By Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 8/19/2005 8:25:15 PM ET 2005-08-20T00:25:15

You'd think a religious group would protect and defend its children, especially one called "Children of God." That was the name of a controversial group founded in the 1960s, that preached a gospel of "free love." But many who grew up in the group say "free love," meant sexual abuse of young children.

Now one of them speaks out, in a haunting, tormented voice: An extraordinary videotaped message that comes from beyond the grave. He was a boy groomed to be a prophet, but doomed to a life of pain. And that life would end in an explosion of violence.

As the awful business begins, there is simply no sign of what is to come. It seems friendly, cordial, a young man making a video for friends.

“Well, hey everyone. This is Rick… I want there to be some record of the way I feel, um, my ideas, just who I was, really.”

But then, that past tense: "Who I was." How he came to make this strange, sad, desperate tape, and what is still coming, as he talks to the camera, nearly defies comprehension.

“I think it's kind of easy to, uh, just one night, you know, just one day, just decide to end it, just do it. But I think it's pretty [expletive] hard to do what I'm trying to do.”  

He is Ricky Rodriguez, not quite 30, was suicidal and on the edge.

How different it was when he was Davidito, the blessed child, son and heir of the founder of the “Children of God.”

It was David Berg, "Moses David," who founded the "Children of God" in the late 1960s. And, at a time when many new sects sprang up in America, imprinted his with something unique: He decreed that one of the best expressions of divine love was earthly sex — lots of sex.

"'The Family' began to view sexuality as their sort of their distinctive freedom mark," says James Chancellor is a professor of religion who interviewed hundreds of "Children of God" members for a book he wrote about the group. He says Berg encouraged his followers to have sex freely with each other.

They even filmed their exploits, as these tapes obtained by NBC:

"God gave sex as a pure and true gift to humankind. If your brother is hungry, you feed them. If they were thirsty, you give them drink. And if they have sexual needs, you help fulfill those needs."

And Berg instructed women believers to have sex with outsiders, to bring them into the group. He even had a name for that — flirty fishing, he called it.

"They would go into a hotel bar, hotel waiting rooms, uh, lounges, and essentially pick up men," describes Chancellor.

It may have been on one such fishing expedition that Berg's second wife got pregnant by another man. Berg adopted the son she bore and named him "Davidito" — little David — heir-apparent to David Berg. 

Chancellor: There was this understanding that God had blessed this couple who leads 'The Family' with an heir — a son who would inherit the mantle, who would carry the prophetic spirit on until the end times. And so he, from his earliest stages, he had these expectations constantly with him.

Was it that pressure and the strange theology of the "Children of God", that eventually twisted the beautiful boy, Davidito, into Ricky Rodriguez, the troubled man on the videotape?

“Everybody has said, who I've talked to about this, well, you know, everybody has their problems, everybody has [expletive] life, but those people who say that, you know, they had no clue as to what actually went on because they weren't part of the cult.” 

He used the word "cult." And certainly the group was secretive, constantly on the move, keeping the kids out of school. Chancellor believes it has moved past that stage now, and while still quite radical, years ago abandoned the idea that children could learn about life through sex. The idea that David Berg had explained this way:

Chancellor: Only the law of love controlled their lives. So whatever was done in love is above the law.

Back then, Davidito was the first to experience the new teachings.

Chancellor: He was raised at the very pinnacle of all this where all the experimentation began, where much of the very unusual practices with the children were initiated.

Keith Morrison: And those unusual sexual practices would have been used with him--

Chancellor: Oh, yes.

Morrison: --earlier and more than all the other--

Chancellor:  Yeah. It started when he was 2 years old. 

Far from hiding the details of Davidito's upbringing, the group actually produced a book about it written by one of his early nannies and distributed to church members. It's called "The Story of Davidito." It's a daily diary of the little boy's accomplishments, full of snapshots and tips on parenting. Tips on parenting that might seem to an outsider not only bizarre, but even criminal.

In the book are photographs and stories of a 3- and 4-year-old boy having sex with adults and with other children his age, photos so graphic we've decided we shouldn't show them to you.

The sex was supposed to welcome Davidito into God's loving embrace. Instead, as he made clear on his videotape, he thought his parents and others simply exploited their children:

“You just [expletive] over because you're a sick [expletive] pervert and you don't have anything better to do with your life than to [expletive] your little kids. It's just so far beyond me, I just can't [expletive] imagine it but yet it happened, it happened right before me. It happened to all of you. Thousands of us.”

"Thousands of us?" Exactly how many is not certain, but some, like ex-member Julia McNeil, have come forward with harrowing tales.

Julia McNeil: My parents would send me off with two adult members from the group. And we'd all sleep in one big bed together and the man would start touching me in the night and molesting me. And I would just kind of block it all out and pretend this was happening to somebody else.

Morrison: How old were you?

McNeil: I was 11 at the time.

The group was free with sex, but also extremely authoritarian. When Julia and Davidito rebelled against its teachings, they were sent to so called "teen training," which featured hard labor and sometimes, they say, physical abuse. Ricky Rodriguez says teen training is where he first thought seriously of suicide.

"I was thinking, well, you know, what kinds of poisons are there. Poisons are, you know, easy, or so I thought." 

Back then he never acted on those suicidal thoughts. He kept rebelling and eventually left the "Children of God". And so did Julia. But then they discovered that fleeing the group did not mean they could escape from the demons hiding in their pasts.

In the year 2000, Ricky Rodriguez, then aged 25, and no longer the blessed "Davidito" of years ago, made his break, disgusted with the secretive religious group into which he'd been born. But once in the real world, he found, like so many others who left, that he had no way to cope.

