children of God, the more a young woman yielded to Berg, the more “revolutionary” she was considered. “I was so indoctrinated at the time,” says Vashti. “I accepted what Berg did sexually without question.” Even amid an increasingly zealous and unhinged flock, no one seemed more fervent than the former secretary from Tucson. “Karen Zerby bought into Berg’s doctrines and personal practices – heart, mind, body and soul,” a former member says. “Her naiveté was replaced by a recalcitrant, fierce loyalty to him.” Karen Zerby changed her name to Maria; within the group she was affectionately known as Mama Maria.
While the Children of God rejoiced at creating their own insular world, outsiders were less enthralled. After losing contact with their kids, a group of parents began to publicly label the Children of God a brainwashing cult and tried to kidnap their loved ones from the communal homes. Frightened, Berg and Zerby decamped to London in 1972 and established a base in a big, empty factory given them by a British millionaire. In true hippie fashion, Mo announced the move in a letter titled “I Gotta Split!” Berg never lived in the United States again.
To avoid the prying eyes of Systemites, the Family discouraged property ownership of any kind. Berg instructed his flock not to vote, pay taxes or open bank accounts. Home schooling was widely practiced, and few children were educated past high school. From London, as the sexual revolution raged, Berg used his skewed reading of the Bible to justify more extreme displays of free love. Even rank-and-file members were now encouraged to engage in group sex, and younger and younger members were pulled in – teens became fair game.
“God’s in the business of breaking up little selfish private worldly families to make of their yielded broken pieces a larger unit – one family, one wife,” Berg wrote in 1972. From afar, even Berg’s most bizarre sexual dictates were digested as holy gospel. “A man perceived on paper is always more impressive than one known in the flesh,” Deborah Berg later wrote. “The less the disciples saw of Moses David, the more they would reverence the sacred image developed in the Mo Letters.”
Berg broke down almost every sexual barrier. Any cult woman Mo wanted was available to pleasure him. “Berg had his pick of the female followers,” says an ex-member. “He did not hesitate to call for somebody’s wife, somebody’s mother and, eventually, someone’s child. Maria would make sure he had them all.”
During the next two decades, Berg and Zerby lived apart from most of their followers in secret communes. Like nomads, they moved across Europe (Spain, Switzerland, France), South Africa (Cape Town) and the Far East (Japan, Korea). Berg’s location, often a roomy rental property in the suburbs, was the group’s most closely held secret. In that central home, a dozen or so of Berg’s most loyal followers saw to his every need.
Being with Berg reshaped Karen Zerby. The sweet young minister’s daughter morphed into a mean-spirited schemer bent on manipulating Berg and consolidating her power within the group. All paperwork destined for Mo first passed through her hands. “Maria controlled Mo with sex. He was fed by her sex,” says Judy, the former member, who married Berg’s son Aaron. “And she fed him victims to solidify that control, to gain power over him.”
David Berg desperately wanted a male heir to his X-rated throne. The Book of Revelations predicts that two of God’s prophets will emerge at the end time. In Berg’s interpretation, one would be Zerby – the queen. He hoped the other would be his son, the king. Together they would make fire come out of heaven and oppose the Antichrist. This king, Berg told his followers, must be his own creation, “a work of art,” a young man who would obey him unconditionally, something his four children with his former wife, Jane, “the old wine,” never did.
Toward that end – and to bolster recruitment – Berg started preaching a radical new sexual gospel. The first step: Karen Zerby had to take ballroom-dancing lessons. When her footwork was good enough, she hit some London nightspots as bait. Her first catch was an Englishman whom Maria invited into her bed. Later, he took up with another woman in the group, and Maria returned to clubs to seduce other lonely, affluent men and lure them into the cult. So-called flirty fishing was born.
