Richard P. Rodriguez
Rodriguez, circa 2000
David Moses Zerby
25 January 1975
|Died||9 January 2005 (aged 29)|
Blythe, California, U.S.
|Known for||Son of cult leader, perpetrator in murder-suicide|
Richard P. Rodriguez (25 January 1975 – 9 January 2005), who was formerly known as David Moses Zerby, was a Spanish-American former member of a religious cult called The Family who murdered his alleged childhood sexual abuser and then committed suicide.
Rodriguez and his parents David Berg and Karen Zerby, both of whom were cult group leaders, traveled across the world while they were members of the cult, which was formerly known as Children of God (COG). Berg believed Rodriguez was called upon to become a prophet during the biblical End Times. During his early childhood, Rodriguez was brought up in a heavily promiscuous environment and was sexually abused by numerous people, including a cohort of nannies, as described in the COG-published document titled "The Davidito Book". In 1999, he married, left The Family and went to live in the United States but he struggled to adjust to life outside the cult and sought revenge for his abuse. Rodriguez left his wife in Tacoma, Washington, and traveled across the U.S. in an attempt to find Zerby. After learning his former nanny Angela M. Smith was in Tucson, Arizona, he stayed with people he knew there until he settled in an apartment. On January 7, 2005, he recorded a video, saying he needed to take retribution for abuse in The Family—including his own—alluding to murder. The next day, Rodriguez invited Smith to his home for dinner, where he stabbed her to death before driving to Blythe, California, and committing suicide.
The Family urged its members to disregard media reports about Rodriguez and Smith, and a spokesperson for the group said reports neglected to show Smith as a victim. Former members' reactions to the death ranged from calling it "a monumental event" in the group's history to a devastating situation that was "the only way anybody's listening" to stories of abuse within The Family. Experts on cults noted Rodriguez's anger towards The Family was understandable but that the murder was unjustified. Cult specialist Rick Alan Ross regarded Rodriguez's case as an example of someone who suffered in "one of the most horrifically abusive and destructive cults in American history".
Early life in the Children of God
Richard P. Rodriguez was born on January 25, 1975, in Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain, as David Moses Zerby. His mother was Karen Zerby, the spiritual leader of the religious cult Children of God (COG), and his father was a hotel waiter named Carlos whom Zerby "Flirty Fished", a practice in which female cult members would have sex with men to draw in potential converts. Rodriguez was unofficially adopted by David Berg, the group's founder and Zerby's husband, and was dubbed the name "Davidito" and was often referred to as "the prince". Rodriguez's legal name was changed multiple times as he traveled across the world with Berg and Zerby. However, no official adoption by them ever took place, and he was cared for by "nannies", young female members of the group. He was also raised alongside Techi, Zerby's daughter. On May 2, 1978, Berg declared in a publication that Rodriguez and Zerby would one day have the power to "call down fire from Heaven and devour their enemies". He also predicted they would both be killed and raised from the dead "3 1⁄half days" later, and Rodriguez would go on to guide followers as a prophet during the biblical End Times. Many who knew Rodriguez said he grew shy and uncomfortable around group members because his status as a prophet made him prominent.
Sexual abuse and aftermath
While growing up in the COG, Rodriguez was frequently exposed to adults engaging in sexual intercourse at Berg's home as part of the group members' sexual "sharing". When he was 10 months old, Zerby and Berg asked Sara, one of Rodriguez's nannies, to start creating a document titled "The Davidito Book" (also referred to as The Story of Davidito). The book contains descriptions of sexual interactions between the child Rodriguez and adults, most of which was previously sent out to members in the form of pamphlets called Davidito letters. The 762-page document also included pictures of him with naked teenage girls and being present during the group's orgies. One of his nannies, Angela M. Smith, who was also Zerby's personal secretary, was included in the pictures, in one of which she is undoing his pants; the picture is captioned "Undressing ... for Sue!" (Smith). The material also contained captions and text written by Berg commenting on the situation in a sexual manner. Berg later ordered "Davidito" and similar documents that had been created to be purged or references to sex removed but former members were able to establish its existence by distributing the material via email.
