Some say that child sexual abuse was related to devil worship
PONCHATOULA, La. – From his tire store next door, Donald Moore got an up-close look at the strange changes that went on at the once-bustling Hosanna Church.
The congregation had dwindled to a handful of reclusive members who chased away visitors, the windows were painted white so no one could see in, and just before it closed its doors for good a couple of years ago, eight dump trucks spread dirt over the church’s back lot.
Last month, the suspicions played out in a way that almost no one in this southeastern Louisiana town of 5,000 could have imagined: Nine people, including the pastor, his wife and a sheriff’s deputy, were accused of engaging in cultlike activity with children and animals inside the hall of worship. Eight face child-rape charges that could bring the death penalty.
“You can’t believe something like that was going on right under our own feet,” Moore said.
Authorities said that witnesses have described the use of robes and pentagrams on the church floor and the sacrifice of cats. More than 20 people may have been victims, including children ranging from infants to young teenagers.
“I’ve been a prosecutor in some rape cases and child-molestation cases, but I’ve never had a group accused of doing anything like this,” said Daniel Edwards, the Tangipahoa Parish sheriff and a former state prosecutor.
Investigators said they believe that the abuse began in 1999 and continued until the church closed in 2003. But it was not until a woman called from Ohio in April, saying she had fled to protect her child, that police had even an inkling of what was happening.
About the same time, the church’s pastor, Louis Lamonica, 45, walked into the neighboring Livingston Parish Sheriff’s Office, sat down and, according to investigators, named names and detailed activities inside the church.
Lamonica was arrested, followed by eight others who authorities described as central members of the ring. All but one are being held without bond. Even the tipster from Ohio, Nicole Bernard, was arrested on rape charges along with her former husband.
Edwards said that the group apparently had an effective formula for escaping detection: the use of a church, a close-knit relationship between the members and victims unlikely to report abuse to authorities.
“They were very secretive and very good about keeping a secret,” Edwards said.
Edwards stopped short of saying that the cult consisted of devil-worshippers, but said that some of the defendants told investigators that “devil worship was the reason for their participation.”
Authorities seized more than 20 computers, which are being checked by the FBI. Sheets and carpeting were taken from the church for DNA tests. Officers spent several days digging behind the church but have not said if anything was found.
After Bernard was arrested, police in Ohio said they searched a storage unit and found mattresses, videos and nine garbage bags full of costumes.
Lamonica and his wife, Robbin, also face allegations of having sex with children in their home.
A state grand jury is scheduled to start hearing evidence Friday.