Johnston turns self in, again

Neosho Daily News/September 1, 2006
By John Ford

Pineville -- George Otis Johnston turned himself in to McDonald County authorities late Thursday afternoon and immediately posted a $50,000 bond.

Johnston, 63, the pastor of Grandview Valley Baptist Church North in Granby, faces one Class A felony count of first degree child molestation in a ritual or ceremony in McDonald County.

Johnston also faces eight felony counts of statutory sodomy in Newton County, including seven unclassified first degree charges and a Class C second degree count.

The pastor turned himself in to deputies at the McDonald County Sheriff's Department at about 4 p.m. Thursday afternoon, according to Mike LeSueur, a child abuse investigator with the department.

Court documents allege Johnston gave a young church member "angel kisses," commonly known as "French" kisses, before and after Sunday church services while he was associated with the Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church in Washburn. The incidents also included fondling the girl, a felony complaint alleges. A probable cause statement filed by LeSueur said the acts occurred repeatedly until the girl began attending church in Granby.

Four other Grand Valley church leaders - Raymond Lambert, Patricia "Patty" Lambert, Paul Epling and Tom Epling - face felony child sexual abuse charges, with some alleged incidents dating back to 1977 and others involving a child as young as 4.

"In my opinion, these are more serious crimes due to the fact that they're men of God," said LeSueur in a telephone interview Friday morning. "These are men who are looked up to by their congregations. These are men in positions of trust."

LeSueur said society holds people in certain avocations to higher standards, such as ministers, teachers, school bus drivers and police officers.

"When a person in a position of trust violates that trust, it's more serious than when the average citizen does it."

Johnston was arraigned Wednesday in Newton County Division II Associate Circuit Court. Appearing before Judge Greg Stremel, he entered a not guilty plea to all eight felony charges in the brief proceeding. Accompanied by defense counsel David Sims, Johnston then left the courtroom, refusing to answer reporter's questions before retreating to the Sims, Johnson and Wood law office.

A preliminary hearing was set for 1:15 p.m. Sept. 18 in Stremel's courtroom. Johnston also has an adult abuse hearing set for 9 a.m. that day before Judge John LePage in the McDonald County Associate Circuit Court.

On Monday, LePage ruled to maintain a temporary ex parte order of protection on behalf of a 17-year-old woman who said Johnston has been sexually abusing her since she was 8 years old. The ruling came after consulting with Johnston's attorney, Andy Wood, who asked a year-long full order of protection not be granted until after the adult abuse hearing was held.

In a probable cause statement filed by Deputy Mike Barnett, an investigator with the Newton County Sheriff's Department, the girl said when she was 12, Johnston told her he was "ordained by God to fulfill her needs as a woman," adding "that is she would have sexual intercourse with him that she would remain a virgin and remain pure."

And in a probable cause statement filed by LeSueur, one of the McDonald County church leaders told a child he was "preparing her body for service to God."

If convicted of the McDonald County charge, Johnston could face 10 to 30 years to life in prison. The Newton County unclassified felony charges carry the same punishment, while he may receive up to seven years in prison if convicted of the Class C felony count.

A total of 14 children have been removed from the Grandview Valley Baptist Church North compound, located in rural Granby less than a mile from East Newton High School.

Deputies with the McDonald County Sheriff's Department, along with juvenile officers from the 40th Circuit Court, served a search warrant Wednesday night at the Grand Valley compound near Powell. They found eight children, ranging in age from one month to 16 years, but the four accused church leaders were not present. The Lamberts and the Epling brothers are believed to be in Oklahoma, and are staying in a travel trailer, LeSueur said Thursday.

Geeding said Thursday there were no travel limitations placed on the four accused McDonald County church leaders, as long as they show up for a scheduled preliminary hearing Oct. 2.

Meanwhile, Newton County authorities continue to question witnesses in the Grandview Valley case.

LeSueur said anyone with first hand knowledge of sexual abuse should contact him at 223-4319 or their local law enforcement agency.

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