Hammond - Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, the nation was gripped by news stories about children allegedly being abused in satanic cult rites.
The idea of children being abused in such rites was so prevalent that the federal government commissioned a five-year study to analyze cases of ritualistic abuse, such as the one alleged at the now-defunct Hosanna Church in Ponchatoula in recent years.
In 1994, the five-year report to the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect, the federal commission, found that a quarter of the 1,079 prosecutors, law enforcement agencies and social workers who responded to a survey had handled a ritualistic or religious-based abuse case.
The report, conducted by professors at the University of California at Davis, also says the case information that came from these agencies shows little concrete evidence to support the ritualistic abuse claims in these cases.
Independent of that study, Debbie Nathan, an investigative journalist and co-author of "Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and the Making of a Modern Witch Hunt," found something surprising: She examined more than 100 ritual abuse state cases prosecuted from 1982 to 1989.
By the late 1990s, most of these cases fell apart, and most of the people accused of such crimes had been acquitted at trial or had their convictions overturned on appeal, Nathan said. Asked about the Hosanna Church satanic cult case in Louisiana, Nathan said she is "shocked" that prosecutors are still taking satanic ritual abuse cases seriously.
Louis Lamonica, the 49-year-old former pastor of the Ponchatoula church, was convicted Sept. 5 in 21st Judicial District Court of aggravated rape of his two sons. Some of the abuse took place during alleged satanic rituals at the church, according to testimony.
Lamonica will be sentenced Oct. 21 and faces a mandatory life sentence without parole.
He is one of two men convicted in the case and one of seven people indicted in the case.
There was no physical evidence presented at trial that the boys had been sexually abused. And there was no physical evidence, such as the existence of pentagrams on the floor or buried remains of sacrificed animals.
The boys, now ages 18 and 22, recanted from the witness stand their earlier allegations of abuse against their father. But Lamonica had confessed - and he recanted his confession on the witness stand as well.
District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said the Hosanna cases have never been about cults, satanic or otherwise.
"This case, from our perspective, had nothing to do with a church or cult or any sort of high pressure situation," he said. "This case is about child abuse and molestation."
Perrilloux said the two cases brought to trial so far have corroborating evidence of the victims' statements and the defendants' written and oral confessions.
Is it a cult?
The defense theory in the Lamonica case was there was, indeed, a cult at Hosanna Church, but it was Christian-based rather than satanic one. And the theory says the Christian cult exerted so much control over its members they falsely confessed.
That theory was presented at Lamonica's trial by his defense attorney, Michael Thiel, through testimony of other church members not charged with sex crimes and through Thiel's remarks to the jury to explain why his client confessed to molesting children.
"There has to be a reason he said it," Thiel said.
"That is what I had to give to the jury. The only way to explain it was: 'Yeah. There was a cult.' I don't see any other explanation you can give."
The defense theory also is supported by Richard Ofshe, a social psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who for 40 years has studied false confessions and high-control organizations.
State District Judge Zoey Waguespack ruled social psychology was too new a science to be allowed in a Louisiana courtroom, so Ofshe, hired as an expert witness for the defense, did not testify during the trial.
That decision will be among the reasons Lamonica will use in his appeal, Thiel said.
After the trial, Ofshe said he could have offered the jury insight into the nature of cults to help them understand what was happening at Hosanna. He said he could have told them there is no such thing as satanic cults that abuse children.
If the initial statements of the children and suspects indicate the abuse occurred as part of a satanic cult - something that has never happened - then the truth of everything alleged in that statement is questionable, Ofshe said. Ofshe was not involved in the 1994 federal report.
Rather than a satanic cult, Ofshe and defense witnesses who testified at Lamonica's trial say the handful of members left at Hosanna Church formed a cult based on their Christian beliefs.
