PONCHATOULA, La., May 24 – Two decades ago, Hosanna Church was one of the fastest growing congregations in the cypress flats of Tangipahoa Parish on Lake Pontchartrain’s northwest rim, and its pastor, Louis Lamonica, was a beloved figure.
“That man could really preach,” said Bill McCormack, a resident of Ponchatoula who attended the church as a boy. “He was an awesome local icon.”
But by two years ago, when the church finally closed after a ferocious falling-out between the pastor’s son and successor, Louis Lamonica Jr., and his family, the congregation that once neared 1,000 had dwindled to 10 or 15 troubled souls from a handful of families.
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And now, many of them, including Louis Lamonica Jr. and a deputy sheriff who once lived on the church grounds, are behind bars, accused by the police of a litany of ungodly offenses, including sexual abuse of perhaps two dozen children and the mutilations of cats for satanic rituals.
Eddie Robinson, assistant pastor at the 5,000-member Harvest World Outreach Ministries in nearby Hammond – to which many Hosanna members migrated – says what happened is clear. He told congregants on Sunday that a prophecy of “witchcraft” problems had been revealed in recent weeks.
“When the leadership of that church kept the enemy out, everything was fine,” Mr. Robinson said. “But when the leadership of that church let the enemy in, things began to change.”
The authorities – who got the first whiff of trouble six weeks ago when a woman, Nicole Bernard, 36, called the Sheriff’s Office from Ohio to say she had fled the town to save her child from sexual abuse – are still trying to piece together what happened.
Nine people have been arrested in the past week. A dozen computers have been seized, at least some of which the police believe contain child pornography, as well as dozens of videotapes, hundreds of computer disks and eight large boxes of documents and photographs. Inside the shuttered church compound, in a “youth hall” behind the sanctuary, the police found the faint imprint of pentagrams on the floor that someone had apparently tried to scrub away. Some of those arrested, the police said, described rituals within those pentagrams involving cats’ blood and people dressed in black robes.
The abuse victims ranged in age from 1 to 16, the police said. Several are in protective custody, and a search is under way for others, who may have moved or are known to the police only by first name or nickname. On Tuesday, the police were at the church grounds with dogs, though they would not say what they sought.
Sheriff Daniel H. Edwards of Tangipahoa said that as many as 25 children – about evenly split between boys and girls – might have been involved in sex acts at the youth center, in cars and in the homes of at least two of those charged. The abuse seems to have begun in 1999, he said, and stopped occurring on the church grounds after 2003.
“But nobody really believes that they just stopped abusing kids,” Sheriff Edwards said.
Tangipahoa and surrounding parishes are fervently religious, and worshipers at other churches are wondering how something so troubling could have occurred.
“It has definitely affected my customers,” said Diane Pepitone, owner of Heavenly Gifts Christian Bookstore. “The general consensus is, if anything like this can happen in a place like Ponchatoula, with all the churches we have, it can happen anywhere.”
Ponchatoula was in the midst of its annual Strawberry Festival when Ms. Bernard called the sheriff. She was reluctant to discuss specifics, the sheriff said. “We’d call her and she’d say, oh, the dog’s barking or somebody’s knocking on my door right now, I’ll call you back,” Sheriff Edwards said. Two weekends ago, she began to name names.
The next day, the younger Louis Lamonica walked into the sheriff’s office in neighboring Livingston Parish, where he lives, and proceeded to describe all manner of sexual offenses.
“He didn’t come to turn himself in, he came to talk with us,” said Stan Carpenter, the detective supervisor in Livingston Parish.
Mr. Lamonica, 45, matter-of-factly told them of having sex with at least two boys, from the time they were 4 until they were 12 or 13, as well as having sex with a dog, Mr. Carpenter said, adding that Mr. Lamonica did not act as though he was confessing to crimes. He was just trying to be helpful.
“We didn’t let him walk away,” Mr. Carpenter said.
He also named others at the church – including Christopher Labat, 24, a deputy sheriff of Tangipahoa Parish. Last Tuesday, Mr. Labat told detectives that they would find child pornography on his home computer, Sheriff Edwards said, but denied taking part in any abuse. He was fired, charged and placed on a suicide watch.
Last Wednesday, two other church members, Austin Trey Bernard III, 36, and Allen R. Pierson, 46, were charged with aggravated rape of a juvenile. On Thursday, the former pastor’s wife, Robbin Lamonica, 45, was arrested, along with Paul Fontenot, 21, another church member. Another parishioner, Lois Mowbray, 54, was accused of knowing about the abuse and not telling the authorities.
And then Mr. Bernard’s wife, Nicole, who had made the initial call to the police and who is Mr. Fontenot’s sister, was arrested and charged with aggravated rape. Finally, on Monday night, Mr. Pierson’s wife, Patricia, 54, was charged with sexual battery and being a principal in an aggravated rape.
In Louisiana, the rape of a child is a capital offense.
The elder Louis Lamonica began Hosanna with fewer than two dozen congregants. By the 1970’s, the church had nearly 1,000 members. A sanctuary rose along U.S. 51 north of Ponchatoula Creek and behind it a school where a generation of youths studied.
In 1984, Mr. Lamonica died. After some interim pastors, the church passed to the younger Mr. Lamonica in the mid-1990’s. Strife followed.
Many congregants drifted away, many to the Harvest World Outreach Ministries, started by Hosanna’s former youth minister.
Mr. Lamonica did not respond well to the competition, former church members said. At one point, he moved to excommunicate anyone who merely visited another church. And he fought with his family, including his mother, the church’s secretary, eventually ordering them out of the church.
Two years ago, in an incident that the police are still investigating, some of those charged apparently made some sort of confession to other church members and sought forgiveness – causing a final exodus.
The Lamonica family has been keeping a low profile, although one of the former pastor’s sisters, Liz Lamonica Roberts, spoke to a New Orleans newspaper, The Times-Picayune.
Her mother was devastated by the charges, she said, and had never reconciled with Mr. Lamonica. Nor could they explain what had happened to him.
“Obviously, there’s a screw loose,” Ms. Roberts told the newspaper.
The church property sits empty, marked off with yellow police tape. A roadside sign, which once displayed Bible verses, bears crude graffiti sprayed in red paint. “I went here K-4,” it reads. “You let us down.”
Tim Normand, a retired contractor, lives just behind the church. “I was sick,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep when I heard what happened.”
But he was not entirely surprised, Mr. Normand said. He got along fine with the old preacher, but relations soured after the son took over. There were disputes over property lines.
One night, he said, he heard a woman screaming that she’d “beat the sins out of them,” followed by “hooting and hollering” and other sounds. “I’m a Catholic,” Mr. Normand said. “I got the heebie-jeebies.”
Allen Johnson and Steve Cannizaro contributed reporting for this article.