First Charged in Devil Worshiping Rituals Convicted

December 4, 2007

NEW ORLEANS — The first of seven Hosanna Church members accused of molesting children as part of a devil-worshipping ritual was in jail Tuesday after being found guilty of molesting his daughter and a boy.

A state district court jury in Amite voted unanimously Monday to convict Austin "Trey" Bernard III in the rape of his 2-year-old daughter. All but one of the 12 jurors found him guilty in the rape of a 12-year-old boy, District Attorney Scott Perrilloux said. Ten votes were needed to convict.

Bernard, 39, denied the charges, but three earlier confessions and a journal that seemed to detail the practices of the group were too much to overcome, said Al Bensabat, the public defender who represented him.

"He wrote a 230-page journal that had some disgusting things in it," Bensabat said Tuesday. "Once the jury read that it was all over."

Bernard faces a mandatory life prison term without parole when he is sentenced on Jan. 12. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty, although they could have because of the age of the victims.

No trial date has been set for the remaining six defendants. Perrilloux said he anticipates bringing Louis Lamonica _ the former minister of the church _ to trial in early 2008.

The story of the crimes rocked the small town of Ponchatoula, about 40 miles northwest of New Orleans, and known for its strawberry festival and antique stores.

"This is the absolute last place you expect something like this," Mayor Bob Zabbia said. "We're just your typical small town."

The activities at the church became known when Lamonica walked into the Livingston Parish Sheriff's Department and asked to speak with a detective, said Chief of Detectives Stan Carpenter.

For almost two hours Lamonica, 49, told investigators how he and other church members had molested children, and taught them to have sex with each other, as well as with a dog. He told the detectives that he drank cat blood and poured it on the bodies of his young victims.

"We were totally stunned," Carpenter said.

In his closing arguments, prosecutor Don Wall said Bernard had a sexual relationship with Lamonica. Through that relationship, the men raped each other's children, he said.

The rapes stopped in 2003, after Lamonica's and Bernard's wives threw them out and the men moved into the church, Wall told jurors. It wasn't until the Bernards attempted to reconcile in late 2004 that their daughter began to speak of the abuse, Wall said.

In the meantime, Bernard began writing how he abused the children.

The two young men, one of whom Bernard was charged with raping, also denied their earlier assertion that they were raped. Wall, however, got them to acknowledge on the stand that their recantations began after both their parents were arrested.

"He claimed the women in the church told him what to write," Bensabat said. "He said he told them he would even though it wasn't true."


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