Cults, or high-control organizations, can be made up of first-generation adherents to a new ideology or be formed from an existing organization, Ofshe said. The cult at Hosanna Church appears to be the latter, where its leaders were longtime church members who took an existing Christian doctrine and applied it in unique ways, Ofshe said.
"That person has a tremendous advantage and capitalizes on existing beliefs, offering a 'proper,' 'true,' 'better' interpretation of a sacred document," Ofshe said.
Emerging cult leaders often kick out people who challenge their new doctrine, and rid the organization of competing ideas, Ofshe said.
Cult members also are isolated from their families and friends, who can provide a different perspective than the cult leader's teachings, Ofshe said.
What is difficult for the average person to understand is the amount of pressure applied by cultlike groups that could lead to false confessions or even acts of violence, Ofshe said.
The Hosanna cult
The defense focused on Lois Mowbray, a woman who claimed to be a prophet of God, as the leader of this cultlike group, witnesses testified.
Mowbray, 56, formerly of Ponchatoula, was arrested by the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office in May 2005 but was never charged with the crimes by the District Attorney's Office.
She was not called to testify at the trial.
Mowbray allegedly began ridding the church of people who challenged her, including Lamonica's mother and aunts, witnesses testified.
Former church members also testified Mowbray twisted Christian doctrine to control the church. For example, Mowbray allegedly taught that sinful thoughts are the equivalent to spiritual misdeeds, so lustful fantasies must be confessed, witnesses testified.
Efforts to locate and contact Mowbray for her comments were unsuccessful.
Besides writing confessional journals, members also were told to confess their sins publicly during Sunday services, witnesses testified.
Lamonica told the jury he was forced to live at the church in 2004 and work for "$10 a day" as a way to work on his troubled marriage.
He said he had no contact with his family or friends.
Lamonica's sons, too, testified they were coerced into making false statements in writing and false statements to authorities about child abuse.
The other cult cases
Five more former church members face charges of child abuse. Prosecutors have indicated Paul Fontenot, 25, of Ponchatoula, might be tried next, but no trial date has been set by the court.
Another former member, Austin "Trey" Bernard III, 39, of Hammond, was convicted on Dec. 3, 2007, of aggravated rape in attacks on one of Lamonica's son and on Bernard's daughter.
Bernard maintained he was controlled his ex-wife and Mowbray, but he offered no reasons for why when he took the witness stand at his trial.
Attorney Gary Jordan, who represents Christopher Labat, 27, of Hammond, said he plans to bring up many of the cult issues brought out during Lamonica's trial.
Public defender Reggie McIntyre, whose office is handling the defense of Paul Fontenot, indicated the cult will not play a large role in Fontenot's case.
Unlike Bernard and Lamonica, Fontenot and Labat have maintained their innocence from the beginning, never confessing to authorities or writing confessional journals, McIntyre and Jordan said.
"They convicted themselves with their writings," McIntyre said, referring to Bernard and Lamonica.
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Is there any monster in this world worse than man?
The residents of the small, south Louisiana town of Ponchatoula discovered in 2005 there were monsters committing unspeakable acts to children and animals. The evil was reportedly carried out inside a church.
A splinter cult reportedly formed by leaders and members of the Hosanna Church became the salacious heart of a child sex abuse scandal that rocked and shocked the community following newspaper and broadcast reports of devil worshipping and occult rituals involving animal blood and pentagrams.
Last month, Nic Pizzolatto, the South Louisiana-reared creator of HBO’s critically acclaimed pulp-thriller True Detective, told an Entertainment Weekly reporter that viewers of his show can piece together parts of the plot and forthcoming ending by Googling the words “Satanism,” “preschool,” and “Louisiana.” Pizzolatto then said, “You'll be surprised at what you get.”
His hint points to the Hosanna Church scandal from 2005.
A staff writer at The Baton Rouge Advocate, my editors sent me to Ponchatoula to investigate, meet people, and find out whatever I could about the church and what may have happened. The area was unfamiliar to me. I covered other parishes but was sent there because the reporter who usually covered the area was out on vacation. I spent a few days in Ponchatoula, met some locals and wrote three articles for my newspaper that ran in May and June of 2005.