Chancellor: They went out into this strange world. They went out, oftentimes, without resources, both financial resources and educational or social skills. And they struggled greatly.

Julia McNeil says she was absolutely lost when she left at age 19.

McNeil: How do I even interact with people in the real world? You know, I've never taken a bus, you know, or used a vending machine.

To survive, she says, she exploited the one skill she learned from the church: She became a prostitute. And before long, attempted suicide.

Julia pulled her life together and helped form a support group for former church members. They connected on a Web site called movingon.org.

The group claims that at least 25 former members of the "Children of God" killed themselves over the past 13 years. The religion itself says those numbers are exaggerated, and actually claims that the rate of suicide among former members is lower than it is for the population as a whole. There is no way to verify any of those numbers.

Still some of the survivors began to wonder. Shouldn't the people who raised us pay for our pain?

In fact, the church has apologized and says it has moved on, too. It has a new name: "The Family." And as of the late 1980s, there was no more flirty fishing, and a theology renouncing child sex, threatening to excommunicate any member who has sex with a child.

David Berg died in 1994.

The group says, what's past is past. But Ricky Rodriguez, the former Davidito, could not let the past go. 

He contacted his mother, now leader of "The Family", and demanded money.

Morrison: And for $40,000, he would go away and leave them alone, and--

Chancellor: That's what the correspondence that I saw indicated. Yes.

But his mother refused to pay. At the time Rick said he wasn't bitter, but that clearly changed as time went on even though he found work and got married.

His wife is a former member of the group. Her name is Elixcia. She was interviewed by NBC affiliate KVOA. she asked us to obscure her identity.

Elixcia: He was a very sad person. He was a very sad person. He dealt with a lot, a lot of depression.

Depression and, eventually, rage.

“There's this need that I have, this need, it's not a want, it's a [expletive] need 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.”

Ricky was obsessed with the fate of his siblings in the group, guilt-ridden at the idea that the story of Davidito — his book — may have encouraged more sexual abuse. His memories of "The Family" consumed him.

“You know, if it had just gotten a little better, a little better, even emotionally, mentally for me, it would have been OK. It would have given me hope. But it's gotten worse. Every [expletive] day has been a little worse than the day before.”

Rick moved to Tucson, Arizona and made contact with a long time church member named Angela Smith. She'd been a secretary to Ricky's mom, and knew him as a boy.

James Chancellor interviewed her for his book.

Chancellor: Wonderful person as far as I knew. I don't believe there's any evidence that she was involved in mistreatment of this child or the sexual exploitation of him. But, of course, she was there and cognizant of all that went on.

But Ricky didn't look up Angela to discuss old times. He had a chilling plan. His mother, as head of "The Family", always kept her whereabouts secret. Ricky wanted to find her. And he was going to force Angela Smith to tell him where she was whatever it took.

“I'm not trained in torture methods, which is why I'm going to have to make do (shows drill to camera). I got my drill here. The reason why it’s got this [expletive] padding on it is just to try to silence it a bit because I’m in an apartment. Um, I got gags, [expletive] socks (laughs), I got lots of [expletive] duct tape. Um, I got a soldering iron, heat, a rather crude implement (holds up fork) I think can work wonders especially if it's used in the right way. But I'm not trained. I don't know how to [expletive] do this. I don't even want to [expletive] do this. 

On January 8, after making this videotape, Ricky Rodriguez invited Angela Smith to his apartment. Police say there is no evidence that he tortured her, but he did stab her to death. If she told him where his mom was, he did not go there. Instead, he drove to Blythe, California.

On the way he called his wife, Elixcia.

Elixcia: He thought that killing her would make him feel better. He's like, don't let anyone ever tell you that taking someone's life is easy, he said it was the hardest thing I ever did in my life. He said it was so hard.

He checked into a motel in Blythe. But he didn't stay there. Instead, Ricky Rodriguez drove his car to a crossroads and shot himself in the head.

"These are very trying, difficult circumstances for our fellowship," says Claire Borowik who speaks for "The Family." She says the group deeply regrets the deaths of both Angela Smith and Ricky Rodriguez. But that it is not responsible for them.

Borowik: When Ricky Rodriquez left the organization, there was the intent for him to do well. And for him to be helped to the best their ability. But then he began to demand that, "Well, if you don't pay me "x" amount of money, then I'm going to cause harm to 'The Family.' And of course his parents explained to him that, we've been helping you for quite awhile now. And you're on your feet. And, you know, you'll have to do what you have to do."

"The Family" acknowledges that some church members may have harmed children in the past. But it also says that despite criminal investigations and civil charges, it has never lost a case in court. Borowik says the church has changed its ways now. And it urged former members to move on. And then she said something remarkable about Ricky Rodriguez.

Borowik: Ricky had the lord and he's in the lord's hands now. So, we know that he's in good hands despite the terrible circumstances around it.

That answer makes it seem as if even after this terrible incident, somehow, Ricky is forgiven for it?

Borowik: We're Christians. Christianity is about forgiveness.

Even for that?

Borowik: Even for that. I have no doubt that he's repented very deeply of what he did.

Whether Ricky Rodriguez ever repented we cannot know. These were the last words he left:

“Keep fighting, keep the faith, all that other stuff. Some day, in some way, some of us are going to be around to see those [expletive] burn, literally or figuratively, they're going down. And so, with that happy thought, I shall leave you.”

And whether all those other damaged children to whom he addressed his tape ever learn to forgive the church to which they were born, they all know now too graphically that the blessed boy they called Davidito could not.

While the controversy over the "Children of God" continues, "The Family" claims to have some 12,000 members today, working in ministries in more than 100 countries. 

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