Berg had been inspired by Jesus’ statement in the Bible: “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men.” Soon the most attractive young cult women were trained to approach men in bars and casinos and offer up their bodies in an attempt to convert the targets – or better yet, to enlist their financial support, which often lasted for years. “[God’s] going to put so much love in your heart for them [fish] that you’re going to want to take them to bed,” Berg wrote. The “fish” included Arab oil millionaires, international financiers, military officers. Venereal disease was rampant among the flirty fishers, as were unwanted pregnancies, which produced “Jesus babies” – hardly a surprise since Berg forbade birth control. Some fishers dropped any pretense and worked as prostitutes for escort services. Through it all, group leaders kept careful score. (By the fall of 1988, records show cult women had “loved” 223,311 “fish,” according to “FF Stats.”) Cult women with impressive flirty-fishing track records became known as “Soul Shiners.”
A beautiful young blonde named Miriam Williams flirty-fished for about five years, from 1973 to 1978, in France, Italy and Monaco, and often enjoyed it. “I went around the world with my fish,” says Williams. “I wore Dior dresses, ate good food and drank good wine. I thought I was doing God’s work, sharing his love with other people and changing the world. I didn’t use condoms but never got pregnant, so I thought that was God’s will.” When Williams ended up marrying one of her fish, she quit bedding strangers in the name of the Lord.
Berg moved from London to Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, in 1974, where Zerby led the charge to reel in fish. “Help her Oh God to catch men!” Berg wrote that year. Zerby had sex 137 times with eighteen workers at the Bel Air hotel, where the group stayed. “These sexy men are crazy about Maria!” Berg crowed. “Maria started a lovemaking revolution amongst the help… . It was a totally new field of ministry to us!” After sex with a hotel waiter named Carlos, Maria finally became pregnant. Richard Peter Rodriguez was born on January 25th, 1975.
Although Berg never formally adopted Ricky, he treated him as his son. From the moment of his birth, Ricky, a.k.a. Davidito, was trumpeted as the Messiah who would lead Berg’s flock after the prophet left this earth. “Ricky was the prince; we all grew up reading comic-book stories about his life,” says Gabriella Thomsett, 24, an American who was born into the cult. These comics, hundreds strong, slavishly depicted every detail of Ricky’s life as a toddler and were eagerly devoured by the growing ranks of Children of God faithful around the globe – by now numbering more than 3,000 members, living in 228 communal homes worldwide.
To the true believers, the day-to-day life of Ricky Rodriguez became more familiar and vastly more important than that of their own children.
Ricky may have been the Messiah, but he still had an absentee mom – Zerby was too busy with group business to devote time to child care. That task fell to young cult women, two of whom were elite members of Berg’s flirty-fisher squad. Sara Kelley, a.k.a. Sara Davidito, and, to a lesser extent, Angela Smith, a.k.a. Susan Joy Kauten, were charged with bathing and dressing Ricky, teaching him the ways of the world. Ricky ate the best food, wore the best clothes and almost never left Berg’s home.
Angela was a thin, spacey blonde who had drifted into the cult from her home in Virginia in the early 1970s, at the age of 18, and would spend 30 years as Zerby’s personal secretary. “She was one of those stupid girls who signed up with the cult and ended up being one of the most dedicated, mindless followers of Berg’s inner circle,” says Don Irwin, who was born into the group and later angrily abandoned it. Berg admired Angela for her secretarial skills and her ferocity in the bedroom – he loved that she regularly achieved multiple orgasms – and encouraged her to parade around the homes wearing just panties or completely nude. Unlike Angela, Sara had a seductive exterior that concealed a quick temper and a mean streak. Perhaps the most fanatical of Berg’s disciples, Sara eagerly offered one of her daughters, then a seven-year-old, to Berg for sex. An ex-member says, “Most of the rank-and-file members hated her guts.”
As many would soon learn, Sara and Angela’s teachings went far beyond kid games. In 1982, a shop in Spain printed several thousand copies of a book that was then distributed to group members around the world. Bound in faux leather, illustrated with hundreds of photographs, the 762-page tome meticulously chronicled Ricky’s young life and was intended as a child-rearing manual for families. Its title, The Story of Davidito, was stamped in gold. With its combination of earnest prose and unabashed child pornography, it is perhaps the most disturbing book ever published in the name of religion.
