WASHBURN, Mo. – Turning their backs on the isolated religious commune in the rugged Ozarks where many had grown up, a group of members fled with only the clothes on their back, trudging several miles down a gravel road to the nearest phone to call friends or family for help.
A woman in the group soon told a sheriff's deputy horrific stories of how the compound's leaders had molested girls as part of religious ceremonies during which they were told their bodies were being prepared for "service to God."
That was the beginning of a child sex scandal that has ensnared five leaders from two affiliated churches and cast a spotlight on a remote corner of the Ozarks that has long been home to spiritual communes, sheltered by deep oak woods, steep hills and a culture in which people keep to themselves.
"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, who lives a few miles from one of the backwoods churches but said she had never heard of it before now.
The five defendants are accused of molesting five girls in all. More alleged victims have come forward since charges were filed in mid-August, and prosecutors said more people will probably be charged.
The defendants have pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers refused to comment.
One of those arrested, pastor George Otis Johnston, 63, called it "angel kisses" when he touched one girl sexually before and after church services, the girl told investigators. Johnston also allegedly told the girl that "he was ordained by God to fulfill her needs as a woman." The abuse against that girl, prosecutors say, started when she was 8 and lasted until she was 16.
The youngest of the alleged victims was 4 when the abuse started, according to court papers. The molestation occurred as far back as the late 1970s and as recently as last April, authorities said.
Johnston is charged with sodomy and child molestation. Also charged are Johnson's nephew, the Rev. Raymond Lambert, 51; Lambert's wife, Patty Lambert, 49; and her brothers Paul Epling, 53, and Tom Epling, 51.
Johnston's Grandview Valley Baptist Church North, whose members live on a 10-acre leased property in Granby, is an offshoot of the older and larger community led by Lambert, the Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church.
Much remains unknown about the two church communities, about 40 miles apart in Missouri's far southwestern corner.
"They keep up there to themselves," said farmer Hubert Maring, 80, who lives in a small white house across from Grand Valley Independent.
Sheriff's investigators say the members pooled their paychecks and property. Some worked on the farm, raising livestock or breeding puppies for sale, while others worked outside the communes.
The Grand Valley compound is behind a gate on a 100-acre farm, where it was founded in the 1970s. As many as 100 people lived there as recently as May, investigators say. The number is now about 25.
From the road, a rambling yellow house is visible on the hilltop, but the rest of the acreage is hidden behind a ridge and trees. Ten mailboxes stand 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.
The smaller community in Granby houses about 35 to 45 people in around 10 trailer homes.
Experts said communal-style religious groups are not uncommon in the Ozarks, with at least half a dozen now in the area, some of them fundamentalist Christian, Hindu or 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 in Springfield.
"When you are given a message by a religious leader, that sacred component makes the message that much more severe. You should not go against that wish because it's God's wish."
The Grand Valley case broke in May when eight people walked away from the compound and trudged to the nearest hamlet. One of them, a man in his 30s, got a court order of protection a few days later to go back with a sheriff's deputy and retrieve his paralyzed wife.
It was on the drive back out to the compound that a 27-year-old woman who had also fled rode with sheriff's Deputy Mike LeSueur and described abuses at compound.
Members of the commune say they left after some kind of dispute within the church, possibly over child abuse, LeSueur said.
"They decided to do the only thing they could. Since they had no money of their own and no physical property of their own, because it all belongs to the commune, they left," the deputy said. "They just walked out on foot."