Mass. v. Robidoux: Cult dad starves baby

Court TV/July 17, 2002

When the infant son of an obscure cult died after being denied solid food for almost two months, the father said he believed he was following God's will. But prosecutors called it murder.

Prosecutors say that Jacques Robidoux intentionally starved his son to fulfill a religious vision that his sister said she had regarding the baby's diet.

The defendant's sister, Michelle Mingo instructed Robidoux's wife Karen to drink only almond milk in order to eliminate vanity - and told her that she should only feed the child breast milk.

For 52 days, Jacques and Karen adhered to the regimen - only to find baby Samuel dead on April 26, 1999, just three days before he reached his first birthday.

Jacques Robidoux says he takes full responsibility for Samuel's death, but says he was only following what he thought was God's orders. His defense also contends that reasonable doubt exists because Samuel died of unknown causes.

But prosecutors called baby Samuel's death a homicide, charging the 29-year-old father with first-degree murder. Karen, 26, was charged with second-degree murder, while Michelle, 37, faces charges of being an accessory to assault and battery on a child. The women are expected to be tried in September.

Jacques Robidoux, however, was tried first in June in Bristol County Superior Court, Taunton, Mass.

A Deadly Diet

Prosecutors allege Samuel's parents began depriving their son of solid foods in March 1999, after Michelle Mingo said she had a vision. According to the cult's philosophies, members followed "leadings," or what they believed to be direct communications from God, from other members.

Mingo's leading was that Karen was vain because she was slim, and needed to eliminate such a vice. To do so, Mingo instructed Karen to drink a gallon of almond milk a day and only feed Samuel water and breast milk 20 minutes every hour.

Prosecutors contended that Jacques Robidoux encouraged his wife to maintain this regimen.

On April 26, Samuel died.

Three months after Samuel's death, Rebecca Corneau, the defendant's sister, and her husband David, both cult members, say she gave birth to a baby that was stillborn.

Prosecutors say that in October the cult took a trip to Baxter State Park in Maine for a religious celebration called the Feast of Tabernacles - and that the tiny bodies of Samuel Robidoux and Jeremiah Corneau were buried there.

Meanwhile, Robidoux's former brother-in-law, Dennis Mingo, who left the cult long before Samuel's death, turned over a 10-page handwritten account he found in his home detailing Samuel's death.

After meeting with Mingo in November, police arrest Jacques Robidoux, who was later found in contempt of court for refusing to cooperate.

It was a year before police found the remains of the two small children.

The Body

The cult, which has no official name but has been referred to as "The Body," began in 1978 after Roland Robidoux decided to leave the World Wide Church of God (WWCG), which he originally joined in the early 1970s because of its strict Christian beliefs. According to published reports, he sought to establish a church that would truly serve God.

After leaving the WWCG, Roland Robidoux and his family formed weekly Bible study groups out of their home. Roland believed God was beckoning him to abandon the church and form his own. At its peak, the cult had 70 followers, mostly disgruntled members of the WWCG. Roland said they were God's chosen people.

In 1986, Roland Robidoux met up with his longtime friend, Roger Daneau - Karen's father. Roland and Roger had attended Catholic school together as kids. Daneau's family joined study groups led by Roland.

Throughout, Roland became the leader of the cult, controlling their lives, right down to their diets. He also urged the members to cut off ties with anyone who was not a believer, including family members. Roland also rejected traditional religious music, so the group composed its own.

Eventually, Roland came across a book, "Born in Zion," that was written by Carol Balizet, a former nurse who became a spiritual midwife. She urged a complete withdrawal from society because it was dominated by what she termed "Satan's seven counterfeit systems" - education, medicine, commerce, banking, entertainment, schools, and government. Balizet proposed living life according to God's directions, to obey God without objections or concerns with the outcome.

The book also says that women should shy away from the established medical system when giving birth. Instead, she endorses women giving birth at home with the help of a spiritual midwife.

In the late 1990s, members began what they called "leadings," or direct communications with God, which became the framework of the sect's theology. Among the "leadings" members say they received from God were orders to stop using eyeglasses, throw out photographs, books and forms of entertainment.

Another "leading" stated that women should wear only dresses. The group preached that the man is the head of the household and makes all the decisions on behalf of the family.

The sect members lived in several homes in communal arrangements. They meet every Saturday, on the Sabbath, for Bible study and "sharing," where members discuss their lives among themselves. They owned several businesses where the members worked.