In the book, Ricky, seen at ages between 17 months and three years old, is photographed naked in bed with his nanny Sara, then in her twenties and also nude. One photo shows Ricky suckling the breast of a topless Sara, who lies on her back in a bed, smiling. The caption: ‘We often had milk before bed.”
When Ricky’s encounters with cult women are mentioned in the book, it is said that he “had loved up” with them. Sara wrote, “[Davidito at 20 months old] gets quite excited when I wash his bottom and his penie gets real big and hard. I kiss it all over… he gets so excited he … spreads his legs open for more… When playing on the floor he’ll oftentimes spread his legs open for me to kiss his penis.” And, “We had a nice picnic lunch… right by the riverside near our house. [Davidito] wanted to bring a blanket and a scented candle so that we could make love, but there were too many people around so we didn’t get to the climax.”
This was Ricky’s life. Shortly after he could talk, he watched group-sex sessions; he came to think of such activity as part of a normal, pious existence. By the age of 10, Ricky was put on the “sharing schedules” – lists posted in group homes that dictated when a cult member would have intercourse with a fellow member. “Of course, I didn’t have to have my arm twisted for that,” he later wrote. “But I must say it was a bit awkward – especially since I was much younger than most of them were, and I could tell that a couple of them were uncomfortable with it.” When Ricky turned twelve, Berg assigned him an adult “girlfriend,” a cult woman named Bonnie.
Meanwhile, pedophilia spread through the upper ranks of the group, which by now had been rechristened, with an apparent lack of irony, the Family of Love. “I don’t know what the hell age has to do with it when God made’m able to enjoy it practically from the time they’re born!” wrote Berg in a Mo Letter.
Berg continued to push the sexual envelope even further – to incest – and urged other senior members to follow his lead. Deborah Berg resisted her father’s advances as a young adult; Faithy, however, who bore a striking resemblance to her father, did not. Mo masturbated her when she wasn’t yet ten.
In the 1980s, girls as young as nine danced in see-through caftans and stripped for their leader as a camera rolled. One of those dancers was a dark-haired little girl known in the cult as Armendria, who befriended Ricky as a teenager and reconnected with him toward the end of his life. Berg had sex with her when she was about 13.
In a home on the outskirts of Manila, another sexual hurdle fell, one that, more than any other, would stoke Ricky’s fury at Karen Zerby. It was there, around 1987, when Ricky was about twelve, that he had sexual intercourse with his mother. Davida Kelley, then 11, lay on the bed next to them that day, having sexual contact with David Berg. Kelley, who is the daughter of Sara Davidito, recalls, “It shocked me, because as far as I knew [Zerby] wasn’t having any sexual interaction with any of the children in the home up until that time.” (The story is “a total lie,” says Family spokeswoman Claire Borowik.)
As a prince, Ricky filled a role, which bothered him as he grew older. “Ricky knew that Berg and Maria never loved him unconditionally,” a friend says. “Everybody to them was a puppet – Ricky included.” And even in private moments with his mother, he saw that she had hardened into a fearsome personality: cold, manipulative, terrifying. “Maria lost all concept of compassion,” says Honey, Berg’s secretary before Zerby.
As he moved through his teen years, Ricky began to feel weighed down – not just by the unwelcome scrutiny brought upon him by the distribution of the Davidito book but also by his doubts over Berg’s increasingly erratic behavior. He was particularly upset by how Berg treated his granddaughter, Merry Berg, known in the Family as Mene. (Her father, Berg’s son Aaron, had committed suicide in 1973 at the age of twenty-five.) It seemed to mark a turning point in Ricky’s attitude toward his parents and the cult they presided over.
By the age of 11, in 1983, Mene was drinking wine and watching adult videos at a Family facility in Greece. Later at his compound in the Philippines, a drunken Berg repeatedly fondled her while Zerby watched. Mene slept in a walk-in closet adjacent to Berg’s bedroom. Years later, in an e-mail to a friend, Ricky wrote, “[Mene’s] own grandfather, under the guise of bringing her into his home to be a ‘safe haven,’ really just wanted to get into her pants, because, after all, he liked doing his daughters so much, the granddaughter must be all that much more exciting.” Another of Mene’s sex partners was Ricky.
