Newton County pastor at-large

Neosho Daily News, Missouri/August 24, 2006
By John Ford

Another person has accused a Newton County pastor of child sexual abuse, Newton County Sheriff Ken Copeland reported this morning.

Copeland said investigators were interviewing a second alleged victim in the case against George Otis Johnston at this time.

“We're in the process of taking statements,” Copeland said in a telephone interview this morning. “If and when that is complete, we will give our reports to the prosecutor.”

Copeland said it was too early to tell if Johnston, 63, will face additional charges.

Arrest warrants have been issued for the missing pastor, whose church, Grandview Valley Baptist Church North, is believed to be an offshoot of the Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church in McDonald County. The church is about a mile northeast of East Newton High School.

Johnston faces eight felony counts of statutory sodomy: Seven unclassified charges of deviate sexual intercourse with one or more persons under the age of 12, and one Class C felony charge of statutory sodomy.

According to a probable cause statement filed by Deputy Mike Barnett, an investigator with the Newton County Sheriff's Department, the first alleged victim told authorities Johnston began touching her at the age of 8, kissing her on the mouth and putting his tongue in her mouth. She said Johnston unbuttoned her pants and fondled her private area.

At the age of 12, the victim told Barnett, Johnston attempted to have sexual intercourse with her.

“[She] stated that Pastor George Johnston stated to her that if she would have sexual intercourse with him that she would remain a virgin and would remain pure,” Barnett wrote in the statement.

The girl told Johnston she did not want to have sex with him, and that he did not force her to. However, he continued to fondle her private area two to three times a week until she was 17 years old.

Additionally, the girl told Barnett, on several occasions Johnston exposed himself to her and made her fondle him.

“[She] stated that when she was approximately 14 years old, there was an incident that was more forceful than the previous incidents stated,” Barnett wrote.

The girl told the investigator that while seated in a chair in the living room in a pair of boxer shorts, Johnston exposed himself and forced the girl to strip. No sexual penetration occurred, the investigator said in his report.

No arrest in the case has been made as of Thursday morning, although Copeland said his office is investigating several tips, including several derived from news reports on the incidents. Many in the Granby area reported Wednesday night they have not seen Johnston or church members in about a week.

Johnston's church is located on Hebron Road near Granby. About 30 people reside in several trailer homes on the property.

Authorities in both Newton and McDonald counties have said the church is an offshoot of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church of Washburn. On Thursday, Copeland confirmed the relationship, saying Johnston was the uncle of McDonald County pastor Raymond Lambert, and that while the church split about six or eight years ago, the groups remain “sister” churches and have functions together on occasion.

Four leaders of the McDonald County church have pleaded not guilty to child sexual abuse charges, some of which date back to 1977.

Lambert, 51, his wife, Patty Lambert, 49, and her brothers, Tom Epling, 51, and Paul Epling, 53, were arraigned on child sexual abuse charges Monday. A preliminary hearing has been set for 1 p.m. Oct. 2 in McDonald County Associate Circuit Court Judge John LePage's courtroom.

Raymond Lambert is the pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church, while the Epling brothers are deacons in the church. The Eplings and Patty Lambert are the children of church founder Cecil Epling.

All four were booked into the McDonald County Jail Monday afternoon, and promptly posted bond. Bond was set at $50,000 for Lambert and the Epling brothers, while Patty Lambert's bond was set at $30,000.

Bond has been set for George Otis Johnston at $50,000, according to court documents.

The Granby case parallels the McDonald County one in at least one aspect.

According to a probable cause statement filed by McDonald County Deputy Mike LeSueur, a child sex abuse investigator, Paul Epling reportedly told a child he was “preparing her body for service to God.” Meanwhile, Barnett's statement said Johnston told a 12-year-old girl he was “ordained by God to fulfill her needs as a woman.”

LeSueur said in a telephone interview Wednesday night he was told of abuse incidents at the Granby church by a former McDonald County church member who came forward with abuse allegations. He then passed the Newton County allegations over to Barnett, who began his investigation.

“I stumbled onto the information in the course of interviewing my victims,” LeSueur said. “As soon as I got the information, I shared it with Newton County.”

LeSueur said he spoke with Newton County investigators about 30 to 45 minutes about the case, but has not been working closely with the department on investigating the churches.

Copeland said his investigators visited the Granby compound several times last week, but no one would answer the door when deputies knocked. He added on Monday, a woman answered the door at one of the trailers, then slammed it in the deputy's faces.

Deputies called in investigators with the Division of Family Services. These investigators can enter a home without a warrant if they have probable cause to believe abuse is taking place.

Four children - ages 5, 9, 13 and 15 - were removed from the trailer, and placed into protective custody. The children include both boys and girls.

The church operates a dairy farm with numerous head of cattle.

On Wednesday evening, a man driving a tractor at the Granby farm said he was advised by his attorney not to comment, and to ask visitors politely to leave. The man said he could not give reporters from the Neosho Daily News his name. He then left for a nearby pasture.

Another man spotted as reporters drove up did not acknowledge them, but continued walking to one of the buildings on the property.

Copeland said while four children have been taken into protective custody, others may remain on the compound. On Wednesday night, two teenage boys could be seen playing basketball on a goal on the property, but went inside when reporters drove up.

LeSueur said while the four accused church members remain in McDonald County, all of the others have fled.

“We don't know of any children left at our compound,” LeSueur said. “The people have scattered to the four ends of the earth.”

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