Ponchatoula, La. -- Within the walls of Hosanna Church in this southeastern Louisiana town, children, dogs and cats were sexually abused by a minister and his "cult-like" group of members, authorities alleged.
So far, four people — including a sheriff's deputy — have been jailed and authorities say as many as a dozen adults may have been involved in victimizing as many as 24 children, ranging in age from infants to teens.
The case broke when church pastor Louis Lamonica walked into the sheriff's office Monday and allegedly started talking about the crimes and his involvement and giving the names of others.
"He said he was educating the children in sexual exploits and how to have sex," said Livingston Parish sheriff's Detective Stan Carpenter. "We didn't know how to take it. The man just came in off the street."
Lamonica, 45, was arrested and booked on two counts of aggravated rape and one count of crime against nature.
A day later, authorities acting on information provided by Lamonica arrested 24-year-old sheriff's Deputy Christopher Blair Labat on counts of aggravated rape and malfeasance. He was fired and placed on a jailhouse suicide watch.
Later Tuesday, Austin Bernard, 36, who authorities said worked with the youth group at the church, was charged with allegedly forcing a girl under the age of 13 to perform a sex act. Then came the arrest of Allen R. Pierson, 46, who lived in an apartment on the church complex and was accused of raping a girl who was 9 or 10.
Labat apparently once lived in one of three apartments at the complex, as did Bernard, said Chuck Reed, a spokesman for the Tangipahoa Parish sheriff.
All were jailed without bond. Rape of a child under 13 carries a possible death sentence in Louisiana. Reed said he did not believe any of those arrested had hired attorneys.
Ponchatoula, located about 40 miles north of New Orleans on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, is known for its rustic shopping district and antique stores and as the home of the annual Louisiana strawberry festival.
The investigation that shook this town of about 5,000 opened five ago when a woman called from Columbus, Ohio, saying she had fled from Louisiana out of fear for her child after learning about the sex practices of some of the Hosanna Church's members.
"There are probably more than a dozen person of interest beyond the four that are under arrest and there may be twice that many victims involved," Reed said.
Some of those being investigated are parents of the victims, who either knew about the alleged abuse or harmed their own children, authorities said.
Not all of the church members knew about the alleged sex acts, which authorities believe began in 1999 and likely ended when the church closed its doors to the general public around 2003. The alleged acts apparently took place in classrooms on the church property and not in the sanctuary.
"Apparently some of the members of the church probably spun off from what was a legitimate church and kind of formed what you and I might call a cult, and did cult-like things," Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff Daniel Edwards said.
Edwards said the group used dogs and cats in some of the alleged acts, but he did not elaborate.
Reed said Hosanna Church was founded by Lamonica's father, who died years ago, and was once affiliated with the Assemblies of God. Authorities suspect the alleged abuse began after the younger Lamonica took over the church, it left the Assemblies of God and a large number of its members left, Reed said.
Authorities searched the church Tuesday night and turned two computers and a carpet sample over to state police. The FBI is assisting in the investigation because of the possibility that some of the alleged acts were taped and child pornography laws would apply.