Authorities are investigating reports that people dressed in black clothing stood inside pentagrams and performed blood rituals involving the sexual abuse of children and animals at a now-closed church.
Nine people, including the church’s pastor and an ex-sheriff’s deputy, have been arrested in connection with the Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula, a once-bustling house of worship that was reduced to a handful of members in recent years before closing in 2003. A dozen or more additional people could be involved in the alleged cult, authorities said.
Police, sheriff’s deputies and the FBI have been interviewing potential victims, which authorities said ranged in age from infants to teens.
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“The sheriff said there were cult-like activities involved,” Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff’s spokeswoman Laura Covington said. “Some witnesses said the blood rituals took place inside pentagrams.”
Alleged victims have said the suspects wore black clothing while the rituals took place. Covington said it’s unclear if the group was actually engaged in devil worship. Witnesses said the rituals involved the blood of cats, and dogs and cats were used for sexual purposes.
In Ohio, authorities who arrested a suspect in the case searched a storage unit where they found mattresses, videos and nine garbage bags full of costumes, according to a search warrant.
Nicole Bernard, wanted on a charge of aggravated rape, waived extradition Tuesday in Franklin County, Ohio, Common Pleas Court and likely will return within 10 days to Louisiana, authorities said.
Bernard’s ex-husband, Austin Aaron Bernard, was arrested May 17 on a charge accusing him of making a girl under the age of 13 perform a sex act. Nicole Bernard was arrested Tuesday in Blacklick, Ohio, outside of Columbus.
Rape of a child under 13 is a capital offense in Louisiana.
Seven of the eight people arrested remain jailed without bond, Covington said. Lois Ann Mowbray, 54, of Ponchatoula, was released on $150,000 bond, she said. Mowbray was arrested on counts of obstruction of justice and failure to report a felony.
The investigation opened five weeks ago when Nicole Bernard called from Ohio, saying she had fled from Louisiana out of fear for her child, authorities said. On May 16, pastor Louis Lamonica walked into the Livingston Parish sheriff’s office, allegedly started talking about the crimes and his involvement and giving the names of others. The defunct church hosted worshippers from both Livingston and Tangipahoa parishes, located east of Baton Rouge and north of New Orleans.
Lamonica, 45, was arrested and booked on two counts of aggravated rape and one count of crime against nature. His wife, Robbin, was booked on one count of aggravated rape.
On Tuesday, crime scene experts from the FBI, along with police and sheriff’s officers, dug behind the church with a backhoe.
“They’re treating it as a crime scene and they’re looking for evidence,” Covington said. “There aren’t any tips and they don’t think there’s anything down there, but they’re just making sure.”
The Daily Star of Hammond contributed to this story.