PONCHATOULA — Tangipahoa Parish sheriff’s deputies worked to bring two alleged cult members to jail in Amite on Tuesday while the Federal Bureau of Investigation dug up the grounds at the Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula looking for more evidence.
The extradition of the two suspects and the excavation are part of a seven-week investigation into the alleged occult practices of the church that includes sex with children and animals. Nine people have been arrested so far.
Deputies were scheduled to fly to Ohio today to bring the woman who first alerted the Sheriff’s Office about the abuse at Hosanna to Amite in order to book her into the parish jail on a count of aggravated rape, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards said.
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Nicole Bernard of Columbus, Ohio, waived extradition Tuesday in Ohio’s Franklin County Common Pleas Court. She was arrested Friday.
Bernard told deputies she moved to Ohio a several months ago out of fear for her safety.
FBI agents and East Baton Rouge Parish sheriff’s deputies arrested Patricia “Trish” Pierson, 54, when she arrived at Metro Airport in Baton Rouge aboard a flight from Tulsa, Okla., said Laura Covington, a spokeswoman for the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s Office.
Pierson was arrested as a fugitive and then transferred to Tangipahoa Parish, where she was booked with sexual battery and principal to aggravated rape, Covington said.
The two women are among the nine people deputies in Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes arrested in connection with the alleged abuse at Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula from 1999 to 2003.
The pastor and his wife, Louis David Lamonica and Robbin Lamonica, were arrested by Livingston Parish authorities, who listed Louis David Lamonica as a resident of Tickfaw and his wife as a resident of Holden.
Louis David Lamonica had surrendered to Livingston Parish authorities last week.
Sheriff Edwards said Tuesday that no outstanding warrants remain in the case at this point. Detectives want to interview 75 to 100 people in connection with the investigation, which could lead to more arrests.
About 25 of the people deputies are looking for are potential victims of the church. The child victims include boys and girls and range in age from 1 to 15 years old.
It is hard to say how many people deputies will seek out because the church left no records of membership and some potential victims have been identified only by partial names or nicknames, the sheriff said.
All day Tuesday, FBI agents, Tangipahoa Parish deputies, and Ponchatoula police officers searched the church compound for more evidence, digging holes as deep as 10 feet in the back of the church.
“We are not acting on any specific tips or leads,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he was aware of no evidence garnered from the pits even though deputies were seen carrying a tarp loaded with dirt away from the site.
They searched areas where it looked like the ground had been disturbed, and most of what they found looked like construction debris related to a past renovation of the church, the sheriff said.
Edwards said he could not offer details on what FBI agents found inside the church, but potential evidence was seized there. Last week, deputies recovered computers and pieces of carpet from the church.
The new materials from the church will be added to the three vehicles, 20 computers, several dozen CDs and discs and handwritten records recovered from suspects’ homes during the past several days.
Deputies will also bring back computers and bedding from Ohio found in a storage unit rented by Bernard.
Edwards said investigators have found child pornography among the seized materials but they do not know whether the pornography contains images of abuse by church members.
“Within a matter of days, we should be able to speak to that,” he said.
The bulk of the evidence so far comes from suspects’ and witnesses’ statements, he said. Edwards, a former trial attorney before he was elected sheriff, said investigators are looking for physical evidence, such as candles or clothing used in rituals, to corroborate witness statements.
For example, some suspects have said they used pentagrams in their rituals, but none have been found.
Although some suspects have told deputies that they are witches or worshipped the devil, Edwards hesitated to call church members a “devil-worshipping cult.” Some suspects have denied an occult motive to their actions, he said.