Grand Valley Baptist Church in Missouri

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Abuse suspected in 2 churches

BY MICHELLE BRADFORD

Posted on Sunday, October 8, 2006

 

PINEVILLE, Mo. — Allegations of sexual misconduct were flying in April when pastor Raymond Lambert summoned select members of his flock for a group reckoning.

Charges of incest and child molestation were about to splinter Lambert’s tight-knit church in southwest Missouri, and the minister, 51, sensed trouble on the horizon.

One of the parishioners whom Lambert summoned on April 26 testified in court last week that Lambert went around the room, requiring each girl and woman to answer questions out loud.

“We all had to say whether we’d ever been naked with Raymond, if we’d had sex with him or if he ever ripped our clothes off,” a 19-year-old woman testified Monday in McDonald County Circuit Court.

Allegations by the 19-yearold and three other women have landed Lambert and other elders at Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church in court.

Prosecutors said Lambert, a strapping, tanned pastor, his wife, Patty, and four of their adult relatives molested young girls growing up in the McDonald County church.

Abuses also took place, prosecutors said, at a smaller, sister church in neighboring Newton County, Mo., — Grand Valley Baptist Church North.

In all, six defendants have pleaded innocent to felony sex charges or have denied allegations through attorneys.

The abuse claims surfaced in McDonald County after several members left the church in April and moved to Florida, sheriff’s investigators said.

Since August, four women, ages 19, 28, 32 and 35, claimed they were repeatedly abused by church elders, at times during religious rituals or ceremonies. Some of the abuse dates to the 1970 s, prosecutors said.

Members of Grand Valley Independent Baptist lived communally, with families working and worshipping together on a 100-acre farm near Powell, Mo., witnesses have told investigators.

Like the communal nature of the church, familial connections abound in the criminal cases. One accuser is Raymond Lambert’s niece. All six defendants are related by blood or by marriage.

Raymond Lambert is charged with eight felony counts involving child molestation, sodomy and sexual abuse. Patty Lambert, 49, is charged with permitting child molestation.

The couple also are stepbrother and stepsister to each other.

Two of Patty Lambert’s brothers, Tom Epling and Paul Epling, are accused of child abuse, dating to 1976. The brothers are deacons at the church

.

Another defendant, Laura Epling, is accused of statutory sodomy. She is Tom Epling’s wife.

In Newton County, George Otis Johnston, 63, is charged with 17 counts of sexual abuse. Johnston is Raymond Lambert’s uncle.

As the cases wind through courts in McDonald and Newton counties, some locals complain that bystanders have been snared into the scandal. Patti Farmer, who owns JJ’s restaurant in Newton County, said everyone near Grand Valley Baptist Church North in Granby or its parishioners got a bad deal when Johnston, that congregation’s pastor, was arrested. “Parents living out there had to hire lawyers and go to court to get their kids out of foster care,” Farmer said. “The couple who owns the property are stuck without renters because the police ran everyone off. A lot of people are caught in the middle of this — a lot of innocent people.”

FAMILY OPERATION McDonald County prosecutors say much of the abuse at the Grand Valley Independent church near Powell revolved around its pastor’s sexual desires.

“Raymond Lambert has sexually addictive behaviors that have often culminated into sex acts with minor girls at the church,” Assistant Prosecutor Dan Bagley said at the Monday court hearing.

The 19-year-old accuser testified at the hearing that Patty Lambert lay naked in bed with her and Raymond Lambert in 2004 while the pastor molested her.

“Patty told me I should submit, that we were friends, and that Raymond would never do anything to harm me,” the accuser testified.

The accuser said six years ago, while Raymond Lambert was molesting her, Laura Epling walked into the room, put her hand on the back of the girl’s head and guided her in the sex act.

The accuser said Raymond Lambert abused her repeatedly, often during “counseling” sessions he would have with her and other teens in the church.

“Sometimes he touched my breasts; sometimes he just held me,” the accuser said. “I saw Raymond every day. All the kids went to him in the mornings to see what he wanted us to do that day.”

Like other accusers, the 19-year-old went to school at Grand Valley Christian Academy, a nonprofit school on the 100-acre farm near Powell.

The school was funded by a dog-breeding operation on the farm, Grand Valley Kennels, according to Internet advertisements.

The kennel’s Web site said the farm was formed years ago when “the Epling brothers pulled together physically and spiritually to make their father, Cecil Epling’s, farm successful.”

The Web site lists Joe Epling as the kennel owner and Ethan and Mark Epling as handlers. A message left at the kennel wasn’t returned Friday. Raymond Lambert is listed on the site as a promotions manager. “Raymond Lambert is the backbone of the kennel. Through him, we know that all things are possible,” the site says.

THE OTHER CHURCH In Newton County, the congregation at Grand Valley Baptist Church North lived in several mobile homes set back among trees on Hebron Road. Before Johnston’s arrest in August, the church consisted of three or four dozen people living on 14 leased acres, police said.