Davida Kelley, who lived with Berg from the age of 13, said Rodriguez was sexually abused "[by] all the adult women. Most of them, at least", including Zerby. According to an article by the Los Angeles Times, Berg reportedly had sex with numerous female members of the group; in an effort to prepare Rodriguez to do the same when he became leader, he was put into "teen training", in which he would have sex with multiple older teenage females every afternoon.
In 1986, the COG, which was now called The Family (eff. 1978), banned sex between minors and adults along with Flirty Fishing. Berg died in 1994 and Zerby, alongside her then-husband Peter Amsterdam, took full leadership of the cult. A British court, headed by Lord Justice Ward, issued a verdict during an investigation related to a 1995 UK trial, stating that the Davidito book was an example of Berg's promotion of pedophilia within the group, and that the leadership considered it a guidebook for adult-child relationships. Amsterdam, as ordered by Ward, distanced the Family from Berg's writings on child upbringing.
Departure from The Family
In 1996, Rodriguez moved to a Family-owned home in Budapest, Hungary, where he met Elixcia Munumel, who returned with him to Zerby's home in Oporto, Portugal, and lived with him there. In 1999, the couple told Zerby they were going to The Family's compound in Mexico, but instead, Munumel went to England and Rodriguez went to the United States. Rodriguez stayed at the non-for-profit charity The Family Care Foundation's headquarters in Dulzura, San Diego. Rodriguez sold a car Zerby had given him so Munumel could meet him in Tacoma, Washington. Rodriguez and Munumel married in a minister's home; according to Munumel, they struggled with finances and experience in the outside world, and moved into a low-rent apartment. Rodriguez took a job on a fishing boat in Alaska, began to take knife-based martial arts lessons, and spent time at a shooting range while trying to obtain a gun permit.
Resentment towards Family leaders
According to The Family, Rodriguez officially left the cult to pursue his education and he remained on good terms with it. According to Munumel, however, when they first met in Budapest, Rodriguez began having reservations about Berg's teachings, which noticeably contradicted the Bible, and expressed his frustrations to her about the group as a whole. She said he heard stories from former members and carried guilt because of his position as a future leader of The Family, which he felt contributed to the abuse of other children. Rodriguez' friend Celeste Jones also said he felt angry because "there was no justice" to apprehend abusers in The Family and that he pretended that he was not angry around members of the group; according to the Tucson Citizen, however, Rodriguez became more vocal around the time he started talking to former members.
In 2002, Rodriguez made a post on the website "Moving On" accusing Berg of abusing his daughters and granddaughter in the Phillipines, and describing Zerby as apathetic and violent towards them. He also mentioned his 'teen training' in most of his posts on the site. Rodriguez met ex-member Sarah Martin, who became his friend on the site. Martin said Rodriguez "carried this huge weight on his shoulders", never got over the 'Davidito' prophecy and felt he had a need to "put an end" to Zerby's abuse. Rodriguez also said he thought about suicide since his "teen training" and that he hoped the group's leader's "evil legacy will die with the Family". In a similar 2004 post, he said he realized he could not move on because "the first 25 years of my life will always haunt me", with the end of his post asking those "who have nothing to lose, such as myself" to help him with a plot for revenge. He also told his martial arts teacher Kevin Schmitt he had considered murdering members of The Family in the past. Rodriguez's friend Daniel Nathan Roselle, who was also a member of the cult, advised Rodriguez' of legal recourse in 2004 but Rodriguez was mostly concerned with finding Zerby and Amsterdam.
Search for Zerby, murder of Angela Smith, and suicide
Zerby, and other Family members, had their locations isolated and their names kept secret with pseudonyms. Rodriguez, according to Munumel, spent years trying to find Zerby and his half-sister, Techi, who he wanted to take out of The Family. In summer of 2004, Rodriguez left Munumel. Later, they both separated, but according to her they continued to talk "every day". Rodriguez traveled to San Diego, where he met Martin in person. Rodriguez had staked out a branch of the Family Care Foundation, according to Martin, who also said Rodriguez noticed Smith served on board the charity, in addition to being a member of Elderhaven, a nursing home his grandparents ran, in Tucson, Arizona. According to a statement made later by Munumel, Rodriguez also heard Zerby and Techi were going to visit his grandparents there at Elderhaven, during Christmas of 2003. He stayed with his aunt, Rosemary Kanspedos, and her family in Tucson for a month. He also received a job as an electrician. His boss, electrical contractor Mark Flynn, and his wife, said he never gave him details about his prior life.