Says Don Irwin, who is Mene’s brother, “Mene’s first experience with full intercourse was with Ricky at the age of 12. This was orchestrated by Berg, who wanted Ricky to get her pregnant. Ricky told me that Berg wanted to continue his family line through his granddaughter.”
But Zerby grew jealous. “She was worried that Mene would become Mo’s next wife,” says Irwin. And so, in a Family practice called Teen Training, Mene suffered vicious physical abuse, at Zerby’s direction. In Macau, Mene was locked in a room for six months. She was tied to a bed and beaten, thrown against walls and even forced to undergo multiple exorcisms. Sara Davidito often supervised the abuse, sometimes assaulting Mene herself.
“Mene would cry, and they would just beat her more,” says Sarafina, a former cult member who left in 1991, at the age of 18. “Every day, Ricky would see new cuts or bruises on her. She’d ask him for help, but he couldn’t do anything everyone knew about it or was in on it.
“Ricky told me he had nightmares of seeing Mene screaming in the basement.”
Eventually, in the early Nineties, Mene was institutionalized in Texas. Today she is a frail 33-year-old, addicted to methamphetamine, turning tricks on Southern California beaches and struggling to stay alive. “She’s just given up on life,” Mene’s mother says. “She’s committing suicide without committing suicide. She’s doing it slowly.”
As word of Berg’s more egregious practices spread outside the group, he ordered some changes in Family policy. In 1986, he instituted a ban on adult/minor sex. The following year he called a halt to flirty fishing, ostensibly because of the AIDS crisis, and in 1991, Berg directed that copies of the Davidito book be destroyed.
Every time law-enforcement agencies around the world came after the Family, its leaders worked hard to duck accountability. Investigations in Argentina, Italy, Australia, Spain, France and the Philippines brought bad publicity and resulted in the temporary removal of hundreds of children from group homes. In each case, however, charges were eventually dropped due to lack of evidence. According to sources, the Family was by that time communicating via military-grade encrypted e-mail.
The largest investigation of the group took place in England in the early 1990s, when the grandmother of a young boy living with his mother in the Family petitioned a British jurist, Lord Justice Ward, for custody. Ward ordered a sweeping investigation of Family doctrines and activities, and personally interviewed a number of abuse victims, Mene included, finding the torture she suffered to be “barbaric and cruel.” The judge, however, found that the Family had sufficiently cleaned up its act and allowed the boy to remain in his mother’s care.
By now, Berg’s health was failing. Intestinal problems plagued him, and his mind was going. Behind the scenes, Zerby took over the drafting of Mo Letters. By all accounts, she reveled in the extra authority. “Maria turned into a power-happy maniac,” a former member says.
Berg spent his final years at a secret compound in Portugal. By 1993, when Ricky was 19, the Family claimed a membership of 12,000 in 70 countries. As always, Ricky was kept close to his mother, coddled and sheltered.
The following year, Moses David died at the age of 75 of unspecified causes and was buried in Costa da Caparica, Portugal. In a smooth transition, Mama Maria took over Family leadership, alongside her longtime lover Peter Amsterdam, a bearded, bespectacled native of New York, who adopted the moniker “King Peter” and who is thought to control the group’s finances. Like Berg, Zerby lived in hiding. And she became intoxicated with her ability to exert her will over the flock. Based on a “Loving Jesus” revelation Zerby claims she received in 1995, Family members were taught that Jesus wants to have sex with them; when masturbating, men were instructed to visualize themselves as women so that Jesus could make love to them.
Ricky became increasingly mortified by The Story of Davidito – he objected when anyone called him by that name. “Davidito had always been a freak show, and his mom made him that way,” says James Penn, a senior cult leader who left the Family in 1998. Davidito was Berg’s creation, a Messiah to order, and Ricky now wanted no part of the plan. Also, Ricky began to realize that the sexual sweepstakes he’d been part of was nothing close to normal.
