Some charges dropped in U.S. church sex abuse case

The Associated Press/December 6, 2006

Pineville, Missouri -- Some charges have been dropped in a case involving five leaders of a southwest Missouri church commune accused of abusing young girls from their congregation as far back as the late 1970s.

One of the defendants, church deacon Tom Epling, had all counts of statutory sodomy dismissed against him.

But charges remain against the other four defendants, including Raymond Lambert, 51, the pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church, and his wife, Patty Lambert, 49.

The Lamberts appeared Tuesday in McDonald County Circuit Court and waived formal arraignment in the upper division of the court. He still faces seven felony counts of child sexual abuse, and she faces one count of child molestation.

Raymond Lambert had been facing eight felony counts and his wife two felony counts at the time of their preliminary hearing on Oct. 2.

On Nov. 27, Associate Judge Gregory Stremel ordered Raymond Lambert bound over for trial on seven counts, throwing out one count of sexual abuse. The judge also ordered Patty Lambert to stand trial on a single count of second-degree child molestation, dismissing a second similar count.

The judge at that time also dismissed two remaining counts of felony sodomy against Epling, 51.

Epling initially had faced five felony counts for acts allegedly committed with a girl between 1976 and 1978, when she was 4 and 5 years old. The girl was a daughter of church members. The five original counts were amended to two counts by the McDonald County prosecutor's office in late September.

Robert Evenson, the attorney representing the Lamberts, Tom Epling and Epling's brother, Paul Epling, 53, said the judge dismissed the charges against Tom Epling because a three-year statute of limitations was in place in Missouri at the time of the alleged offenses.

Similarly, two counts of felony sodomy against Paul Epling for alleged sexual acts with a girl who belonged to the church between 1976 and 1983 and was 4 to 10 years old at the time, have been dismissed, Evenson said.

Paul Epling is still charged with raping a second girl when she was 6, and a preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 18.

Laura Epling, Tom Epling's wife, also has a preliminary hearing scheduled for that date. She still faces a single count of second-degree statutory sodomy. She is accused of assisting Raymond Lambert in sexually molesting a former female member of the church about two to four years ago, when the victim was 15 or 16.

The charges against the Lamberts pertain to alleged sexual abuse of church children between 1995 and 2004, and the statute of limitations in effect for those years does not apply, according to the prosecutor's office.

A trial date has yet to be set for the Lamberts. A pretrial conference is scheduled for Jan. 16.

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