Visions of David Berg, the founder of the Children of God religious sect, flash in my mind every time I read another story about Phillip Garrido, the self-proclaimed prophet and founder of a group called “God’s Desire.” Garrido is the Northern California wacko who (police say) kidnapped Jaycee Lee Dugard eighteen years ago and fathered her two children, now aged 15 and 11. He only got caught when he became so convinced that he was God’s prophet that he actually walked into the UC Berkeley police office with those two starry-eyed girls one day last week and announced that he wanted to hold a religious event on campus.
David Berg was so brazen about his blend of divine prophesy and child abuse that he published a pastoral letter in 1973 proclaiming that “there’s nothing in the world at all wrong with sex as long as it’s practiced in love, whatever it is or whoever it’s with, no matter who or what age.” I spent two years interviewing the child abuse victims of Berg for my book, “Jesus Freaks – A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge,” and there are eerie similarities. One big difference: unlike Berg, who attracted thousands of followers in the late 1960s and 1970s, Garrido had a hard time getting anyone to join his cult – voluntarily, that is.
His Antioch neighbors called him “Creepy Phil,” partly because he went around telling them that he was able to speak to God through a magic box. When I heard that piece of this story, I immediately thought of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He claimed that he translated the Book of Mormon with the help of a pair of magic spectacles. Smith also had a weakness for marrying teenage girls, a tradition his fundamentalist followers still practice in Mormon splinter groups across the western United States, Canada and Mexico.
UC Berkeley police got suspicious of Garrido because the two girls he had with him seemed hopelessly brainwashed. One officer said the way they were dressed and acted made the girls seem like they were robots dressed up for an episode of “Little House on the Prairie.” That line brought to mind my attempts to interview teenage girls in Colorado City, Arizona, a town run by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the largest of the polygamous Mormon splinter groups.