Doctor: Mother let baby starve

Despite being under the influence of a controlling religious sect, Karen Robidoux could have done something to prevent the child's death, a child nutrition expert testifies.

Providence Journal/January 27, 2004
By Michael P. McKinney

Taunton -- Karen E. Robidoux's defense lawyer and a pediatrician agreed she was under the control of an Attleboro religious sect, but the expert insisted Robidoux could have saved her infant and not carried out the sect's vision that required her to deny solid food to the boy.

"She knew perfectly well that the child was dying," nutrition expert Dr. Eli H. Newberger said yesterday in a combative exchange with lawyer Joseph F. Krowski on the third day of testimony in Robidoux's murder trial. Newberger, a prosecution witness who once helped Peace Corps volunteers assist starving people in West African countries, testified that based on a psychologist's evaluation of Robidoux and on notes by sect leaders, he believed Robidoux could have left the house, signaled neighbors or something else to get help.

But just as several former sect members have testified, Daniel Horton yesterday said leaving was hardly like walking out the door. He tried to quit the sect four times, succeeding with his wife and five children on the fourth attempt.

Horton said sect leaders spread fear in people either born into sect households -- such as Karen Robidoux -- or those indoctrinated over just a few years. Anyone who left was warned he was rejoining a world controlled by Satan. Anyone who left was leaving their loved one and children behind -- with no assurances of the loved ones' future safety. And for a woman, who was always submissive to the man in a sect marriage, it could be harder. Robidoux was married to Jacques Robidoux, a sect elder.

"I felt that my life had been taken away, that I couldn't make a decision about anything," Horton testified. These days, he added, "I am ashamed and repulsed by the teachings of the group."

Yesterday, 12 jurors and 4 alternates got a look at the boy's resting place: photos of the plywood box in which he was buried in Maine's Baxter State Park. Experts testified that Samuel Robidoux's bones had brittle, hole-riddled areas -- called "porosity" -- throughout, a tell-tale sign of starvation in the last months of his life.

Samuel Robidoux was 11 months old when he died in 1999 after subsisting on a 51-day diet of only breast milk -- the result of a vision by sect member G. Michelle Mingo that said Robidoux needed to begin the feeding regimen to atone for vanity in her appearance. As part of the vision, Robidoux had to drink a gallon or more of almond milk each day. She was required to breast feed for 10 minutes, on the hour, 24 hours a day, Krowski said. Krowski argued that Mingo's motivation, veiled in religious overtones, was jealousy: Robidoux is thin and petite; Mingo is heavyset.

Because Robidoux was pregnant at the same time, she could not produce enough breast milk for Samuel. The almond milk also did not provide enough of the nutrients a mother needs to nurse, especially with another child in the womb.

Samuel Robidoux died because the sect-imposed feeding regimen provided him insufficient vitamin C, Dr. Marcella Sorg, a forensic anthropologist, testified yesterday.

Krowski's questioning, however, touched upon Robidoux's breast-feeding of Samuel, and, at one point, how she tried to give the baby some applesauce -- only to be stopped by sect leaders.

Experts testified to the boy's pain and the incessant crying brought on by hunger.

Krowski has gotten former sect members to describe how they spanked their children with sect-authorized paddles, gave up music, eyeglasses, entertainment and shunned contact with people outside the sect or who disobeyed sect leaders.

Assistant District Attorney Walter Shea has gotten former members to admit that many decisions were their own. Some of them left of their own will, while others were put out. One member, Nicole Kidson, defied a sect edict that banned eyeglasses.

Under questioning from Krowski, Newberger agreed that the sect, by equipping members with paddles to spank their children, created an environment of fear that could have made it hard -- but hardly impossible -- for someone to defy them. And he agreed that Robidoux was, "no question," under sect control.

Newberger said there is no question that people can be controlled in certain settings. "But this does not mean they are totally unmoored from their role as human beings," Newberger said.

Newberger said notes from the defense's psychologist have shown Robidoux admitted she was aware of what she was doing when the boy starved. Newberger conceded under questioning he had not interviewed former sect members or Karen Robidoux in coming to his conclusion that she could have gotten the child out of the sect.

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