Cult sex inquiry focuses on 3 children
AMITE — Three children are the victims at the center of a child-sex ring operating out of a Ponchatoula church for five years, a sheriff’s detective testified in court Wednesday.
What is missing from the court case as it stands are the allegations of occult activity as the motive for the sexual abuse of children and animals, he said. No physical evidence of the occult, such as pentagrams drawn on the floor and spell books were ever found, Tangipahoa Parish sheriff’s Detective Mike DePhillips told the court.
“You heard today that they couldn’t find any evidence of the occult, so that is a dead issue,” said Assistant Public Defender Reginald McIntyre, who represents defendants Paul Fontenot and Patricia Pierson.
Prosecutor Don Wall confirmed after the hearing that the occult element won’t be a part of the state’s case.
Instead, the case is based mostly on statements made by the three children — one girl and two boys — who repeatedly were raped by, or forced to engage in various sex acts with, most of the defendants at least twice a week from 2000 to 2001 at Hosanna Church and a home of three of its members, DePhillips said. There is at least one other victim who wasn’t mentioned in court.
“He cannot even remember a time when he was not molested,” DePhillips said about the younger boy.
DePhillips was the only witness called during a preliminary examination hearing Wednesday held in 21st Judicial District Court for six of the nine alleged members of the church.
Defendants in the Tangipahoa Parish Courthouse for the hearing Wednesday were Robbin Lamonica, 45, Holden; Christopher Labat, 24, Hammond; Austin “Trey” Bernard III, 36, Hammond; Paul Fontenot, 21, Hammond; Patricia Pierson, 54, Hammond and Allen R. Pierson, 46, Hammond. All six were indicted by a grand jury last week on various counts of aggravated rape of a juvenile under age 12.
Three remaining defendants — former Hosanna Pastor Louis David Lamonica, 45, Tickfaw; Lois Ann Mowbray, 54, Ponchatoula; and Nicole Bernard, 36, Columbus, Ohio, were not in court.
All of the church members except Nicole Bernard and Mowbray were indicted by a grand jury last week of aggravated rape of a juvenile under age 12, which carries a potential death sentence.
While being questioned for two hours Wednesday by six attorneys, DePhillips revealed essential elements of the Sheriff’s Office’s two-month investigation into the alleged sexual activity centering on the Hosanna Church on Southwest Railroad Avenue in Hammond and the Bernard residence on Amelia Lane in Hammond.
The three children repeatedly sexually assaulted were raped by various members at different times. The abuse of the girl started before her first birthday and ended at age 2 or 3. The younger of the two boys was raped by seven of those indicted from age 8 to 12. His elder brother allegedly was raped as a teenager by Louis David Lamonica and Austin Bernard, according to testimony.
The abuse took place from 1999 to 2003, but the court case focuses on abuse from 2000 to 2001.
Much of the case is based on statements made by the three victims and confessions by Louis David Lamonica and Austin Bernard that implicated each of the suspects, the detective said.
Statements by Louis David Lamonica and Bernard implicating the others can’t be used in a trial because a defendant does not have to testify against himself, Wall said. Instead, prosecutors will use victims’ statements, DePhillips said after the hearing.
But detectives found no physical evidence of the abuse, except for some bodily fluids on bedding being analyzed by the State Police Crime Laboratory. Although church members talked about taking photographs and videotapes of the alleged sex acts, none were found, DePhillips said.
The boys were examined at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, a hospital known for its medical exams of abused children. The detective could not recall on the stand if there is any medical evidence corroborating the abuse.
After the hearing, defense attorneys decried the lack of evidence as proof of their clients’ innocence.
Wall said he would have liked to have physical evidence to prosecute, but the victims’ information is strong enough without it.
However, detectives have written statements by some of the accused given to them by Mowbray, who also kept a 586-page journal. The content of Mowbray’s journal and those statements were not revealed in court.
Mowbray also was described as a pastor of the church whom defense attorneys claim is at the center of the controversy.
“She would be what they considered a pastor,” DePhillips said. “She had visions she shared with the people.”
When asked by Labat’s attorney, Gary Jordan, if he was aware of any infighting among Louis David Lamonica, Mowbray and Austin Bernard, the detective answered “Yes.”
Although Mowbray is described as the leader, it was unclear what her relationship was in connection with the alleged abuse of the children.
“This entire matter is a hoax on the part of Ms. Mowbray,” said Allen Pierson’s attorney, Wayne Stewart, after the hearing.
Labat is accused of being a photographer of the group, taking pictures and videotaping the acts, DePhillips said. No pictures of the alleged sex acts were found, but other child pornography was located on Labat’s home computer and his laptop computer, the detective said.
“Patricia Pierson helped clean up” the children and keep the infant girl calm during the acts, the detective said.
“The statement that was given to me is that she would clean them up and make them presentable,” DePhillips said.
Austin Bernard, whose home with Nicole Bernard was a main site of the alleged sex acts, is said to have had overwhelming urges to have sex with the infant girl since her birth.
“He had uncontrollable urges when he changed her diaper,” DePhillips said.
Bernard also admitted to raping both boys, the detective said.
“Bernard also claimed at first to have no memories of the sex acts,” DePhillips said. “Throughout investigators’ interviews with him, he told detectives that he had images form in his brain.
“As for the role of Nicole Bernard, she claims she knew nothing of the abuse until she was told about it by Mowbray and the girl,” the detective said.
Nicole Bernard divorced Austin Bernard and fled to at least two other states before moving in with a relative of Mowbray’s in Ohio. It was there that Nicole Bernard contacted authorities.
Nicole Bernard even made a videotape of the girl, the contents of which were not disclosed in court, on the advice of an attorney, DePhillips said.
DePhillips said he could not find evidence that Nicole Bernard contacted law enforcement authorities in Florida and New Jersey as she has claimed, nor could he find evidence that she received advice from an attorney.
However, Nicole Bernard’s attorney is meeting with prosecutors attempting to reach a deal, prosecutor Don Wall said after the hearing.
Wall said his office has made no guarantees, but will meet with Nicole Bernard’s attorneys later this week. In the meantime, evidence against Nicole Bernard was presented to a Tangipahoa Parish grand jury, but the panel was asked not to hand down indictments, Wall said. Nicole Bernard remains in jail, he said.
“We may not be able to do anything,” Wall said about the meeting with Nicole Bernard’s attorney.
The roles of other members of the Hosanna Church group were not clear in Wednesday’s court testimony.
Members of Austin Bernard’s family sat in the courtroom during all the testimony, sometimes uttering whispers of disbelief when details of the abuse were given.
During a break in testimony, Austin’s stepmother, Leslie Bernard, talked to reporters.
“It’s real tough. We can’t comment on a lot of things,” Leslie Bernard said.
She said family members tried to persuade Austin Bernard to leave the church because it made him a different person. She said Austin Bernard had disowned his father, even though the father underwent brain surgery.
“To be honest, we begged him to get out of the church,” Leslie Bernard said. “We begged him big time.”
The six defendants at Wednesday’s hearing, along with Hosanna Pastor Louis David Lamonica, will be arraigned July 7.