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A Young 'Prophet' Cannot Defeat the Demons of His Past

Raised in a sex-driven yet tightly controlled group, Ricky Rodriguez found one way out: murder and suicide.

March 13, 2005|Nita Lelyveld, Paul Pringle and Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writers

Early one Sunday morning in January, an employee of the Palo Verde Irrigation District in Blythe arrived at his office building to a gruesome sight: a bloody body behind the wheel of a Chevy Cavalier parked in the driveway.

The driver, a young man, had a gunshot wound to his head. A Glock .40-caliber pistol lay at his side.

To the police detective who responded, it looked like a straightforward suicide.

Then a cellphone rang on the passenger seat.

On the line was the dead man's wife.

She said her husband had called the night before to say he'd committed a murder.

She directed police to an apartment more than 200 miles away in Tucson, Ariz., where they found the body of a middle-aged woman. Her throat was slashed. She had half a dozen stab wounds.

Soon, authorities released a bare-bones story: Before driving across the desert and killing himself, Ricky Rodriguez, 29, had killed Angela Smith, 51. The two had known each other. Smith may have helped to raise Rodriguez.

The names didn't mean much to most people. But the news was cataclysmic within the secretive religious society to which both had once belonged.

For more than three decades, the Children of God, now called The Family, had been a world unto itself. In that world, Rodriguez had been royalty.

He was the son of the group's self-proclaimed prophet and prophetess, who led a fervent flock scattered in communes around the globe. When he was 2, they declared him a prophet too, announcing to followers that the boy would one day "deliver them out of great sorrow and bondage."

That was not to be.

Childhood Indoctrination

More than four years before his death, Rodriguez left the group's tight confines, venturing out into the world with little knowledge of how it worked. Almost all he'd learned in life had come from one man, David Berg, who founded the group and kept its members isolated, indoctrinated with his views.

Born in 1919 in Oakland to evangelist parents, Berg had bounced around before finding his calling. He briefly ran an Arizona church, taught school and promoted "Church in the Home," the show of the late Los Angeles radio and TV evangelist Fred Jordan.

He was nearly 50 when he landed in Huntington Beach and began ministering to hippies, with help from his own teenage children.

Huntington Beach in 1968 had dropouts and drug addicts galore, sacked out on the sand, with little purpose. It didn't take much more than guitar music and free peanut butter sandwiches to lure them to the Light Club, a Christian coffeehouse where the Bergs set up shop as Teens for Christ.

"Uncle Dave," as Berg started calling himself, invited his followers to join a "revolution for Jesus." Berg told his converts to shed past lives, including their names, and offer up their assets to the cause. They would warn those in the "System" that the apocalypse was coming.

Group members fanned out across the country, gathering on Capitol Hill, and in Times Square to mourn the approaching death of America. They wore red sackcloth robes and yokes, smeared ashes across their foreheads and ominously shook long wooden rods.

The more converts he collected, the stranger Berg's message became. Claiming that God now spoke to him directly, he declared himself "God's Endtime Prophet." God had ordered him, he said, to leave his longtime wife for his girlfriend, a pretty convert from Tucson in her early 20s. Karen Zerby, Berg explained, represented the new and pure "infant church."

Now calling himself Moses -- or Mo -- after the biblical prophet, Berg told his followers that he would no longer live among them. He would cloister himself and dedicate his life to prophecy. He broke the news in a 1970 letter, which he called "I Gotta Split!" It was among the first of nearly 3,000 "Mo letters" he would mail out to his flock in the coming years.

Berg's departure was well timed. By 1971, a group of parents had organized against the Children of God, which they were calling a cult.

As the anti-cult activists began "deprogramming" efforts, as they pushed for media coverage and government crackdowns, Berg left for London and soon urged his followers to spread their "colonies" across Europe.

And the changes in the group were more than geographic. Berg began preaching a new and potentially lucrative gospel of sex, which was proving an excellent way to recruit converts -- and their cash. He urged his female followers to employ "flirty fishing," to troll for lonely men. He likened it to what Jesus did when he called on his disciples to be "fishers of men."

Zerby, by then also known as Maria, was among the first flirty fishers. In a 1974 "Mo letter," Berg told his flock about his prayer for her new endeavor. "Help her Oh God to catch men! Help her to catch men, be bold unashamed and brazen, to use anything she has Oh God to catch men for thee!... Oh God, help her, Oh Jesus to be willing to be the bait!"

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