TTLEBORO - Outside the courthouse where he won custody of his five children yesterday, former cult member Dennis Mingo recalled how difficult it had been to escape the tight grip of the obscure sect that, authorities believe, allowed a 10-month-old baby to starve to death.
When he left the Christian group in November 1997, Mingo said, he had to leave behind his wife, children, and ''family members'' in the fundamentalist sect. ''I hung in there as long as I could,'' said Mingo, 36, a member for nearly 11 years. ''I didn't want to leave my family, but I couldn't live with what was going on.''
''It began as harmless Bible study,'' he said. ''But before you knew it, you're caught in something that you would never have imagined in a million years.''
The group home-schools its children, bases its lifestyle on Old Testament Scriptures, and says it does not have to answer to the government. Some members believe they communicate directly with God, said Mingo, who initiated a police investigation last fall when he discovered a member's diary which Mingo has said describes how God willed the starvation of Samuel Robidoux, the child of cult leader Jacques Robidoux.
Since November, eight sect members have been jailed for refusing to answer questions about the death of Samuel and another child, Jeremiah Courneau, who police believe may have been stillborn. Investigators have searched Attleboro, Seekonk, and parts of Baxter State Park in Maine for the bodies of the two children without result.
Although Mingo won custody of his children, custody rights for the parents of eight children from the cult's other three families were dissolved in juvenile court yesterday and on Wednesday. The Department of Social Services has taken custody of the children and will make them available for adoption. ''The court terminated the rights of all parents who remain actively committed to this religious group,'' said DSS spokeswoman Carol Yelverton. ''This finally takes the children out of limbo.''
Mingo's children have been under his supervision since the DSS probe began. However, his wife, Michelle, whose parental rights were terminated in yesterday's proceedings, is among those in jail for not cooperating with the Bristol County grand jury investigating the disappearances of Samuel Robidoux and Jeremiah Courneau.
Michelle has not talked with Mingo since God instructed her not to do so early last year, Mingo said.
Waiting yesterday for his case to be called, Mingo heard the familiar sound of leg shackles, which told him his wife must be near. ''The rattle of the chains has started, so I know Michelle is here,'' he said.
Minutes later, chained at her wrists and ankles, Michelle was led from a holding area to the courtroom, her expression blank as she passed her estranged husband.
''She's basically given up on herself,'' Mingo said. ''She's like two different people. On the outside, she's rough and jaded. But on the inside, she's so genuine.''
Mingo said his wife is so brainwashed that she does not understand that she has lost all legal right to their children.
''Today didn't mean anything to her. She's rationalized in her head that this is just temporary,'' Mingo said. ''I'm sure she thinks it is just a test from God. These people don't believe in time and chance - everything in their life is mandated by God.''
Mingo added, ''Michelle loves her children to death, and at some point, it's going to hit her hard.''
The group rejects legal counsel and has kept to its code of silence. In court, Robidoux has told Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth P. Nasif that the fate of his son is between him and God.
Other cult members, Mingo said, have probably considered leaving the group, but feel trapped, not wanting to leave their family.
Mingo tries to remain optimistic about his wife. One day, for the children's sake, he hopes she returns to her real family. But he knows that day may be far off.
''In a group like this, you always feel like there is something wrong with you,'' he said. ''I'm still healing.''