During a brief visit to a Family home outside Budapest in 1995, Ricky met and fell in love with a voluptuous, dark-haired 17-year-old girl, Elixcia Munumel, who had left Ecuador at the age of 14 at the direction of her father, a cult leader based in England. In Budapest, Ricky encountered something else that altered his sheltered world: a dose of reality. “Ricky was always the chosen one, but we didn’t treat him that way,” says Tiago, a former Family member who met Ricky there. “We thought of him as someone who needed a friend.”
Ricky seemed happy in the Budapest home, where rigid Family rules tended to be far looser. “He loved his newfound freedom,” says Tiago. “He loved being away from that domineering mother.”
At 20, Ricky left Budapest for Russia, where he bombed around in Family-owned vans. “Rick had the time of his life, partying and staying out as late as he wanted,” a friend recalls. “It was something new: People actually liked him for who he was, not who he was supposed to be.” Humble and soft-spoken, Ricky never acted like a little prince. For a time, he came to life.
But it wouldn’t last: Zerby ordered him to return to the compound in Portugal. Only when she grudgingly allowed her son to bring Elixcia did Ricky assent.
“With Rick mingling with the general population now, Zerby was very worried that he was talking openly about all the sexual excesses and pedophilia he grew up with,” an ex-member says. “He was starting to talk to people, and word got back to her. That’s why she called him back.”
As he headed back to Mama Maria’s compound, Ricky was in turmoil. He questioned the Family’s approach to religion and thought of leaving the cult. “Deep down inside, he didn’t believe in all the prayer and the trusting in God,” Tiago says. “In fact, Ricky had stopped believing in God.”
But walk away from the Family? Ricky knew that children of early members had fared disastrously after leaving the cult behind. Alcoholism was common. Female members had drifted into stripping and prostitution. And, in recent years, a wave of suicides decimated this damaged collection of young people who seemed to find living in the System too much to bear. Josh Lykins, who left the Family at the age of 18 after suffering physical abuse, shot himself in the head on January 26th, 1999, in Show Low, Arizona. Ben Farnsworth, the son of a top Family leader, jumped to his death from the roof of a building in Hong Kong. Family leadership puts the number of suicides in the past 13 years at 10, but its detractors count at least 31.
Still, cult leaders taught that there were things worse than death. “Ever since childhood,” an ex-member says, “you were told it would be spiritual suicide to leave.”
Ricky was miserable living at Zerby’s home in Portugal, and he formulated a plan to leave the Family. With Elixcia, he would forge a new life in the System. He would try to right some of the wrongs he had witnessed over the years and try to bring some of the prime abusers, the Family leadership, to justice in some way. If he couldn’t, he told friends, he’d kill himself.
Problem was, Ricky had few skills and little money. “Growing up in modern society is an education in and of itself,” a friend says. “You learn how to interact with people. You don’t learn that in the cult. You’re virtually inbred. You have no preparation for college or for marriage.”
Ricky took up pentjak silat, an ancient form of self-defense. He visited other communal homes in Canada, England and Venezuela, but nothing seemed to motivate him except the prospect of revenge.
“I had to act different parts and play different roles all my life, and I was just plain tired of it,” Ricky wrote to one of the Family’s top leaders on November 26th, 2000. A month later, in an e-mail to a former leader, Ricky’s tone darkened: “I didn’t appreciate being treated like a commodity by my mother… Some days I have come so close to snapping and going back to their compound – but not for a social visit and not as a repentant prodigal, but as an avenger. I don’t see why I should have to pay for their sins.”
Ricky formally broke from the Family a few weeks later and moved to Tacoma, Washington, to look for work. For a while, an embarrassed Zerby kept Ricky’s departure a secret from Family members.
Life in Tacoma, meanwhile, did not turn out to be the fresh start Ricky had hoped for. As much as he detested the Family, he struggled outside its support system. Unemployed, he crashed at friends’ apartments, sleeping on the floor. Zerby sent him $500 a month, which disappeared quickly. For three months, Ricky signed onto a fishing boat out of Alaska but hated the job, calling it “my idea of hell.”
