Fort Madison, Ia. – Neighbors had suspicions about the family living in the two-story rental house here, the one with the blinds shut tight and cardboard over the diamond-shaped window on the front door.
The family members were nice enough, said one neighbor. But they never mingled with anyone else in their year in Fort Madison, and they rarely spoke.
Federal marshals had suspicions, too. Last month, they arrested the mother and father. Authorities allege the couple participated in ritualistic sexual abuse of children as part of a religious rite of passage.
The couple – Michael and Juliette La Brecque, ages 44 and 45, respectively – followed the teachings of Allen Harrod, a California man who claimed to have established his own fundamentalist religion, according to an FBI agent. Three times, authorities allege, the La Brecques flew teenage girls to California, knowing Harrod intended to abuse them.
“Harrod’s self-proclaimed “religious” teachings proselytized the sexual abuse of children as a means of promoting sexual maturation, from childhood to adulthood,” said FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Rinek.
The La Brecques were disciples in this bizarre religion, which authorities said appears to include polygamy, sexual abuse and rituals borrowed from other religious traditions.
Michael La Brecque picked a new name from the Bible, Joseph. His wife, Juliette, changed her name to Mary.
Harrod became Isaac, and his wife became Rebekah.
Harrod was the patriarch – letting his white hair and beard grow long and bushy. Others referred to him as “Lord.”
Michael La Brecque, who met Harrod while working at Mather Air Force Base in Sacramento County, Calif., became a bishop.
In 1999, according to the FBI, Michael La Brecque told a 14-year-old girl she would be placed on a flight from Texas to Sacramento to achieve adult status from Harrod.
The trip occurred, but the girl avoided contact with Harrod. She was eventually sent back to Fort Worth, Texas, where the La Brecques were living at the time, and was told she had failed the “ceremony.”
The next year, the girl was sent again from Texas to Sacramento. This time, she told police, she was told she had to accomplish three levels of sexual activity to attain adulthood – to get close to God.
The girl said she was sexually assaulted over three days and then was told she had “passed.”
Two more victims would tell police similarly disturbing stories.
One child kept journals, using the term “presentation” to describe the ceremonies. Another child said he was never examined by a doctor or dentist growing up and had not been to school more than two weeks in his life.
He said Michael La Brecque also subjected him to beatings, breaking all of his fingers, dislocating his shoulder and breaking other bones.
One expert estimates the number of people in polygamous sects nationwide at 30,000.
John Llewellyn, a retired Salt Lake County (Utah) sheriff’s investigator and author of books on polygamy, including “A Teenager’s Tears: When Parents Convert to Polygamy,” said no statistics exist on sexual abuse among polygamist groups.
But, Llewellyn said, he has no doubt child molestation is more prevalent among polygamists than it is in monogamous families.
“They always attach a spiritual connection to whatever they do, including sex,” Llewellyn said.
Investigators first heard of the abuse allegations in the Harrod and La Brecque cases in September 2001 when Harrod’s eldest daughter went to police in Folsom, Calif., outside Sacramento, and told them about two decades of abuse.
Harrod and his wife were eventually arrested. One alleged victim told police that Michael La Brecque then began shredding journals and burning boxes containing photographs of the sexually explicit conduct kept as record-keeping for the supposedly religious rites.
Harrod fled while on bail. The Sacramento News & Review said Harrod and La Brecque traveled to Nauvoo, Ill., the site of the original temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormon Church’s official name.
Illinois police eventually arrested Harrod and returned him to face charges in California. Many of the original 97 child-molestation counts against him were thrown out, but conviction on the remaining 27 counts still could result in what amounts to a life prison term for the 56-year-old.
The La Brecques apparently liked the area and settled across the Mississippi River in Fort Madison last fall.
The FBI’s Rinek said family members indicated that Michael and Juliette La Brecque were continuing in the ways and teachings of Harrod while in Fort Madison.
“I believe that Michael La Brecque is safeguarding for Allen Harrod child pornography and other evidence of the sexual “religious” activities,” Rinek said in an affidavit.
A U.S. attorney in California announced a three-count federal indictment of Michael and Juliette La Brecque two weeks ago.
The couple were arrested. Michael was later charged with helping transport three minors across state lines between 1999 and 2001 with the intent that they engage in unlawful sexual activity; Juliette was charged with one count involving a child being brought to the La Brecque home in Texas and sexually abused.
Each count carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine upon conviction.
Fort Madison police Chief Sam Lazano said his officers assisted in the arrest, which occurred without incident. But he said no local charges had been filed against the couple.
“We had no knowledge of the family here. There never were problems with them,” Lazano said.
One neighbor, who declined to give her name, said she tried to talk to family members. She bumped into them at a store and asked whether they were grocery shopping. “They just looked at me. They never said hello or anything,” the neighbor said.
Neighbors said at least two adults still live in the Fort Madison house, although no one answered the door on a recent afternoon.
Neighbors also said four minor children were living elsewhere.
The Iowa Department of Human Services confirmed that the children were in state custody and in the process of being relocated with relatives or in foster homes.
Mont Dutson, president of the Fort Madison branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the La Brecques weren’t church members and had rejected efforts to involve them.
“They never attended church here,” Dutson said last week. “We had people who tried to go over and get acquainted with them, and they said, “Just leave us alone; we don’t want to come to church.” “
Child abuse is not tolerated among church members, Dutson said, and would be grounds for ex-communication. Similar punishment would befall anyone who practices polygamy, a practice officially rejected by the church in 1890.
The La Brecques waived extradition at their court appearance in the Quad Cities on Aug. 22 and were scheduled to be transported to California for their arraignments. No trial date has been set.
Harrod’s molestation trial was scheduled to begin last week in Sacramento but has been delayed while psychiatrists determine whether the self-proclaimed religious prophet is competent to stand trial.