Authorities in the small, rural Louisiana town of Ponchatoula were shocked when a local pastor walked into their office in mid-May and allegedly confessed to having sex with children, cats and dogs at his Hosanna Church.
Louis Lamonica allegedly implicated eight other members of his flock, including a deputy sheriff, in "cult-like" rituals involving the rape of as many as 24 young victims, from infants to teens, between 1999 and 2003.
But lawyers for the nine codefendants, ages 24 to 55, say that, not only are their clients innocent but they are the victims of a brainwashing scheme.
"There is absolutely no evidence, medical or otherwise, to suggest that there is any truth to these allegations," said A. Wayne Smith, lawyer for codefendant Allen Pierson, who pleaded not guilty in June to four counts of aggravated rape of a child under 13.
Lawyers for Pierson and codefendant Austin Bernard III, who also pleaded not guilty to four counts of aggravated rape, will appear in Louisiana's 21st Judicial District Court Tuesday to get a better sense of the state's case against them.
"It appears that one of the leaders of the church exercised a tremendous influence over its congregants to the point of making them say they did things that they never did," Smith said.
In a twist, he was not referring to Lamonica, who inherited the once large parish after his father's death, but to another parishioner, Lois Mowbray, who was charged with obstruction of justice and failing to report a crime after the fact.
In particular, Smith cited Mowbray's 586-page journal in which she allegedly had other parishioners write out their confessions to the sex acts.
The journal's contents were not detailed in a June grand jury proceeding, but a detective described Mowbray as the church's pastor and suggested there had been infighting among the congregation, whose membership had eroded to about 15 members before its doors were permanently shut in 2003.
Assistant district attorneys Don Wall and Scott Perrilloux were unavailable for comment, but an assistant in the office of the 21st Judicial District said that, except for Pierson, who posted $300,000 bond this week, the defendants are in custody and will be tried separately.
Lamonica was booked on the spot for child rape and crimes against nature following his alleged admission to repeated sex acts involving house pets and children. Police say he claimed to have orchestrated the acts and taught the child victims how to mimic them.
"Naturally, we found it strange for someone to confess to anything without being asked, but he came in and admitted to some sexual acts with persons under age and to sex with animals," said Livingston Parish Detective Supervisor Stan Carpenter. "We couldn't very well let him go, and from there everything came to a domino effect."
Even so, the substance and credibility of Lamonica's statements remains under scrutiny almost three months later as the case enters the pretrial phase, in which the state shares its evidence with defense lawyers and the court.
Lamonica's lawyer, Michael Thiel, did not return calls for comment, but was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that he questioned the validity of his client's alleged confession.
"I believe there's been a rush to judge based on conjecture, rumors and leaks to the media," Thiel said.
As a result of the grand jury hearing in June, the time frame of the allegations was narrowed to about a year and the list of potential victims whittled down to two preteen boys and one infant girl.
The sole testifying witness, a detective on the case, said the alleged victims were repeatedly raped by, or forced to engage in various sex acts with, most of the defendants at least twice a week from 2000 to 2001 at Hosanna Church and in Bernard's home.
References to an occult element were dropped from the case, as were the bestiality charges, prompting lawyers for the accused child rapists to decry a lack of evidence.
"It is outrageous to the point of disbelief that people can go around in this country making these types of false allegations," Smith said.
The other seven defendants, including Lamonica, have court dates next month.