Elixcia joined him in Tacoma in 2001. She and Ricky married and found a tiny apartment in a low-rent neighborhood. The young couple was so unsophisticated, they were baffled to learn that the place didn’t come with furniture. ‘We had no credit, no driving records, no renter’s history,” Elixcia says. ‘We didn’t know how to write checks.”
Ricky drifted through menial jobs and grew more depressed. “I’m not going anywhere with this,” he said to Elixcia. “I’m better than this. I’ve got a brain.”
An ad for an electrician’s apprentice caught his eye in 2002. It was an occupation, finally, that Ricky enjoyed. He worked for $12 an hour and took classes at night. Ricky and Elixcia concealed their cult backgrounds from their new circle of friends.
“Ricky wanted to get away from everything,” says Elixcia, who found a job as a secretary for a logging firm. “He stopped talking to most of his old friends. But when he talked about Karen, his blood would just boil.”
Ricky quit socializing. When he wasn’t working, he stayed home. “I can’t let go of my past,” Ricky explained. “Maybe we should see somebody,” Elixcia said. “A psychiatrist.”
Ricky chuckled mordantly. “If anyone listened to me, they would stick me in a crazy house,” he said. Ricky had an overpowering fear of being institutionalized, as Mene had been. It was one of his recurring nightmares.
Coming home from work one day last spring, Ricky had a car accident on the freeway. It was only a fender bender, but something in him snapped. “I’m just existing,” he told Elixcia. “I just don’t want to do this anymore. I have to go. I’ve got things I need to take care of.” In June 2004, Ricky packed up and left.
Alone, he drifted to San Diego and stayed with two former Family members, both now 31: Armendria and Sarafina, a glamorous redhead who works as an office manager for a commercial sport-fishing business. Sarafina had left the cult, but her uncle, known within the Family as Gabe, still holds a senior position. Gabe has been one of Zerby’s closest confidants for years.
Another pair of former cult members, Anneke Schieberl and her husband, Ron, owned a contracting company and took Ricky on as an electrician. Ricky threw himself into the gig and seemed calm and pleasant. Below the surface, though, his anger burned and grew. “Every single moment of every single day, I think about how to pay them back,” Ricky told Anneke.
Ricky chose not to go to the authorities. “He felt no one would listen; his story was 20 years old,” Anneke says. “He wanted a way to get everyone’s attention.”
Ricky hoped to locate Gabe, who lived in the area, or at the very least to spy on the Family Care Foundation, a charity organization that is a front for the sect. He also wanted to gather intelligence about Zerby. Ricky adopted a conciliatory, even complimentary tone with Family members he spoke to, hoping to lure the leaders out of hiding. “Ricky went on a public-relations push,” Sarafina says. Instead of ranting against his mother, he spoke respectfully of her to any cult member he came across.
“Ricky was looking for connections,” says Tiago, his friend from Budapest, in whom Ricky confided in hours-long phone conversations during his final weeks. “Suicide was always on my mind in regards to Ricky. Murder? No.”
Throughout that last summer in San Diego, Ricky worked out daily, as if training for a mission. Sarafina kept him busy and distracted, sailing and jet-skiing, things he’d never done before. Back in Tacoma, Elixcia enrolled in nursing classes and talked to her husband regularly by phone.
Armendria grew worried: “I saw something in his eyes that scared me.”
One day in August, Ricky phoned his grandparents – Karen Zerby’s parents – in Tucson and learned a fact that froze him in his tracks. The previous Christmas they’d received a rare visit from their daughter, the ever-elusive Mama Maria. Ricky wondered if she might come back again.
By now, Angela Smith had started a new life. No longer sequestered in Family homes as she had been for three decades, Smith had moved to Palo Alto, California, fallen in love with a local contractor and found a job in a Restoration Hardware store. Though it has been reported that Smith left the cult, she remained in close contact with its leaders, including Karen Zerby, and sat on the board of directors of Elderhaven, a small nursing home owned by Zerby’s parents in Tucson.
Through his connections with former cult members, Ricky learned that Smith occasionally visited Tucson.
