Neighbors Shocked By Church Sex Abuse Case

KMBC TV, Kansas City/August 25, 2006

Pineville, Mo. -- Residents of a southwest Missouri county best known for canoe streams and its yearly Jesse James festival were in shock Friday over allegations that children were ritually abused at a remote church community known to few before the case broke.

The gated church compound on a 100-acre farm a mile from the nearest paved road remained a mystery.

Neighbors and other residents of McDonald County said they knew little or nothing about the Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church, where investigators said up to 100 people lived until recently.

The church's pastor, his wife and her two brothers, who also own the farm, posted bond Monday after county prosecutors filed felony complaints alleging they sexually abused young daughters of church members from 1977 to 2005.

Some of the girls were told their bodies were being prepared "for service to God," according to the complaint.

"It's a shock, a sickening kind of shock. It's not the kind of thing you want to wake up in the morning and hear about," said Linda Hopping, 51, who lives a few miles from the church but said she had never heard of it before now.

The pastor of an affiliated church community faces similar charges in neighboring Newton County and surrendered to authorities Friday, Newton County Chief Deputy Chris Jennings said.

George Otis Johnston, 63, had been sought on warrants for seven counts of first-degree statutory sodomy and one count of second-degree statutory sodomy. Johnston was freed on $100,000 bond and scheduled for arraignment Aug. 30.

Johnston is the uncle of the Rev. Raymond Lambert, pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church in McDonald County.

Prosecutors allege that Lambert, 51, repeatedly had sex with two girls, both underage, between 1995 and 2005 with the help of his 49-year-old wife, Patty, as part of a "ritual or ceremony."

Patty Lambert's brothers -- Paul Epling, 53, and Tom Epling, 51 -- are accused of repeatedly having sex with girls as young as age 4 in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

All four defendants face molestation and sodomy charges. Their attorney said they denied the allegations.

A preliminary hearing for the four is set for Oct. 2. Under Missouri law, prosecutors can file a complaint before bringing formal charges, as they have in this case, McDonald County assistant prosecuting attorney Daniel Bagley said.

The headlines have cast light on a closed community that investigators and neighbors said started on the farm in the early 1970s.

"They keep up there to themselves," said farmer Hubert Maring, 80, who lives in a small white house across the gravel road from the church property.

A high metal gate with a sign reading "Grand Valley Farm" marks the start of a long drive that winds up a hill. From the road, a large yellow house is visible on the hilltop, but the rest of the acreage is hidden behind a ridge and trees.

The gate was closed Friday and hung with "no trespassing" signs. A defense lawyer for the four accused said he was advising them not to talk to the media.

Ten mailboxes stood at the gate, most of them with the last names Epling or Lambert. One was labeled "Grand Valley Christian Academy," which investigators said was where children from the group were homeschooled.

There are no children currently living on the compound, Bagley said.

In Newton County, a judge ordered children removed for their safety after Johnston was charged. Deputies and juvenile authorities took 10 children Thursday and four on Monday into foster care.

Investigators and McDonald County officials believe the number of people at Grand Valley has dwindled since the case became public this week.

"I'm told that the amount of traffic has fallen a lot because there are fewer people on the farm," said Sam Gaskill, commissioner for eastern McDonald County, where the church is located.

Gaskill said he had never previously heard much about the church group. People at the nearest crossroads store and at a rural video rental store said they saw the church members regularly but knew nothing about them.

"They rented family-type movies. I never knew it was a church till this came up," said Harold Brazel, 70, of Brazel's Video.

The Newton County case involves a smaller compound on leased land in Granby, near Neosho, where people lived in trailer homes and worshipped on the site at Grandview Valley Baptist Church North.

Bagley said the Granby community was founded five or six years ago as an offshoot of the one in McDonald County.

The cases are linked by the alleged victims. They and other members of the two churches all knew each other and visited back and forth, Newton County's Jennings said.

"The victims here came forward after hearing from the victims in McDonald County that they had come forward," Jennings said.

Jennings said the case could expand. Newton County authorities are still interviewing the 14 children removed from the Granby church and have asked any possible past victims to call, although none have so far, he said.

Experts said communal-style religious groups are not uncommon in the Ozarks, with at least half a dozen now in the area, ranging from fundamentalist Christian to Hindu to New Age.

"You don't find this in New York City, but you do find it in rural areas. Tight communities, very close communities, you do not tell outsiders what's going on," said Gary Brock, professor of sociology at Missouri State University.

David Embree, a lecturer in religious studies at Missouri State, said the designation "independent Baptist" doesn't mean the group was part of a wider Baptist community. The McDonald County farm is not on the county's list of churches registered for property tax exemption, according to the assessor's office.

"You can set yourself up in a building and call yourself Baptist and nobody can come and tell you to take that Baptist sign down," Embree said.

The FBI, meanwhile, declined Friday to confirm or deny any involvement in the cases.

"We wouldn't comment on either or any connection of these entities," FBI spokesman Michael T. Pettry said.

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