Sex Abuse Charges against Church Commune Leader Are Dropped

Associated Press, carried in St. Louis Post-Dispatch
November 7, 2007

JOPLIN, Mo. — In a sudden turn a week before trial, prosecutors dropped a headline-grabbing child sex abuse case against the leader of a southwestern Missouri church commune, his wife and his sister-in-law.

Prosecutors dismissed all charges against the Rev. Raymond Lambert; his wife, Patty Lambert; and his sister-in-law Laura Epling, the wife of a church deacon, on Tuesday, a week before the Lamberts were scheduled to go to trial. All three had pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorney Robert Evenson said charges were dropped because two women his clients were accused of abusing as girls had stopped cooperating with prosecutors. Prosecutor Janice Durbin did not return calls for comment.

The clerk's office for the 40th Circuit Court in McDonald County, which confirmed that the charges were dropped, could not provide further details. Evenson, who represented all three defendants, said the two alleged victims twice failed to show up for depositions. He said he was not aware of any communication from the witnesses explaining their absences.

Evenson said publicity surrounding the case had ruined his clients' standing in the small, rural county.

The case drew national attention in August 2006 when the Lamberts and two relatives were charged with multiple counts for allegedly abusing young girls for many years at their Baptist community on an isolated Ozarks farm.

The case expanded to include a variety of abuse charges against two men who were brothers of Patty Lambert and another man, an uncle of Raymond Lambert, who led a smaller commune-style church in neighboring Newton County.

The case against Raymond Lambert's uncle, George Otis Johnston, pastor of the Grandview Valley Baptist Church North in rural Granby near Neosho, had not been dropped as of Tuesday afternoon, prosecutors said. Johnston faces 17 felony counts for allegedly abusing two girls, one of them from the time she was 8 until she turned 17 and left his community in April 2006.

Raymond Lambert was the pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church, a religious community that had as many as 100 people who lived on or near a 100-acre farm.

Lambert had faced seven felony counts of child sexual abuse, and his wife had faced one count of child molestation.

Sheriff's investigators alleged in court filings that Raymond Lambert used religious rituals to molest and abuse two underage girls between 1995 and 2005, helped at times by his wife and his sister-in-law.

The investigation began after some of the alleged victims left the compound last year and called authorities.

But prosecutors have had some troubles. The charges against the two deacons were dropped because of statute-of-limitations issues discovered only after the counts were filed.

Durbin took over as prosecutor this year after defeating her predecessor in elections. The assistant prosecutor who handled much of the work for the abuse cases, Dan Bagley, left the office last month.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.