In an unprecedented move aimed at protecting an unborn child, Bristol County prosecutors are seeking to lock up a pregnant Attleboro cult member suspected of helping cover up the death of her last baby.
"Someone must act to protect that baby," Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. said of the 8 -month-old fetus inside Rebecca Corneau. "This petition is unusual, but so are the circumstances. I would never forgive myself if I stood by doing nothing and then something bad happened to that baby."
Corneau, 32, was deemed an unfit mother two weeks ago by an Attleboro Juvenile Court judge, and her three children were put into Department of Social Services custody.
This morning, Walsh was slated to appear before the same Attleboro judge to argue a first-of-its-kind "pre-emptive care" petition, which aims to put Corneau into state custody until her child is born.
"She's never provided information about the birth of her last baby," Walsh said in a statement obtained by the Herald yesterday. "She says he was born dead, that we should take her word for it. That's not good enough."
The DA's move is believed to be the first time in Massachusetts history that prosecutors have sought to jail a mother to protect her unborn child, and it could be a nationwide first.
"What's unusual here is the child isn't born yet," a source said yesterday. "But Mrs. Corneau has created a Catch-22 where she's tied the hands of authorities."
If Walsh's care and protection petition is granted, Corneau would be placed into a "secure health facility" where the baby would be born and then taken into DSS custody.
DSS couldn't file its own petition to take the unborn child because, by definition, the agency only acts on behalf of children. But, the source said, DSS is not opposing Walsh's action.
Corneau is one of 13 members of an Attleboro-based fringe religious sect suspected of burying two young boys in a Maine state park last fall. Corneau's son, Jeremiah, is believed to have been stillborn, but police have no proof because the cult doesn't file birth records or use hospitals, doctors or midwives.
The other child, 10-month-old Samuel Robidoux, allegedly starved to death after he stopped nursing.
His father, 27-year-old reputed cult leader Jacques Robidoux, is behind bars - along with seven other members - for refusing to talk before a grand jury probing the boys' disappearances. Jeremiah's father, David Corneau, is among those locked up.
Samuel's mother, Karen Robidoux, invoked her Fifth Amendement right against self-incrimination and is free. Members of the group could face charges ranging from improper disposal of a body, to murder, even though the bodies haven't been recovered.
According to prosecutors, the boys' bodies were placed in two tiny makeshift coffins, driven to Maine's Baxter State Park and buried in a remote area by four adult male members, including Robidoux and Corneau.
Police have unsuccessfully searched sections of the park three times, most recently two weeks ago with the help of relatives of cult members. Investigators have also come up empty in searches at the group's Attleboro home, their former Seekonk commune and in Pawtucket, R.I.
According to one source, the case has rattled Walsh, a hard-nosed DA who is the father of a young girl.
"He literally has trouble sleeping over this case," the source said. While investigators admit the case is frustrating, Walsh says his main reason for filing the petition against Corneau is to protect the newborn - not put more heat on the cult.
"The court has ruled that she's too dangerous to keep custody of her children," Walsh said. "I don't want to stand by only to discover that she gave birth again, but won't tell anyone where the baby is or how the baby is doing. I don't want to wait, only to have her say, `Oh, this baby died a week ago and I won't tell you where the body is.' "
The source said if the DA simply wanted to put Corneau behind bars, "he could have done it weeks ago." The jailed cult members were systematically locked up one-by-one for contempt of court, for refusing to talk to the grand jury.
Walsh says he fears the child, like those born before it to Corneau and other cult members, would be born in seclusion and placed into danger. The group has little contact with outsiders and shuns modern medicine and society.
"I have no faith that Mrs. Corneau or her child are out of medical danger," he said. "I have no faith she will inform authorities of the child's birth in time to be certain the child is cared for properly."
The judge's decision today could have immediate repurcussions as another woman in the cult is pregnant, according to sources.
Corneau has been served a summons and was expected to appear in court this morning. None of the cult members have lawyers and all refuse to acknowledge the court system. All have also repeatedly refused to talk to the media.
The case has garnered widespread media attention and will be the subject of an upcoming segment on Dateline NBC.