SCRIBA - A pained expression came over her face. Her eyes widened and welled with tears.
"I'm afraid of repercussions the church might take against my children because of what I'm doing," she said.
Laurie Marrano Jonson's children have been missing for two years. The boys are allegedly being hidden by an international cult, the Northeast Kingdom Community Church, a cult [aka "The Community" and "Twelve Tribes"] supposedly based on the teachings of Christianity.
But as Anthony Padrone, chief assistant investigator of Children's Rights of Pennsylvania says: "Where does it say in the Bible that it's right to keep children from their mother?"
Twelve-year-old Nathan and eight-year-old Seth may be with their father, Northeast Community Church member Stephen Wooten, 34, near the church's Island Pond, Vermont location. However, Children's Rights founder and chief investigator Tom Watts believes the children may have been separated from their father and each other.
Wooten has had an Essex County, Vt., arrest warrant out on him for two years. The charge custodial interference. The maximum penalty five years in prison and/or $5,000.
"Separating the boys would make things more difficult for us," Watts said. "It's a cult thing. Not only does it make things harder for us, but it makes the boys more vulnerable."
Under the guidance of Watts and Padrone, Laurie and her second husband Dave, a nuclear mechanic with Niagara Mohawk Power Corp., have launched a full-blown search for her children. The Children's Rights investigators ask only for the payment of expenses, but it adds up. The couple have already taken out a $5,000 loan this year for the search.
When the people Dave works with at NMPC learned of the search, they collected $800 to help out.
"When they gave me the money, one of the guys said this is from our children to your children … It reminded me of that saying, 'The world's tallest man is the one who kneels down the help a child."
Laurie married Wooten, an ordained minister, in 1976. The family joined the Northeast Community Church at Island Pond in 1986. After what she describes as two years of intense emotional and physical trauma, Laurie said she was finally able to break away from the excessively male-dominated cult. She said she had no money, no identification and no sense of self-worth.
"They broke me," she said. "It took four months of complete bed rest before I felt well again."
Family desperately seeks two children
Watts said Laurie's poor health could be attributed to cult power tactics, including brainwashing and a diet low in protein and other important nutrients. By persuading members to hand over their personal identification and other belongings to rid themselves of worldly influences, Watts said the cult strips people of their identity, making them extremely dependent on the church and "less likely to leave."
When she had fully recovered and gotten her life in order, the Essex County Family Court awarded custody of Nathan and Seth to Laurie. That day, Wooten and the boys disappeared.
Today, Laurie worries continually for the mental and physical well being of her children. She is concerned about the alleged fanatical "spare the rod, spoil and child" mentality of the cult and believes her boys are being hammered with untrue, terrible stories about why she left the church.
Watts, who has been involved in several missing children cases involving cults, claims Laurie's fears are justified.
"They are most certainly being told stories about how evil their mother is … They probably have been told she's dead," Watts explained. "When Laurie gets her sons back, she can expect two very traumatized children that will need intensive care."
"My biggest fear is that when we do get them back, there will have been so much physical and psychological damage that they won't want to come out (of the church)," Laurie said.
Vermont attorney Susan Davis, of the Essex County State Attorney's office, said there have been numerous sightings of Nathan and Seth in the Island Pond area over the last few months and that posters of the missing boys are allegedly being torn down by church members.
According to Davis, the attorney general has already granted law officials approval to expedite Wooten outside of Vermont. Davis also said a federal unlawful flight to avoid prosecution warrant on Wooten is also in the works.
"These people (the church) hide children, abuse children and we're going to take them out, we're going stay on them until we find Laurie's boys or until they give them up," Investigator Padrone said. "What's being done to all the kids in this cult is criminal. The children have no choice."
Efforts to contact officials and legal advisors of the Northeast Community Church in Boston and Burlington, Vt., who can comment on the case have been unsuccessful for more than a month. Numerous messages left by The Palladium Times for church officials have not been returned.
Extreme abuse recalled by mom
SCRIBA - During the mid-1980s, newspapers from coast to coast carried reports on court actions taken against the Northeast Community Church for the alleged beating of children as well as truancy.
Ex-church members were coming forward with detailed accounts of how church children were being punished; stripped naked, boys and girls, from toddlers to teens, and beaten for hours upon hours with a thin wooden stick. Reports said the children were beaten from neck to ankle.
With search warrants in hand, Vermont state officials and police raided the communal homes of the church members and rounded up all the children for physical and psychological exams. However, before the examinations could take place, a Vermont district judge stepped in and refused the state permission to conduct the examinations. According to court reports, the judge felt there was far from enough evidence to warrant a mass raid on the church people.
During her two years with the cult, Laurie Marrano Johnson said she was aware that such beatings were taking place.
"I remember this one mother whose baby son would cry at the (communal) dinner table," the former church member recalled. "She would take the child out of the room and beg him with tears in her eyes to stop crying … She was terrified (the elders) would beat her one-year-old son."
She remembers with great pain witnessing the punishment of a six-year-old boy whose father had recently died.
"His father had been known as a liar in the community. The elders wanted everyone to believe his death was caused by his lying … No one really knows how he died; some kind of accident," Laurie said. "They continually told the boy he was destined to be a liar because his father was. One day the little boy told a meaningless fib … As punishment, he was laid in a box (used to symbolize a coffin), the lid was closed, and he was told he was dead. We were all gathered around to watch, even the children."
Laurie paused, wiped the tears from her eyes and continued, "He was crying and screaming and begging to be let out. My son, Nathan was crying and pulling on my arm and saying, "Mommy, please let him out." I didn't move…. I couldn't believe what was happening. I just couldn't believe it."