PONCHATOULA, La. – From his tire store next door, Donald Moore got an up-close look at the strange changes that went on at the once-bustling Hosanna Church (search).
For one thing, the congregation had dwindled to a handful of reclusive members who chased away visitors. For another, the windows were painted white so no one could see in. And just before it closed its doors for good a couple of years ago, eight dump trucks came in and spread dirt over the church's back lot.
Last month, the suspicions played out in a way that almost no one in this southeastern Louisiana town of 5,000 could have imagined: Nine people, including the pastor, his wife and a sheriff's deputy were accused of engaging in cult-like sexual activity with children and animals inside the hall of worship. Eight now face child rape charges that could bring the death penalty.
"You can't believe something like that was going on right under our own feet," Moore said.
Authorities said witnesses have described the use of robes, pentagrams on the church floor, sex with a dog and the sacrifice of cats. The alleged victims, suspected to number up to two dozen, include children ranging from infants to young teens — some of them the offspring of those accused.
"I've been a prosecutor in some rape cases and child molestation cases, but I've never had a group accused of doing anything like this," said Tangipahoa Parish (search) Sheriff Daniel Edwards, a former state prosecutor.
Investigators believe the abuse began in 1999 and continued until the church closed in 2003. But it was not until a woman called from Ohio in April, saying she had fled to protect her child, that police claim they had even an inkling of what was happening.
About the same time, the church's pastor, 45-year-old Louis Lamonica (search), walked into the neighboring Livingston Parish sheriff's office, sat down and, according to investigators, named names and detailed activities inside the church.
Lamonica was arrested, followed by eight others authorities described as central members of the ring. All but one are being held without bond. Even the tipster from Ohio, Nicole Bernard (search), was arrested on rape charges along with her ex-husband.
Edwards said the group apparently had an effective formula for escaping detection: the use of a church, a close-knit relationship between the members and victims unlikely to report abuse to authorities.
"They were very secretive and very good about keeping a secret," Edwards said.
Lamonica's attorney, Michael Thiel, did not return calls from The Associated Press but had said previously that the charges had been sensationalized and would not hold up in court.
"Generally, I believe there's been a rush to judge based on conjecture, rumors and leaks to the media," Thiel told The Advocate of Baton Rouge.
Edwards stopped short of saying the cult consisted of devil-worshippers but said some of the defendants told investigators that "devil worship was the reason for their participation." Edwards added that defendants and witnesses also gave statements saying a dog was sexually abused and at least two cats were sacrificed.
Authorities seized two dozen computers, which the FBI is checking. Sheets and carpeting were taken from the church for DNA tests. Officers spent several days digging in the back of the church, but haven't said if anything significant was found.
After Bernard was arrested, police in Ohio said they searched a storage unit and found mattresses, videos and nine garbage bags full of costumes.
Lamonica and his wife, Robbin, also face allegations of having sex with children in their home.
A state grand jury is scheduled to start hearing evidence June 24.
U.S. Attorney Jim Letten of New Orleans would say only that federal authorities are aiding the state investigation. He refused to say what federal charges, if any, might be filed.
At one time, Hosanna Church was one of the many thriving churches, of all denominations, in and around Ponchatoula, a town of antique shops that is the host of Louisiana's annual strawberry festival.
Founded by Lamonica's now-deceased father, Hosanna once boasted of 1,000 members and had a private school through the sixth grade. Moore sent his son to the church's preschool during the 1990s.
Now, a message on the church's highway sign says: "I went here K-4. You let us down."
Glynn Fendlason served as pastor of the church, then known as First Assembly of God, from 1982 to 1989, following the elder Lamonica's death. The active membership dispensed thousands of meals to the poor and elderly.
Fendlason said the younger Lamonica, while his father was pastor, was a "good fellow" who played bass guitar, taught Sunday school and worked with youth groups. Some of the other defendants also were active in the church.
After Fendlason resigned as pastor, he said he stayed out of the church's business for fear of disrupting the congregation, but heard that Lamonica, who became pastor in 1994, excommunicated many members, including members of his own family, and increasingly made the church more isolated.
"We all knew something wasn't right," Fendlason said. "Not something like this, though."
One of those taken into custody was Christopher Labat, a deputy who is now jailed on aggravated rape and malfeasance charges.
Bruce Dapprich, a former sheriff's deputy who patrolled with Labat, said the arrested ex-deputy had been a volunteer firefighter, an emergency medical technician and a reserve deputy before being hired full time by the sheriff's office.
"He seemed real Christian," Dapprich said. "He never cursed. When we went out to eat, he'd bow his head and say his prayers."
No matter what turns out in court, Fendlason said he believes "there will be another day" for the now-empty church building.
"I believe in the redemptive power of the Lord to make a positive of that situation," he said. "I don't believe the devil will obtain a victory."