DSS keeps custody of cultists' 4 children

Boston Phoenix/October 27, 2000
By Dave Wedge

As more signs surfaced that an Attleboro cult's solidarity may be crumbling, state officials said two members will have to visit a deprogrammer before they can get their kids back.

"They must demonstrate they're getting the help they need and come to grips with what's happened," Department of Social Services spokeswoman Carol Yelverton said of David and Rebecca Corneau. "It's been made quite clear to them what they have to do."

Yelverton said the Corneaus, who are fighting for custody of their four children - including a newborn - may have to undergo "exit counseling" before the state would consider reinstating their parental rights. The DSS has taken 13 children away from the fundamentalist sect since a criminal probe began last year into the deaths of the Corneaus' son, Jeremiah, and his 10-month-old cousin, Samuel Robidoux.

Jeremiah died during a home birth, while Samuel allegedly starved to death after the group stopped feeding him solid food. Samuel's parents, Jacques and Karen Robidoux, grandfather, Roland Robidoux, and aunt, Michelle Robidoux Mingo, are the focus of an ongoing probe into Samuel's death.

Possible charges range from manslaughter to murder, prosecutors say. David Corneau, 33, is expected to testify before the grand jury next week as part of an immunity deal struck with Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr.

Three days ago, Corneau led investigators deep into the woods of Maine's Baxter State Park to the shallow, unmarked graves of the two boys, who had been missing for more than a year.

Under the terms of the deal, the couple have been granted immunity, in exchange for David Corneau's testimony. The deal also calls for Walsh's office to pay for the boys' burials once medical exams of the remains are complete. Forensic and DNA testing is expected to take several weeks.

Yesterday, Attleboro Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Nasif denied the Corneaus' request to have their 2-week-old daughter returned to them. The baby, who is now staying with a relative, was born while 32-year-old Rebecca Corneau was hospitalized against her will.

She and her husband, who was released from jail after invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination last month, have since returned to the cult's Attleboro duplex and appeared in court yesterday hand-in-hand, along with two other members.

But in yet another sign that the group may be weakening, 24-year-old Karen Robidoux did not accompany the Corneaus to court, as she has on every other occasion. Also conspicuously absent from the proceeding was Vivian Daneau, wife of Roger Daneau, one of the group's founders.

"I don't even want to guess what's going on in that house," ex-member Dennis Mingo said. "I was surprised. I expected them all to be here."

David Corneau's attorney, Robert George, wouldn't speculate as to why Karen Robidoux did not attend the hearing, but insisted all is normal in the cult house, despite David Corneau's flip-flop.

"There's no rift in that house. In the real world, this might cause a rift, but that's not happening here," George said.

Members of the insular group are reportedly in constant contact with Jacques Robidoux, the sect's 27-year-old leader, and his father, Roland Robidoux, another founder and leader, through letters and phone calls. The pair remain in prison because they refused to testify before a grand jury and chose not to invoke the Fifth Amendment.

The group bases its beliefs on the Old Testament and denounces seven mainstream institutions, including the legal and medical systems.

David Corneau, an "intelligent" man with an engineering background, wants his children back and is "doing what's best for his family," but is not ready to defect from the group, his attorney said.

"It's a process that has to be gone through," George said. "He knows what he has to do, but this is his family. His people. It's not an easy thing for him to just leave."

"It's a very sad situation," added noted cult expert Robert Pardon, who was appointed a guardian for the newborn. "If David and Rebecca were willing to get the help they need, they could definitely make good parents. I believe David has to make the right choices, and that he will."

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