AMITE — Prosecutors literally have a truckload of potential evidence to sift through, an unusual set of circumstances to explain to a jury, and far fewer witnesses than they once expected in the case against the members of the defunct Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula.
The investigation began when a women who fled to Ohio in March 2005 asked authorities to look into allegations of child abuse committed by the leaders of the church. Then, the church pastor walked into the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office in April 2005 and allegedly confessed to abusing children and animals in a Satanic ritual.
Now that the cases against the pastor and eight other members of the Hosanna Church are in the hands of the 21st Judicial District Attorney’s Office, the investigation has become less about the occult and more about criminal charges of child abuse.
Material confiscated by investigators in the cases includes such varied items as computers and a crossbow, but prosecutors are still trying to determine which of the countless items will be used as evidence and which ones point to the defendants’ innocence and must be turned over to defense attorneys.
District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said he’s pleased to find that the cases appear to involve far fewer victims than law enforcement officials feared last spring when they began a two-month investigation that led to nine arrests.
Initially, law enforcement authorities talked of possibly 100 victims, but the number of victims identified turns out to be three, Perrilloux said.
The case received a lot of attention and involves a “very bizarre set of facts, but evidence doesn’t indicate the abuse was as widespread as investigators initially thought,” Perrilloux said, adding that he doesn’t want to comment further on the cases.
“Hopefully, we will get one of those cases set (for trial) this year,” the district attorney said.
That leaves some daunting tasks for Assistant District Attorney Don Wall, who will prosecute the case. Prosecutors must read thousands of pages of handwritten journals of three of the accused. They also must organize the household items seized from church members’ homes and storage sheds that now sit in the trailer of an 18-wheeler outside the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office complex in Hammond.
“Because of the fact that prosecutors are responsible for everything in an investigative agency’s files, I feel responsible for going through it looking for anything inculpatory and also looking for something exculpatory to give to the defense,” Wall said.
Investigators seized a large volume of materials, especially paperwork, much of which has nothing to do with the case, Wall said. For example, there are years worth of bills, insurance paperwork and tax documents that have no bearing on the case, he said.
Wall said that he hopes one of the accused can be brought to trial by the end of 2006. He said he has no preference about which defendant goes on trial first, but it likely will be either former pastor Louis David Lamonica or Austin ‘Trey’ Bernard III.
Nine church members were arrested in April and May 2005 in the case, all but one suspected of raping children during a five-year period. Formal charges were brought against seven defendants in June when a grand jury indicted them on varying counts of aggravated rape, which carries the potential penalty of death or life in prison. The state won’t seek the death penalty, prosecutors have said.
By now, all but one of the nine arrested people have been released from jail after posting bail in amounts ranging from $150,000 to $350,000, Wall said. Austin Bernard remains in jail.
The defendants released from jail are living a ‘normal life’ working and staying in touch with parole officials, Wall said. He said that parole officials told him that some of the released suspects are having a difficult time keeping their jobs once an employer discovers what they are accused of doing.
Nicole Bernard, who initiated the investigation when she moved to Ohio and was extradited to Louisiana when she became a suspect, was not indicted and will likely be released from her bond obligation, Wall said.
The other person not indicted is Lois Mowbray, who was arrested on counts of being an accessory to the child abuse and of not reporting it to authorities. Wall said that there are no plans to indict her based on evidence collected so far.
Wall warned that as his investigation continues, Mowbray and Nicole Bernard could be considered suspects again. He also said he is not certain of the extent to which Mowbray or Nicole Bernard could testify against the seven who were indicted.
How much of the more sensational aspects of the investigation will be heard in the courtroom remains to be seen.
Much of the alleged abuse documented in the investigation takes place outside of the church setting without any indication that it was part of a ritual, Wall said.
Drinking cat’s blood or worshiping Satan are not illegal, but sexually abusing a child is, Wall said.
“In terms of a criminal case, that is sort of an aside,” Wall said.
Wall doesn’t discount the details that law enforcement officials discussed with the news media during the investigation last year. No physical evidence of the pentagrams or animal sacrifices mentioned by investigators were found. The only indication of the occult comes from statements allegedly made by the suspects.
As the investigation progressed, law enforcement authorities initially said that there could be hundreds of victims and later narrowed their estimates to 20. Only three victims, two boys and one girl, are part of the criminal case as it stands.
Wall said that there could be other victims out there, but the potential victims contacted by investigators denied any abuse.
Defense attorneys contacted by The Advocate declined to comment about the case or did not respond to a message left at their office.
During the peak of the investigation, Louis Lamonica’s attorney, Michael Thiel, told The Advocate that he believed the case had been sensationalized.
“Generally, I believe there’s been a rush to judge based on conjecture, rumors and leaks to the media,” Thiel had said in June.
As for the church itself on Railroad Avenue near the dividing line between the Ponchatoula and Hammond city limits, the yellow crime scene tape is gone, and the grass is kept trimmed. The name ‘Hosanna’ has been removed from the church’s brick facade although shadows of the letters remain.
The Louisiana District of the First Assemblies of God legally has reclaimed the property, according to a judgment signed by District Judge Bob Morrison on Feb. 2, records in 21st Judicial District Court show.
The church once belonged to the First Assemblies of God, and the church’s constitution indicated that if the property ceased to exist as a church that ownership would revert to the association, records show.
No former Hosanna Church member has approached the court to claim ownership of the facility, court records show.
What will happen to the property and if it will be used again as a church is still unknown. Officials with the Louisiana District of the First Assemblies of God declined to comment about their plans because of ongoing civil litigation.