Several cult members, including Roland Robidoux's own children, quit the church because of its strict rules and increasing withdrawal from society.

Jacques supported his family through his window cleaning business until, as his brother-in-law puts it, God "called upon him to drop his Squeegee." He quit working, and he and his family moved into the home of then-cult members Renee and Daniel Horton.

He and Karen married in 1996 and had three children together - Jollie, 5; Caleb, 3, and Samuel. At the time of their marriage, Karen, now 26, was already the mother of two children, now ages 10 and 12, by different fathers.

Shortly before Samuel's death, Jacques became an "elder" of the cult, making him a leader alongside his father Roland, who founded the religious sect.

Pretrial Drama

The prosecution subpoenaed several of the key members of the Body, whom they wanted to testify about Samuel's deteriorating condition, but they asserted their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

The members would also be able to authenticate certain writings and notes police recovered which describe Samuel's weakening health. Those journals of notes taken by members during their religious meetings could impeach witnesses if their testimony differed on the stand from previous statements.

Although the Massachusetts grand jury that heard the case declined to indict them, the members' attorneys argued they could face criminal charges in Maine if they testified about Samuel's death and disposal of his remains, a misdemeanor that would be punishable with jail time. The judge agreed a Fifth Amendment privilege applied to Samuel's grandparents.

On the eve of his trial, Jacques Robidoux sought to fire his attorney because he felt that lawyer Francis O'Boy would not adequately portray him and his religious convictions to the jury. He explained that the media's references to "the Body" were incorrect because the sect doesn't call itself that.

Robidoux also argued in a motion he wrote himself that the state of Massachusetts has no jurisdiction over him and his wife because they had declared independence from the government.

On June 4, 2002, Roland Robidoux published a legal notice in The Sun Chronicle of Attleboro, which stated that any ties "implied by the operation of law or otherwise in trust with the democracy is hereby dissolved."

The judge, however, denied that motion.

The Stakes

Barring an acquittal, the jury had several decisions to make.

If they chose to convict Robidoux, the jury had to decide whether to find him guilty of first or second-degree murder. First-degree murder would mean a mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, while second-degree murder carried a sentence of life in prison but parole elibility after 15 years.

If they didn't believe that Samuel's death was a murder, they had the option of convicting him of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a 20-year sentence, or of assault, which is punishable by a term of two-and-a-half years.

The Verdict

After six-and-a-half hours of deliberations over two days, the jury of six men and six women found Jacques Robidoux guilty of first degree murder on June 14, 2002.

Because the first-degree murder conviction carries a mandatory life sentence, Judge Elizabeth B. Donovan sentenced Robidoux accordingly immediately after the verdict was read.

The Aftermath

The state child welfare agency awarded custody of Jacques' youngest children, Caleb and Jollie, to Nicole Kidson, his sister. They all live in Belmont, Maine. Karen's two children from previous relationships are living with their respective fathers.

In August 2000, Bristol County Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth P. Nasif terminated Michelle Mingo's parental rights and awarded her husband Dennis custody of their five children, Rachel, Zachary, Hannah, Rosalynne and Jonathan, then ages 3 to 10.

Trinette and Mark Daneau's infant daughter Rebecca was placed in state custody, which sought to award permanent custody to the child's aunt.

The judge agreed with the Department of Social Services which argued that the sect members were unfit as parents because they did not send the children to school, nor did they provide them with medical care or adequate nourishment.

As of June 2002, all but four of the 12 children have been adopted or permanently placed with relatives not associated with the sect. Rebecca and David Corneau continue fighting the state's efforts to terminate their parental rights to their four children: Emmalyne, 8, Elizabeth Rose, 6, Sarah Anne, 4, and Kattereina Elise, 1.

On June 18, 2002, four days after a jury convicted Jacques, Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Nasif released David and Rebecca Corneau, who had been in jail on contempt charges for refusing to tell authorities what became of their youngest child. The Massachusetts Department of Social Services alleged the Corneaus are hiding a child Rebecca had to keep the state from taking custody. The couple had been in jail since February 5, 2002.

Their attorney has said publicly that Rebecca delivered a stillborn child at the home of a family friend in November 2001. The Corneaus refuse to answer questions about their stillborn child, asserting their Fifth Amendment rights.

Judge Nasif ruled that the court had reached a standstill in forcing the Corneaus to cooperate. He said the case is better pursued by the district attorney's office and the grand jury, which is investigating the child's death.

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