Taunton -- Fear overcame Renee Horton. Her nephew Samuel Robidoux's eyes were sunken, his pudgy cheeks a memory. But when she confronted the infant's father, her brother-in-law, he warned her: Accept the boy's starvation as God's will, believe the infant will survive, or your family will suffer.
Four years later, Samuel is with God. Photographs of his bones are a courtroom exhibit. Horton testified through tears in Superior Court yesterday that she tried a few times to tell the boy's father, Jacques Robidoux -- a powerful elder in the insular Attleboro religious sect -- that this "vision" for the 11-month-old was wrong.
Horton, no longer a sect member, said Jacques Robidoux threatened her in response. At a sect meeting, Samuel was present for all to see, weeks into his sect-imposed regimen of no solid food. Yet these were people who no longer believed their eyes, people who agreed to ban eyeglasses as tools of Satan.
"I told [Jacques Robidoux] that it didn't make any sense. That if this was truly about Karen [Robidoux's] vanity, then nursing Samuel would do no good," Horton said on the fourth day of testimony in the murder trial of her sister Karen E. Robidoux, Samuel's mother. "He said, 'This is what God said.' "
The Attleboro sect, founded by Roland Robidoux -- Jacques' father -- by the late 1990s rejected the outside world and handed down sometimes extreme visions, or "leadings," that members were to follow. Sect member G. Michelle Mingo claimed to have a vision from God that said Samuel must be only breast-fed. The reason? Karen Robidoux must atone for vain interest in her appearance.
The boy had already begun eating solid food. The breast-milk regimen left him dead in April 1999 after 51 days. Karen Robidoux could not produce enough breast milk for Samuel because she was pregnant at the time, according to the prosecutor and the defense lawyer. As part of the sect's vision, she was ordered to drink at least a gallon a day of almond milk, which did not provide enough nutrients.
Karen and Jacques Robidoux lived in the basement of Renee and Dan Horton's house during the time Samuel weakened. Karen Robidoux, 29, and Renee Horton, 33, are daughters of Roger and Vivian Daneau, who were heavily involved in the sect. Horton testified that, prior to March 1999, Samuel was sitting up by himself, crawling, beginning to explore. Once the diet began, she only saw him being held.
Horton said that the day she heard Mingo's vision, she told Karen Robidoux it was "ridiculous." Robidoux, she said, sobbed. Horton said similar moments would follow, with Robidoux saying she didn't know what to do and, at one point, collapsing in Horton's arms.
"At one point, 'Karen said, I can't take this anymore,' " Horton recalled for the 12 jurors and 4 alternates.
Walter Shea, the Bristol County assistant district attorney, zeroed in on opportunities when Karen Robidoux -- and others around her -- might have exercised free will to save Samuel.
How close was the nearest hospital to their house? Shea asked.
About one mile, Horton said.
How far away was a grocery store?
About five miles, Horton said.
How far away was the police department?
About one mile, Horton said.
Yes, Horton said, there was a phone in the house.
Yet Daniel Horton, Renee's husband, said he felt "paralyzed" in the sect by the fear instilled by leaders such as Roland Robidoux. Under questioning from defense lawyer Joseph F. Krowski, he testified that because of the sect indoctrination "the thought didn't enter into my mind" that Samuel Robidoux would die.
There was no way Jacques Robidoux would ever let Karen Robidoux leave? Krowski asked. "I couldn't picture it," Daniel Horton said.
Krowski, Robidoux's lawyer, has gotten the Hortons and most former sect members to testify that they were powerless and that they did things in the sect they would not contemplate now, such as a trip to Maine in which their children were denied food for some three days.
Renee Horton, however, was more resistant to Krowski's assertions. He challenged her more aggressively, talking up the fact that she had immunity from prosecution to testify against her sister but asserting that she did not take action to help Robidoux and her baby.