ATTLEBORO, Mass. (APBnews.com) -- It was once a weekly Bible meeting, where family and friends gathered at Roland Robidoux's feet to hear his prophecies. Those benign beginnings allegedly led to a familial cult, and the mysterious disappearance of two of its youngest members.
Robidoux's disciples and detractors are now at the center of a criminal investigation that stretches from Massachusetts to Maine and pits the Old Testament against the modern-day canons of law, in a case that has investigators probing a cult whose members allegedly refuse to answer to anyone but their God.
Witnesses began appearing in front of a Bristol County grand jury last week with prosecutors hoping to prove that Robidoux's extended following refused to nourish 18-month-old Samuel Robidoux before he died, and buried the boy alongside his stillborn cousin, Jeremiah Corneau, during an October vigil to Maine.
The Christian fundamentalist sect has been labeled a cult by investigators, who have interviewed many of its 23 members, including young children who can recall seeing elders cry at Samuel's deathbed, and were told his body was stored inside a bulkhead before the group traveled to Baxter State Park in Maine to bury him.
The father of missing Samuel, Jacques Robidoux, has been jailed the last six months, remaining defiant the six times he has been called in front of a juvenile court judge.
Acting as his own attorney, 26-year-old Jacques Robidoux appeared as recently as Thursday in court, telling Judge Kenneth Nasif: "Regardless of what the state believes, I have to do what's right between me and God."
The boy's mother, Karen, has invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in the case. Jacques Robidoux has argued that Samuel is a member of a 'sovereign nation,' without a U.S. Social Security number and, therefore, cannot be investigated by the state.
Excerpts from dozens of diaries recovered by investigators during a search of Robidoux's home detail the toddler's suffering in his last few days.
Karen Robidoux had stopped lactating, according to police, and the 24-year-old mother was instructed by her father not to feed her son.
One journal entry, contained in court records, reads: "As the days grew on, Samuel was obviously not being filled. He was thirsty and hungry."
Another entry, contained in the affidavit police prepared in securing a search warrant for Robidoux's home, states: "Satan used the physical sight of Samuel to really get to her [Karen]. He was obviously losing much weight and becoming much weaker."
Bristol County Assistant District Attorney Gerald Fitzgerald said, "We have very good reason to believe that a very young child died as a result of not being fed."
Investigators have kept Bibles close by, constantly searching for passages quoted in the diaries, searching for meaning to the group's cryptic interpretations, preparing evidence for the grand jury to consider charges ranging from child neglect and abuse to murder.
The father of the stillborn baby, 32-year-old David Corneau, admitted in November to burying his son, telling the first investigators who arrived at the Attleboro home where nearly the entire group was living.
Corneau has refused to tell investigators where the baby was buried, saying only that "it was what Jesus told him to do," court papers say.
Robidoux's followers apparently grew more militant in recent years, shunning the outside world, schooling their children at home and restricting members from having contact with doctors, relatives and friends outside the group, police said.
One journal entry contained in court records reads: "Of 4 1/2 billion inhabitants presently breathing, only a handful, a remnant are being trained. The rest are tools of Satan to try and destroy God's anointed."
The grim investigation was opened when Dennis Mingo, married to Robidoux's daughter, discovered 10 pages of handwritten notes detailing Samuel's demise. Mingo, who defected from the group in the fall of 1998, said during a recent interview at his Seekonk home that he had no reason to suspect the group of neglect or abuse before finding the journal notes.
During the last five months, investigators have conducted several intense searches for the bodies of Samuel and Jeremiah without finding a trace of physical evidence. Specially trained police canines searched Robidoux's back yard, the 2 1/2 acres surrounding Mingo's home in neighboring Seekonk, and miles of land in Maine's Baxter State Park, covered in snow when the searches first began.
The lack of physical evidence "is not an obstacle that cannot be overcome" when attempting to bring criminal charges, FitzGerald said.
In Massachusetts, a 1990 case involving Christian Science church members who allowed their 2 1/2-year-old son to die without medical care was the source of controversy, a conviction and appeal. David and Ginger Twitchell were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years' probation despite the prosecution's efforts to send them to jail. The state's Supreme Judicial Court upheld the conviction upon appeal.
The Twitchell boy, however, suffered from an illness not caused by his parents, FitzGerald said. In this case, prosecutors will argue that parental neglect of Samuel led to his illness and death.
The Massachusetts Department of Social Services had removed 11 children from the two homes occupied by group members in Attleboro and Seekonk, where many members once shared Mingo's sprawling yellow farmhouse.
According to court records, Mingo's 9-year-old daughter told police she saw Samuel lifeless while her elders stood nearby crying.
Mingo's 8-year-old son can recall being told that Samuel was buried by a group of male group members as they hiked on Freezeout Trail in the state park, according to court records.
"There is certainly strong evidence that this group went en masse to Maine, and during that time a burial occurred," FitzGerald said.
Visitors to the park with video recorders captured 23 group members on tape, hands clasped, celebrating something they called the "Feast of the Tabernacles," the men wearing long beards and tall hats and the children learning to follow the dance their parents practiced, authorities said. The women wore long-sleeved cotton dresses that covered them from neck to ankle, and avoided the eyes of strangers and ignored greetings from neighbors and strangers alike.
The tape has since been seized by investigators.
In a strange twist on Robidoux's demands that his followers ignore the modern world, the case against the group is comprised largely of computer discs, the printouts he handed out on meetings and diary notes kept on computers by group members.
The adult members apparently remain hunkered down in their Knight Avenue duplex home, which resembles a trailer, its windows shielded by tightly drawn blinds. Like other homes on the street, though, theirs is filled with children's toys. A white picket fence frames the garden, and a spring bonnet decorates the front door. The trucks used by 59-year-old Robidoux, a chimney sweep, and his son, a mason, remain parked in the driveway.
While they were odd, the group next door posed no problems, several Knight Avenue neighbors agreed last week, and some who lived nearby even enjoyed the sounds of singing and organ music at dusk.
Neither Robidoux nor any of his group members responded to requests for interviews.
Today, Mingo, a key witness for the prosecution, has temporary custody of his five children and is seeking a divorce from his childhood sweetheart, Michelle.
Mingo, 35, has known Robidoux and his family since he was a teenager. He watched Jacques Robidoux grow into a high school baseball standout and follow his father's lead into the family contracting business.
For years, Mingo found solace in the tightknit family, mostly related by birth or marriage to Robidoux. But in 1998, Mingo sensed "things were getting out of control" as group members were becoming more isolated and paranoid, he said. He declined to explain further, citing the special grand jury and fear of retribution.
Mingo has placed restraining orders on 13 cult members, including his wife, a group he said spied on his boys and girls as they played in a nearby schoolyard.
Last week, spotting a visitor walking the winding dirt road that leads to their home, the children sprinted for home, shouting for their father.
A 6-foot barbed-wire fence, erected by group members after Mingo left, surrounds the otherwise picturesque property, a traditional New England setting made complete by a sturdy red barn and an old-fashioned swing made from a truck tire.
"I can only say that it's sad, so sad," Mingo said, shaking his head. "I never thought anything like this was going to happen.