More Charges Dropped in Church Sex-Abuse Case

By Derek Spellman
Joplin Globe
November 6, 2007

Sexual-abuse charges against several members of a fringe church in McDonald County were dropped Tuesday.

Three counts of second-degree statutory sodomy and four counts of second-degree child molestation against Raymond Lambert, 52, the pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church, were dropped, according to the McDonald County circuit clerk's office. A charge of second-degree child molestation was dismissed against Lambert's wife, Patricia Lambert, 50, along with a charge of second-degree statutory sodomy against Laura Epling, Lambert's sister-in-law.

Robert Evenson, defense attorney for the Lamberts and Epling, said the charges were dropped because the two women who accused his clients of abusing them had stopped cooperating with prosecutors.

"They wouldn't show up for the depositions," Evenson said Tuesday night in a phone interview from his home.

He said he was not aware of any communication from the witnesses explaining their absences.

A phone message left for McDonald County Prosecutor Janice Durbin was not returned Tuesday.

Earlier this year, sexual-abuse charges against Paul Epling, 54, and Tom Epling, 51, Laura Epling's husband, were dropped. Both men were deacons at Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church.

Evenson said the charges against all the defendants could have been dismissed earlier.

Reiterating what he told the Globe in October 2006, Evenson said "there was a story within a story" behind the allegations against his clients that was not investigated by authorities.

He said Ethan Epling, the younger brother of Tom and Paul Epling, made statements against the defendants to a McDonald County sheriff's investigator before any of the alleged victims in the cases ever came forward with their allegations concerning the church.

He declined go beyond those statements, saying it would be inappropriate.

Evenson said publicity surrounding the case had crippled his clients' reputations. Their reputations, he said, can never be restored.

"If they were found not guilty, it wouldn't help," he said. "Once you smear someone, they are smeared." In the case of Laura Epling, for example, the alleged victim testified that when she was 16, she accompanied Raymond Lambert to Laura Epling's home on the church compound, and that they persuaded her to engage in oral sex with them. She said she believed the incident took place in the fall of 2003.

In the case of Patricia Lambert, the alleged victim described an incident at the age of 16 in which Raymond Lambert allegedly had her lie down with him in bed with his wife. The alleged victim testified that Patricia Lambert, who allegedly was naked at the time, told her that she needed to submit to Raymond Lambert.

Of the original defendants, only George Otis Johnston, 64, pastor of Grandview Valley Baptist Church North in Newton County, still faces charges. Johnston is represented by attorney Andrew Wood, of Neosho.

Between Newton and McDonald counties, Johnston is accused of nine counts of first-degree statutory sodomy, six counts of second-degree statutory sodomy and two counts of first-degree child molestation.

Bill Dobbs, assistant Newton County prosecutor, said his office has not encountered any of the problems that Evenson said had derailed the case in McDonald County.

"My last conversation with my witnesses seemed fine," Dobbs said. "I don't foresee any problems."

Dobbs said the Newton County prosecutor's office worked with its McDonald County counterpart during the early stages of the investigations, but the two offices have worked independently of each other since charges were filed.

Court dates

Raymond and Patricia Lambert were scheduled to go to trial on Nov. 13 before their case was dismissed. A jury trial had been scheduled for Nov. 16 in Laura Epling's case.

A pretrial conference has been set for Dec. 18 in George Otis Johnston's case in McDonald County.



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