Everyone I met said they couldn't believe what we were all reporting.
I couldn't help but think of the cliché of neighbors telling the media that the guy who turns out to be a serial killer was always so nice, quiet, and normal. But looking back, it's unclear if members of the community I interviewed were more traumatized and disturbed by the accusations of the occult or the actual sex crimes themselves.
Back in May 2005, Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards told TheBatonRouge Advocate that members of the Ponchatoula cult accused of sexually abusing children and animals said they carried out the practices for years as part of a devil worshiping ritual involving cat blood.
“This is hard to talk about and harder to believe, but some of the suspects have told us their intention in all of this was devil worshipping,” Edwards told the Baton Rouge newspaper.
Most of the community, with a population of just more than 6,000, were in disbelief when the media reports first surfaced.
Ponchatoula was known then and still today as “America's Antique City” with its concentrated downtown area lined with antique shops. The town is also recognized internationally for its Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival.
“We are in disbelief about of all of this. Never in a million, million years would we have guessed that Louis was capable of these things. Somewhere along the line, things went wrong for him,” community member Judy Hooter said in the Advocate in 2005.
The Louis she mentioned is Louis David Lamonica.
Lamonica was 45 in 2005 when he walked into a neighboring sheriff’s office on May 16 of that year and confessed to detectives that he had sex with children and animals. Lamonica was the pastor of Hosanna Church right before it closed two years before in 2003. He went on trial in August 2008 after he was charged with four counts of aggravated rape of his sons when they were ages 11 or younger.
According to trial testimony reported by TheBaton Rouge Advocate, an hour-long confession by Lamonica to detectives was played to jurors where Lamonica talked about the occult activities.
The cult began in 2000, Lamonica told deputies, with the dedication of an infant girl to Satan by placing the child in a pentagram, sacrificing a cat, and sprinkling the girl with its blood. “And then, (we) stopped worshipping God and worshiped Satan," Lamonica told the deputies in the confession.
He went on to tell detectives that Hosanna had two churches—one for God, in the sanctuary, and the other for Satan, in the youth room. Lamonica said his sons were selected for sexual abuse and cult members—including women—all participated.
Both of Lamonica’s sons recanted the allegations that they were raped. Lamonica was one of seven people indicted in the case, and was later convicted of the crimes and sentenced to life in prison.
All these years later, it’s still unclear if the devil worshipping and occult details that were given to detectives ever actually happened. There was no physical evidence, such as the existence of pentagrams on the floor or buried remains of sacrificed animals, presented at Lamonica’s trial.
Were stories made up by those accused to hide the truly evil acts alleged in the indictments?
District Attorney Scott Perrilloux, who prosecuted Lamonica, told The Baton Rouge Advocate in 2008 that the case was never about satanic cults.
“This case, from our perspective, had nothing to do with a church or a cult or any sort of high pressure situation. This case is about child abuse and molestation,” Perrilloux said.
The people of Ponchatoula were also left wondering if the occult had anything to do with the crimes.
“I honestly don't know if those things happened or not,” said Pat Ory, a member of the community who knew Louis David Lamonica but left Hosanna Church in 1997 when the church was called something else.
“It took a while for us to even go back to a church after all of that,” Ory said recently. Ory recalled the Hosanna Church scandal as “very stressful.”
The defense theory in the Lamonica case was that there was a cult at the church but it had nothing to do with worshiping the devil. Defense attorney Michael Thiel presented testimony at the trial that the cult was Christian but it held the members in such power that Lamonica falsely confessed.
The jury disagreed.
No one knows for sure what kind of impact this story had on Pizzolatto and how it may fit into the True Detective storyline. But the Hosanna Church scandal is a story that proves once again that the monsters we should be scared of most are the ones that live right next door.
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