HAMMOND — As a boy, family members recalled, Louis David Lamonica never cursed or smoked. He was called to serve the Lord, said his sister Liz Lamonica Roberts on Friday, and he wanted to be a preacher just like his daddy.
And so when news broke this week that Lamonica, 45, and seven other members of his church in Hammond were arrested for allegedly participating in, or failing to report, sex acts with children, family members were horrified.
It’s not that Lamonica has been perfect over the years. To the contrary, family members said Friday that he has been filled, at times, with anger as he pushed them out of his life and his church.
But murder, said Roberts, would be easier to accept than the aggravated rape charges facing her oldest brother, who became pastor of the Hosanna Church in 1993 and is now at the center of a growing investigation into what some are calling the cult-like activities of the curious congregation.
Some of the alleged activities include the sexual abuse of juveniles and animals, such as dogs and cats, police said. Chief Charles Fitz, the director of investigations at the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office, said Friday that there may be as many as two dozen victims, ranging in age from 1 to 20. And more arrests may follow, he said, as investigators from Tangipahoa, the Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office, the Ponchatoula Police Department, state Child Protective Services and the FBI continue to interview people and analyze seized computers.
The arrested include: Lamonica, of Holden, on two counts of aggravated rape and one count of crime against nature; his wife, Robbin Lamonica, 45, on one count of aggravated rape of a juvenile under the age of 13; Christopher Labat, 24, a Tangipahoa Parish patrol deputy, on one count of aggravated rape; and Allen Pierson, 46, of Ponchatoula, on one count of aggravated rape.
Pierson listed his home address as that of the church and was not the only suspect to consider the church his home.
Austin Bernard III, 36, who was booked on one count of aggravated rape of a juvenile, also lived in an apartment at the church, according to police, and was married at one point to Nicole Bernard, also 36, who was arrested outside Columbus, Ohio, on Wednesday, two days after Lamonica turned himself in to authorities.
She was booked with aggravated rape of a juvenile, as was Paul Fontenot, 21, of Ponchatoula. The eighth suspect, Lois Ann Mowbray, 54, of Ponchatoula, was arrested Thursday and booked with obstruction of justice, failure to report a felony and accessory after the fact to aggravated rape.
Details remain foggy
“A couple of jurisdictions received some information,” Fitz said of the investigation that began more than a month ago. “And as each began communicating a little bit, and talking to some victims, several alleged victims, from there things started to develop.”
For now, however, the details of the allegations remain foggy. Fitz said detectives don’t know exactly when the alleged abuse began or how often it occurred.
Lamonica’s relatives said Friday that they can’t explain how the oldest son of a preacher, who wanted to be a preacher himself, ended up in a Livingston Parish jail cell on charges that one relative called “horrific.”
“Obviously there’s a screw loose,” Roberts said of her brother. “You can’t be in your right mind.”
Rift in family
Roberts couldn’t say much more about her brother, not at least what he’s like these days. Family members said they haven’t spoken with Lamonica in about eight years. That’s when they said their brother, whom they called David, ran them out of the church.
It was a long way from where the family had started roughly three decades ago. Their father, the original Louis Lamonica, built the Hosanna Church in 1975, they recalled, in an attempt to accommodate a congregation that had grown from 12 to 900.
Lamonica the elder was remembered this week as magnetic and charismatic. He had a vision, said his daughter Roberts, and a plan that he called “Taking Tangipahoa Parish for Jesus.” People responded.
“You couldn’t park nowhere around here, that man was so popular,” said Gwen Normand, who lives with her husband, Tim, in a home behind the church. And family members said Friday that thousands of people came to his funeral in 1982, when he died at age 49 of stomach cancer.
Change followed. The church split, Roberts said, and the congregation dwindled to a couple of hundred people by 1993. That’s when she said the people voted in her brother Louis, a heavy-equipment operator, as pastor.
“I really did feel like he was called,” she said. “He just always had a close relationship with God. He always felt as a child he would be a preacher.”
But soon, family members and neighbors said, things began to change at the tin-roofed, brick-walled church on a two-lane road between Hammond and Ponchatoula. Roberts said she felt “anger” around her brother and his wife, Robbin. Slowly, she explained, he pushed out his relatives, including his mother, Angie Lamonica, who had served as secretary at the church.
In the years that followed, Tim and Gwen Normand noted increasingly strange happenings among their neighbors at the Hosanna Church: how they covered their windows with aluminum foil, how they came out at night “making these Indian sounds,” and how they generally bickered with the Normands over property rights.
“I went to hire a lawyer, and he said, ‘Y’all sound like the Hatfields and the McCoys,’ ” said Tim Normand.
The problems continued, he said, citing the mangy, and sometimes crippled, dogs that kept showing up around the church and one incident that Normand described as sounding like an exorcism.
“She (said she) was going to whip the sin and beat the sin out of this guy — this new guy,” said Tim Normand, recalling an exchange he overheard at the church one day. “I said, ‘Uh-oh, he’s going to join the church.’ “
“It’s a cult,” he added later, saying simply, “They’re bananas.”
But despite all these incidents, the Normands said Friday they never suspected Lamonica and the others were up to anything like the allegations leveled by authorities this week. For their part authorities were careful about throwing around words like “cult.”
“That’s a hard label to throw out there right at the start,” Fitz said. “Are there tendencies to believe that? Yes. But we are far from determining that.”
Similar cases have crumbled before, most notably in 1984 in California when months of witch-hunt hysteria about alleged sexual abuse involving more than 40 students at McMartin Preschool ended in acquittals.
Fitz said detectives still have many more interviews to conduct and evidence to collect. He said the FBI was sending in interview and forensic teams to help local police with an investigation that Fitz said was more likely to expand than shrink in the days ahead.
Meanwhile, the Lamonica family is moving on with both broken and hardened hearts — broken, they said, because of what these allegations have done to their father’s good name, and the community, and hardened by the knowledge that they lost Louis Lamonica long ago.
Last year, Roberts said, they heard he had suffered what she referred to as a “nervous breakdown.” Their mother tried at that point to reach out to him, she recalled, but Lamonica turned her away, going so far as to seek a restraining order against her. Now, Roberts said, their mother is mourning.
“Like it’s a death,” she said.
Bruce Nolan contributed to this report.