Members of One Mind Ministries drew little notice in the working-class Baltimore neighborhood where they lived in a nondescript brick rowhouse.
But inside, prosecutors say, horrors were unfolding: Answering to a leader called Queen Antoinette, they denied a 16-month-old boy food and water because he did not say "Amen" at mealtimes. After he died, they prayed over his body for days, expecting a resurrection, then packed it into a suitcase with mothballs. They left it in a shed in Philadelphia, where it remained for a year before detectives found it last spring.
Tomorrow, five of the group's alleged members -- including the boy's mother, Ria Ramkissoon -- are scheduled to be tried in Baltimore on murder charges. Sources and Ramkissoon's mother said Ramkissoon, 22, has agreed to plead guilty to a lesser charge on one condition: The charges against her must be dropped if her son, Javon Thompson, is resurrected.
Psychiatrists who evaluated Ramkissoon at the request of a judge concluded that she was not criminally insane. Her attorney, Steven Silverman, said the doctors found that her beliefs were indistinguishable from religious beliefs, in part because they were shared by those around her.
"She wasn't delusional, because she was following a religion," Silverman said, describing the findings of the doctors' psychiatric evaluation.
At the time of Javon's death, thought to be in January 2007, One Mind numbered no more than a dozen adults and children. The group claimed to find authority for its beliefs in the Bible. New members surrendered cellphones and broke off contacts with friends and family, according to law enforcement officials and Silverman.
Silverman said he and prosecutors think Ramkissoon was brainwashed and should have been found not criminally responsible; prosecutors declined to comment. Although an inability to think critically can be a sign of brainwashing, experts said, the line between that and some religious beliefs can be difficult to discern.
"At times there can be an overlap between extreme religious conviction and delusion," said Robert Jay Lifton, a cult expert and psychiatrist who lectures at Harvard Medical School. "It's a difficult area for psychiatry and the legal system."
Ramkissoon's mother, Seeta Khadan-Newton, said she is concerned that Ramkissoon might remain in the thrall of One Mind and back out of the plea agreement at the last minute. "I'm so scared. I don't know what's going to come out of her mouth," Khadan-Newton said.
Under the agreement, Ramkissoon, known within the group as Princess Marie, would plead guilty to child abuse resulting in death and cooperate with prosecutors. The murder charge would be dropped, and prosecutors would recommend probation and treatment.
Ramkissoon was born into a Hindu family in Trinidad but embraced Christianity after she moved to Baltimore at age 7 to live with her mother, a nursing assistant, Khadan-Newton said. She participated in the Junior ROTC program at Northwestern High School and graduated with honors.
In 2005, she became pregnant by her boyfriend. By the time Javon was born, in September of that year, his father was in jail on a charge of attempted murder.
Ramkissoon enrolled in classes to be a pharmacy technician but found it difficult to leave her son with family members, relatives said.
According to Ramkissoon's relatives and law enforcement officials, a friend who was also a new mother told her about a "family" she lived with, about how she didn't have to work and could dedicate herself to raising her son. Ramkissoon paid a visit and soon decided not to return to her family's apartment.
"They promised her safety, a way away from everything," Ricky Ramkissoon said of his older sister. "She probably thought that that's what she needed."
In April 2006, Khadan-Newton tried to persuade her daughter to leave One Mind. Outside the rowhouse, she hugged Ramkissoon and begged her to come home, or at least to let her see Javon. Khadan-Newton said Ramkissoon just stood there, emotionless. "It was like she was a complete stranger," she said.
Ricky Ramkissoon said One Mind allowed him to visit his sister twice before he made clear he didn't want to join. He said he once saw Queen Antoinette blow marijuana smoke in Javon's face. Members of the group believe that marijuana "frees your soul," he said.
Queen Antoinette, 40, does not have an attorney, according to court records. Officially known by that name in the records, she is in jail and could not be reached for comment.
According to charging documents, in December 2006, Javon stopped saying "Amen" at mealtimes. Queen Antoinette told members the boy had developed a demonic spirit and needed to be cleansed through fasting and by being denied water, law enforcement officials said.
Ramkissoon found it "unbearable" to watch but followed the instructions, the officials said. "In her mind, an apostle of God had ordered this," Silverman said.
Javon's skin turned dark and he stopped moving, according to charging documents. Ramkissoon tried to feed him, but his mouth would not open. She felt for a heartbeat but detected none.
The body was placed on a mattress in a back room, and Queen Antoinette told her followers that God would "raise Javon from the dead," according to the charging documents.
Javon's body remained there for at least a week, police said. Eventually, it was wrapped in a blanket and placed in a suitcase. Queen Antoinette burned the mattress and Javon's clothes, police said, and the room was washed down with bleach.
The group came to believe there had been no resurrection because someone among them was not a true believer, according to an attorney for one of the other defendants, Marcus Cobbs. With that person no longer part of the group, they headed north out of Baltimore with the suitcase, believing Javon could be raised at a future date, according to Cobbs's attorney, Maureen Rowland.
For a time, the remaining four adults and two children were homeless, wheeling the suitcase around with them on the streets of Philadelphia. In April 2007, an elderly man whom Queen Antoinette had met a dollar store agreed to keep their luggage in a locked shed while they continued on to New York.
Khadan-Newton found her daughter in Brooklyn in February 2008. She asked her about Javon. "He's gone, he's lost," Ramkissoon told her mother, according to the charging documents.
Khadan-Newton contacted police, and detectives found the suitcase two months later. Investigators approached Ramkissoon. She refused to say where her son was, but she assured them that he was alive. A DNA test, however, soon showed that she was the mother of the dead child, police said.
By late summer, Ramkissoon and the other defendants -- the five adults who prosecutors allege were living at the house when Javon died -- had been charged.
In December, Ricky Ramkissoon visited his sister in the Baltimore jail and found her to be "like a different person every five seconds."
At times, he said, she talked about games they played as children and teased him about his unusual gait. "Do you still walk like Big Bird?" she asked him.
But she lapsed again and again into the beliefs she absorbed as a member of One Mind. At one point, she told him, "Javon isn't dead."
Staff researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.