And so, last August, Ricky left San Diego and moved to Tucson, staying at first with his aunt, Rosemary Kanspedos, Zerby’s sister, who shuns the cult. Life in the Kanspedos house, full of children, was wonderfully chaotic. Ricky slept on the sofa and marveled at the affection that suffused the home. “I never knew that a family could be like this,” he said.
Ricky eventually took a $450-a-month apartment in a crummy complex in a bleak, ignored section of the city. A local electrician, Mark Flynn, hired him at $15 an hour.
Ricky’s work ethic impressed Flynn. When Flynn tried to give him a raise, Ricky flatly refused. “If you give me another buck an hour,” he said, “I’ll quit.” When Flynn asked about his background, Ricky said he’d “traveled with missionaries.”
Rosemary Kanspedos watched her nephew with trepidation. “I always knew I’d lose him,” she says. “He told me a couple of days before he died that he couldn’t go on. I wanted to lessen his pain, and I couldn’t.”
Ricky’s big break happened early this January, when Angela Smith showed up in Tucson. Apparently convinced that Ricky was feeling more sympathetic toward the Family, she agreed to meet for dinner. If anybody knew where Karen Zerby lived, Ricky thought, it was Smith, his mother’s former secretary.
On Thursday, January 6th, Ricky asked Mark Flynn if he could take Friday off, something he’d never done before. Flynn agreed. That weekend, also for the first time, Ricky didn’t take his tools home. “I’ll get ’em Monday,” he told his boss.
Ricky began drinking late the following night. He’d set up the Hi-8 camera. Sum 41 was pumping.
“Where is our apology? They’re not even fucking sorry,” Ricky said, as he took stock of his weapons. “All of a sudden to hear one day, ‘Guess what? [Karen is] fucking dead. Yeah, somebody went into [her] house or [her] fucking motor home or whatever, and poured gasoline on [her], lit a match and had a fucking barbecue.’ Wow, can you imagine? … I would be able to go on with my life.
“I’ve tried for four years,” Ricky said. “Sure, it’s not long. Feels like a fucking lifetime. Every fucking day has been a little worse than the day before.
“It’s a need for revenge. It’s a need for justice. Because I can’t go on like this.”
Ricky called his old friend Tiago at his home in New Mexico and promised to send the video he’d just made. But he wouldn’t give any hints about its contents.
“Did you find your mom?” Tiago asked.
“I found the solution,” Ricky said. “It’s all in the video.”
“Dude, you really sound happy for a change,” said Tiago, suspicious.
“Yeah, I’m drunk,” Ricky said.
Dressed in black pants and a gray top, Angela Smith came to Ricky’s small south Tucson apartment the next day. Ricky talked about the abuses he suffered and the pain that would not go away. But Smith didn’t seem to get it, couldn’t understand Ricky’s anger at the Family and his mother. No one knows if Ricky asked Smith to reveal Zerby’s whereabouts, or if she refused. What is known is that Ricky picked up his K-Bar knife and stabbed Smith at least five times, spilling her blood on the cheap carpet and on his own clothes. For good measure, Ricky also drew the knife, with its customized blade, across Smith’s throat. One of Smith’s shoes flew off during the struggle. When it was over, Ricky tossed the K-Bar under the living-room sofa and fled the apartment.
Wearing black Skechers shoes, jeans and a dark gray T-shirt, Ricky slid behind the wheel of his silver Chevy Cavalier and sped north on I-10, into the desert, toward Phoenix. Driving, he called Elixcia several times on his cell phone. The first call came at 7:15 p.m.
“Killing somebody is harder than I thought it would be,” a shaken Ricky told his wife. Even as Smith was bleeding to death, Ricky told Elixcia, she still had no idea that she’d done anything wrong. Elixcia called the Lakewood Police Department near her home to report the murder but was brushed off as providing unreliable information.
At a rest stop, Ricky called Elixcia again, crying. “No, I don’t want to die here,” he said. “There’s too much light. I don’t feel comfortable.”
In the town of Blythe, California, between 10 p.m. and midnight, Ricky checked into a Holiday Inn Express, paying $100 for Room 109. There, he showered and polished off some beers and beef jerky. Returning to his car, Ricky drove three quarters of a mile and parked in the driveway of the Palo Verde Irrigation District office, in an industrial area.