“I didn’t even know there was a church there,” neighbor Frank Ames said last week. “I know they ran a kennel at one point, but after Johnston was arrested, moving trucks showed up. Now, most everyone’s gone.”

Chris Jennings, Newton County chief sheriff’s deputy, said they arrested Johnston after probable cause emerged during interviews with accusers in the McDonald County case.

“The adults came forward with allegations about being preacher’s angels and receiving holy kisses and all that, and we obtained an arrest warrant,” Jennings said.

Jennings said the sheriff’s office knew nothing about Grand Valley Church North until its encounter with Johnston, although similar allegations have surfaced in the past.

“A few years ago we had intelligence about what sounded like similar stuff going on,” Jennings said. “We were hearing stories about a church where people were being molested and controlled, but we couldn’t ever find the group.”

Bill Dobbs, Newton County assistant prosecutor, said Johnston is accused of sexually abusing two sisters over several years while they were children at the church.

The abuse continued until the women left the church, one in April and one in 2001, Dobbs said.

“It was almost always handto-genital intercourse, and rarely 30 days would pass without some kind of contact,” he said.

Last month, a judge granted one of Johnston’s accusers a protection order. The 17-year-old said in an affidavit that Johnston called her cell phone and threatened her earlier this year. Johnston had hit her in the face once before, she said.

Johnston’s attorney, Andy Wood of Neosho, Mo., didn’t return a call for this article.

Patti Farmer, the Granby restaurant owner, said Johnston and his family were regulars at JJ’s until he was arrested.

“The kids are well-adjusted; they look you in the eye,” Farmer said. “The media coverage has been very negative, but they’re very nice people. The girls have boyfriends. One of the kids has a checking account. It’s not like they lived on a compound. They came and went as they pleased.”

Farmer said she knows parents who had their children taken into police custody after Johnston’s arrest. None of the parents Farmer named could be reached for this article.

Jennings said police took several children into protective custody from Hebron Road, but he wouldn’t give details. They are part of an ongoing investigation, he said. Assessors records show George and Trina Carney own the 14. 9 acres on Hebron Road once occupied by the church. According to Farmer, the Carneys are stuck in a financial bind now that their renters are gone. Trina Carney said in a phone interview her lawyer told her not to talk to the media. “We own the land, yes, we own all of it,” Trina Carney said. “We’re the good people who’ve gotten caught in the middle. You don’t hear about the good people who are getting screwed in all of this.”

RETALIATION ? An attorney representing the Lamberts and the Eplings said the abuse claims stem from sour grapes in a divorce case within the McDonald County church.

Attorney Bob Evenson of Pineville also represented church member Robin Epling when she filed for divorce in May from Ethan Epling.

According to Evenson, Ethan Epling had moved to Florida with one of the women who is now one of Raymond Lambert’s accusers.

Evenson said Ethan Epling left Robin Epling, who is disabled, behind in Missouri. Robin Epling is paralyzed from a stroke she suffered in childbirth a few years ago.

With Ethan Epling in Florida, Patty and Raymond Lambert assumed the care of Robin Epling in Missouri, Evenson said.

“When Ethan took off, and his paralyzed wife didn’t know where he was, Raymond and Patty took care of her around the clock,” Evenson said. “It takes good people to do that.”

In May, Ethan Epling and Robin Epling’s parents petitioned for her guardianship in McDonald County circuit court.

Then Robin Epling suddenly decided to reconcile with her estranged husband and she moved to Florida, Evenson said. Court records show Robin Epling withdrew her divorce petition in late June.

Attempts to contact Ethan Epling by phone for this article were unsuccessful.

“I feel like Ethan Epling is at the core of all this, and that there’s an element of financial motivation,” Evenson said, declining to elaborate further.

Defense attorneys, meanwhile, are chipping at evidence in criminal cases, filing motions to dismiss charges on several grounds.

Evenson wants a charge of endangering the welfare of a minor dismissed against Patty Lambert on the grounds that she’s not accused of actively engaging in abuse and that she was not a guardian or custodian to the accuser.

He wants charges dropped against Tom and Paul Epling on the basis that the statute of limitations has expired. Prosecutors already have amended charges against the brothers, conceding that the statute of limitations has run out in some aspects of the case.

Court documents accuse Paul Epling of abusing a girl from 1976 to 1983, telling her he was “preparing her body for service to God.” Tom Epling is accused of abusing a girl from 1976 to 1978, beginning when she was age 4, an affidavit states.

Bagley, the McDonald County assistant prosecutor, said he’s waiting for a decision by the Missouri Supreme Court in a similar case before deciding how to proceed against the brothers.

“We’re trying to argue a statute of limitations shouldn’t even apply here,” Bagley said.

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