On January 7, 2005 Rodriguez made a videotape recording in his (North Side Tucson) apartment in which he discusses his thoughts of suicide and his desire for revenge, describing himself as a vigilante. Rodriguez shows numerous weapons and devices such as his Glock 23 pistol, KA-BAR knife, a drill, a soldering iron, and duct tape, some of which he says are for torture. As he stocks magazines, he compares his struggle against Zerby's abuse to a war and states his intent to make her pay. He says if he does not find her before he dies, he "will keep hunting her in the next life" or someone else will "pick up the torch". Rodriguez alludes to Smith as a person he intends to kill and predicts his upcoming attempt at retribution will result in conflict with law enforcement but states he has respect towards and does not intend to harm the police. He also confirms his 2004 post on "Moving On" was aimed at recruiting someone to help carry out his plan and says he is happy no-one with "nothing to lose" contacted him. After recording the video, Rodriguez called Celeste Jones and told her of his suicidal thoughts. She encouraged him to testify in a legal case and said "things will be taken seriously". Rodriguez told Jones he did not believe her. Rodriguez sent the video to Munumel, two of his family members, and Martin.
The next day, Rodriguez invited Smith to dinner in his apartment. After Smith arrived, Rodriguez stabbed her several times in the arm then slit her throat. Rodriguez left his apartment and drove to Blythe, California, where he arrived at midnight. He rented a motel room and began to call his family members in Lakewood, Washington, notifying them of a body in his apartment. Rodriguez pulled into a parking lot near 14th Avenue, from where he called Munumel, told her he had killed Smith, and asked her to call the police. He also told Munumel he had killed Smith to avenge his sister Techi and those still in The Family rather than himself. He said Smith "didn't understand what she had done wrong" as she was dying. Rodriguez called the murder "the hardest thing I ever did in my life" and said it did not make him feel better. Munumel also said Rodriguez pleaded with her to commit suicide with him then said goodbye to her and hung up. At roughly 2 a.m., Rodriguez shot himself in the head with his handgun.
Investigation and memorial
At 8 a.m., a Palo Verde Irrigation District employee who had seen Rodriguez' body in his car with a gunshot wound to his head called the Blythe Police. The police detective thought Rodriguez had only committed suicide but he answered Munumel's call to Rodriguez' cell phone and she told him of the murder. Blythe Police then notified Tucson Police Department officers of Smith's body in Rodriguez' apartment. Aside from his video, Rodriguez left no suicide note. Detective Sgt. Mark Fuller, who was in charge of the homicide investigation, assumed Rodriguez had killed Smith because she was responsible for his abuse but because of scant details about her involvement in his childhood, at the time of the murder authorities could not ascertain the real motive. According to the police, there was no evidence Smith was tortured for information on the whereabouts of Zerby. Tucson Police Department spokesman Sgt. Carlos Valdez said Smith died shortly before her body was recovered and that Rodriguez left for Blythe 12 hours prior. Smith's birth name was Susan Joy Kauten; her name-change would have delayed the notification of her death to her family if she was not carrying her cell phone, which gave her birth name.
A memorial for Rodriguez was held in San Diego on March 26, 2005. In her eulogy, Munumel said while Rodriguez "chose a path that no one could share with him", he knew she loved him. More than 100 people who had been associated with The Family attended the service.