It was coming up on 2 a.m. Ricky stopped calling Elixcia. He put down his phone in the Cavalier’s center console, raised the Glock to his right temple and pulled the trigger.
Five hours later, a man arriving for work noticed the car and Ricky slumped in the driver’s seat, blood on his left ear. Detective Sgt. Jeff Wade of the Blythe Police Department responded. Peering into the car, Wade saw a cell phone on the right front passenger seat, plugged into the lighter. At 9:49, just after the coroner arrived, the cell phone rang. Wade answered.
“Is he dead?” Elixcia asked immediately. Not yet able to make a positive identification of the body in front of him, Wade told Elixcia that he was simply investigating the death of a male subject. Elixcia exploded into hysterical crying.
Shell-shocked ex-Family members speculated about Ricky’s intentions. Most believed he wanted to kill Zerby but settled for Angela Smith. Some felt certain that after the murder he was headed to San Diego, to kill senior Family officials, including Gabe; the fact that he ended up in Blythe simply indicated he’d taken a wrong turn. Speculation also centered on Sara Davidito, one of Ricky’s chief abusers, who lived in Texas. Friends now say Ricky had originally planned to kill her instead of Smith but was talked out of it; killing Sara would leave her children without their mother. (Sara Davidito is believed to be hiding in Mexico.)
Family leadership immediately began a public campaign to disparage their dead Messiah, portraying him as falling under the spell of disgruntled ex-members. Spokeswoman Claire Borowik called Ricky “an obviously disturbed young man acting out his misplaced anger.”
As this story went to press, the Family’s spin machine, based in Washington, D.C., swept into overdrive. A flurry of e-mails arrived at Rolling Stone‘s offices, purportedly from members around the world, extolling the group. “I have everything that my heart could desire, and throughout the course of life, living as a missionary has taught me many priceless lessons,” wrote Nyx Martinez. “I count myself luckier than other 24-year-olds.” Lorie Richards, 29, who has lived in 15 countries, wrote, “I have been blessed with a type of ‘world education’ that few have the opportunity to enjoy.”
Stilted and robotic in their writing, the messages also reeked of denial. Wrote Vas Myers, from Mexico City, “I think the allegations of abuse [directed at Family leaders] are absurd and unfounded.”
A grieving Mark Flynn opened his mailbox in Tucson two days after the murder to find a two-page handwritten note from his one-time star employee. “I don’t want to live in a world where perverts as sick as those get away with it, are not sorry in the least and then call us the bad guys for being angry at it,” Ricky wrote. “Bush and Kerry stood up there during election time and both talked repeatedly about ‘hunting the terrorists down and killing them.’ Well, my question is, what kind of terrorism is worse than molesting, raping and torturing little children?”
Zerby’s exact whereabouts remain unknown. Sources say that after the murder she quickly fled wherever she was last living and may have moved to New Mexico or Colorado, hunkered down in an RV. “Karen Zerby is going to have to run and hide now more than ever,” says James Penn, her former senior aide.
For years, by remaining out of sight and unphotographed, Zerby, like Berg before her, had helped fuel her mystery and her power. All that changed in March, two months after the violence, when, in an unprecedented breach of security, recent pictures of Zerby were posted on an anti-Family Web site, xfamily.org. The photos were apparently taken by a traitor in her inner circle. Wearing a shimmering purple silk dress with a plunging neckline, smiling a blissful, toothy smile beneath a pair of unstylish eyeglasses, her long silver hair falling past her shoulder blades, Zerby looks like an aging Deadhead, somebody you’d bump into at a co-op in Marin County, California. For many Family members, it was the first picture they had seen of Zerby in more than 20 years.
Then Mama Maria fought right back. She put up a Web site of her own, RickyRodriguez.com, chock-full of never-before-seen photos of Ricky as a child, grinning and playing. The Lord, Zerby reported, had talked to her directly about her dead son: “I know He’ll take care of you for me … until we meet again.”