Prison visit led to cult-case break

Associated Press/October 26, 2000
By Jay Lindsay

Rev. Robert Pardon's visit to David Corneau was about to end like other prison visits he'd made to members of a religious sect - with a firm ''I don't want to talk to you,'' a turned back and a swift exit. But then Pardon mentioned Corneau's three little girls, and everything changed.

Corneau turned to face Pardon and his associate, Judith Barba. His eyes filled with tears as they talked about his children and how much they knew he loved them.

When Corneau left the room at the Suffolk County jail several minutes later, he grabbed the pictures of his girls and took them. That's when Pardon knew Corneau might eventually break ranks.

By taking the pictures, he defied cult leaders who said members must be willing to lose custody of their children, rather than cooperate in the search for two babies who'd disappeared from the sect's Attleboro home. ''He broke the rules,'' said Pardon, court-appointed guardian of the cult's 13 children.

Three months after that July meeting, Corneau on Tuesday led authorities to two coffins in an unmarked grave deep in the woods of Maine's Baxter State Park. Corneau's newborn son, Jeremiah Corneau, and nephew, Samuel Robidoux, are believed to have been buried there.

Prosecutors believe Jeremiah Corneau died shortly after childbirth, and Samuel Robidoux starved to death. An initial examination of the bodies was inconclusive, Maine's medical examiner, Dr. Margaret Greenwald, said Wednesday. The results are expected in several weeks.

Corneau's deal with prosecutors includes immunity from prosecution for Corneau, his wife, Rebecca, and three other cult members. But Corneau's attorney, Robert George, said regaining custody of his children - now in state care - was a primary motivation.

Corneau was scheduled to testify Tuesday before a grand jury. A refusal to do so would have sent him back to jail on contempt charges. He ordered George to negotiate a deal before Tuesday, George said.

Going back to jail ''would have destroyed his custody fight,'' George said. ''It would have destroyed it.''

Sect members reject the legal system, organized religion, banking, science and medicine. Their refusal to cooperate with the grand jury investigation landed eight of them, including Corneau, in jail for contempt of court. But Corneau was identified early as someone who might break from the group by Pardon, executive director of The New England Institute of Religious Research, an anti-cult organization.

George said Corneau's wife, Rebecca, does not agree with his actions, but may be defer to him as the head of the household. George added that he has visited Corneau at home in Attleboro since the search, and things seemed calm.

Former cult members described Corneau as an exceptionally devoted father, Pardon said. He had married into the group, so his ties weren't as strong. He occasionally expressed doubts about the leadership - something other members wouldn't do.

And, despite the stone-faced visage he offered TV cameras at court appearances, he was one of few cult members interviewed by Pardon who showed emotion.

Pardon said he brought the children's pictures to his meeting with Corneau in hopes his parental instincts were stronger than his loyalty to the cult.

The first public sign that Corneau would break from the group came in September when he hired George, pleaded the Fifth Amendment and was freed from jail. It was his first acknowledgment of the legal system.

The birth of a daughter this month and the pending grand jury hearing increased the pressure on him, George said.

Barba said Corneau's decision to cut a deal has probably left him at odds with the group, and in personal turmoil. He may believe he's defied the will of God.

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