Response to murder-suicide
Researchers, ex-members, and outsiders
Stephen A. Kent, a professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Alberta, said while Rodriguez was unjustifiable in the murder, one "can understand his frustration and rage" because "he and others from that generation" had never seen justice "from all the abuse they suffered". Rick Alan Ross from the Cult Education Institute was unsurprised by Rodriguez' actions. Ross, who interviewed numerous former members of The Family, including Berg's daughter and granddaughter, noted that Rodriguez reflected the many suicides of those who suffered "tremendous amount of pain" from being in "one of the most horrifically abusive and destructive cults in American history". Don Lattin, a journalist and author who spent two years studying Rodriguez' motives for the murder, published a book called "Jesus Freaks". He believed Rodriguez was a "time bomb" waiting to go off because he showed anger and guilt for other victims' abuse. According to Lattin, the abuse was not accounted for because "there's a statute of limitations. A lot of this happened a long time ago outside of the U.S. by people who kept constantly changing their names ... So even the victims, the kids themselves, often don't know who abused them".
Daniel Nathan Roselle was sad rather than angry the murder-suicide took place. He said; "the only way anybody's listening" to the stories of abuse within the group "is that Rick and Angela died". He also said Rodriguez' suicide brought the total of suicides in his peer group to 30, but that he considered Rodriguez' abuse to be one of the worst cases from The Family. John LaMattery, a former second-generation leader, said Rodriguez' death was "a monumental event" in the group's history and predicted The Family would "spin it" in an attempt to disregard unfulfilled prophecies, saying the cult was in "damage control". He also believed Rodriguez killed Smith because he could not find Zerby. After Rodriguez' death, former members of The Family made similar allegations of abuse. For example, Juliana Buhring, co-author of the book Not Without My Sister (which details her family's experiences within the cult), mentioned that most of the children she and people like Rodriguez grew up with in the cult were sexually abused. She empathized with the rage he felt, especially when he had "no closure" and "no restitution" to it.
Numerous members of the website "Moving On" expressed their concerns about the incident. Editors of the website described the situation as "a horrible tragedy, and something that we sincerely hope is never repeated". Staff at Palo Alto's Restoration Hardware, Smith's workplace remembered her as a kind person and her boss stated; "There was nothing creepy about Angela". The non-profit Safe Passage Foundation was established partially as a result of Rodriguez' suicide in an aim to protect minors from "high-demand organisations", and to provide them with support and resources to leave those groups.
In an internal memo, Zerby told followers of The Family reporters were trying to "make Ricky look like a hero and role model" rather than a perpetrator of a crime. In another memo, which was sent to an estimated 12,000 followers, Peter Amsterdam urged members of the cult to disregard media reports and internet news about the murder-suicide and said Rodriguez was "overcome by the enemy and forces of darkness" and that Zerby is "the sweetest, most loving person I know". He also said people were "exploiting this tragedy" to hurt him, Zerby, and The Family in an effort to "tear down our work for the Lord". Techi stated in a letter she became "deeply disturbed" after learning about Rodriguez's death, and that he was not an angry person when she knew him. The Ricky Rodriguez Memorial Site (RickyRodriguez.com), which is managed by The Family, includes "never before published photos" of Zerby and "messages from Jesus".
Claire Borowik, the spokesperson for The Family, said both deaths were tragic but that media reports portrayed Smith as an offender and Rodriguez as a victim. She said Smith was never Rodriguez' nanny but had only visited him and that The Family gave him "ample financial and emotional support" when he wanted to become independent. Borowik also compared Rodriguez' upbringing to one in "a nudist colony" and cited scholars who argue sexual practices similar to those of The Family do not harm children. In regards to the "Davidito" prophecy, Borowik said The Family "knew that Davidito wasn't fulfilling that prophecy" because prophecies of the group were always "dependent on man's choices". Borowik also said former members, whom she called apostates, failed to move Rodriguez in "positive directions" and wanted "to do damage to our movement". She criticized Lattin's book for "inaccuracies, misconceptions and erroneous conclusions", and "sketchy research".
- British documentary series Cutting Edge's episode "Cult Killer" is about Rodriguez' story leading up to the murder.
- Lattin's book "Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge" recounts the events of Rodriguez' life in a story-like setting.
- HBO's documentary "Children of God: Lost and Found", which is about The Family and was directed by former member Noah Thomson, includes footage from Rodriguez' video.
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