In the cypress flats of Tangipahoa, a fervently religious area in the swamps north of New Orleans, local people still remember proudly how the Rev Louis Lamonica vowed to “take Tangipahoa parish for Jesus”.
Thirty years later, the charismatic preacher’s son and successor has certainly taken the parish by storm – but not exactly for Jesus.
In a case that has horrified Americans way beyond the Bible Belt, Louis Lamonica Jnr and eight members the Hosanna Church are accused of being members of a Satanic paedophile ring who ritually raped up to 25 children, as well as performing animal sacrifices.
Police say some of those charged – who include Lamonica’s wife and a deputy sheriff – have already admitted devil worship inside the now defunct church on the outskirts of Ponchatoula, the parish’s main town.
The discovery of badly rubbed-out pentagrams on the floor and eight boxes of hooded black costumes – allegedly used both in the abuse and in “morality tales” performed to prepare the young victims – bear out some of the claims.
The city, hitherto famous for its fine strawberries and low-end antique shops, is respectably blue collar. Its only eccentricity is an alligator cage in the town centre occupied by Hardhide, the local mascot.
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Most of its 6,000 inhabitants – white and black – are factory workers in nearby Baton Rouge and New Orleans. All the accused are white, described by local police as under-educated “redneck country people”.
Lamonica himself astonished police by walking into a neighbouring sheriff’s office a few weeks ago and confessing out of the blue that over five years he and other church members had sexually abused boys and girls aged between one and 16 and taught them to have sex with each other, as well as with a dog.
Lamonica, 45, said he had drunk cat’s blood and poured it over the bodies of his young victims, some of whom were the abusers’ children. Local police say his claims have been confirmed by some of the victims, of whom half a dozen have so far been interviewed, and by some of the fellow abusers, whose names Lamonica freely gave to police.
Other victims, known to the abusers only by first names or nicknames, have yet to be traced, prompting FBI investigators last week to excavate recently disturbed land on the site and scour the area with tracker dogs.
Lamonica, a heavy equipment operator who was elected pastor in 1993 after his father’s death, claimed the abuse began in 1999 and stopped in 2003 when the Hosanna Church closed. But police believe it may have continued in members’ homes.
Most of the accused have been charged with aggravated rape of a child under 13, a capital offence in Louisiana. Lamonica faces two counts of aggravated rape and one of a crime against nature, relating to a poodle.
The FBI, which is involved because paedophile material may have been placed online, has stopped looking for human remains on the church site.
However, Tangipahoa’s sheriff, Daniel Edwards, said more arrests may follow as the FBI interviewed people and analysed seized evidence.
Charles Reed, a deputy sheriff, said this included videos of “morality plays” performed to confuse the victims, and in some cases their equally under-educated parents, about the morality of the abuse.
Although Sheriff Edwards is in no doubt that some of the abusers believed they were taking part in Satanic rituals, Mr Reed said it remained unclear how much they were simply paedophiles using the “trappings and symbols” of Satanism.
Tim Normand, a retired property developer who lives next to the church, said Lamonica and his flock waged an intimidation campaign to try to force him to move out.
He said their behaviour, such as making Indian whooping noises in his garden, became increasingly odd.
He said: “They wanted to baptise their children in my creek. I said: ‘You can’t do that. There’s gators in there.’ “
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