25 Nov 2010

Cult members guilty of starving toddler to death, plea bargain gives mother in-patient cult recovery counseling

The Baltimore Sun - March 3, 2010

3 reputed cult members convicted in toddler's death

Defendants could face up to 60 years in prison each

By Tricia Bishop | Baltimore Sun

A Baltimore jury deliberated less than three hours before finding three accused cult members guilty Tuesday of starving a 16-month-old to death because he did not say "amen" before meals.
Marcus Cobbs, 23; Trevia Williams, 22; and her 41-year-old mother, Toni Sloan - who claims God renamed her "Queen Antoinette" - each faces a maximum of 60 years in prison. Sentencing is scheduled May 18.

The verdicts brought a swift end to a case that captured national attention.

The defendants represented themselves in the weeklong trial, and witnesses told stories of strict religious rules, fears about demonic possession and the attempted resurrection of a toddler named Javon Thompson.

But nothing - not even "justice in this case" - will bring Javon back, his grandmother, Seeta Newton, said Tuesday on the courthouse steps, a photo of Javon pinned to her collar. "I wish I could just hold Javon and hug him."

The boy's mummified remains were discovered in April 2008, about 15 months after he died in a Baltimore apartment. His body was shrouded in sheets and packed away among mothballs and dryer cloths inside a green suitcase that was left in a Pennsylvania shed.

It was part of an odd cover-up, prosecutors said, that also involved committing a woman to a mental facility and leading the boy's mother to believe she could bring her dead child back through faith, all under the direction of "the Queen," whose weapon was the "fear of eternal damnation."

"There is a reason she calls herself Queen Antoinette," Baltimore City Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake, chief of the felony family violence division, said during closing arguments Tuesday. "Queens give orders, and she expected to be obeyed."

Antoinette's former lover, Steven Bynum, described her as a bright, chatty woman who gave good business advice. He helped her financially and found her a place to live soon after they met in Baltimore in 2004. By 2005, he had also helped her establish a business, at least on paper, called "1 Mind Ministries."

In a letter trying to establish nonprofit status for the organization, Antoinette described herself as "a chosen daughter of the most high God" and a "Queen of Jesus Christ," Drake said in court.

The mother of four ran her household with a strict set of rules developed from her interpretations of the Bible. Members were to wear certain colors - tan, white or blue - travel in pairs and home-school the youngest children. Those who couldn't abide by the rules couldn't stay.

In early 2006, her daughter, Williams - known as "Princess" Trevia - became friends with several troubled young Baltimore women and apparently invited them to live in her home, so long as they abided by Antoinette's rules.

Sisters Danielle and Tiffany Smith, who had a young son named Christian, moved in, followed by Christian's father, Marcus Cobbs.

Ria Ramkissoon, now 23, and her son, Javon, came in April of that year. Ramkissoon had converted to Christianity from Hinduism in middle school, and she wanted to practice a religious life, as well as spend more time with her son. She also wanted to leave her mother's house, where she didn't get along with her stepfather.

"I didn't want [any of] them there," Antoinette said during her closing arguments, but, she added, "I felt as though I was supposed to help because they came to me."

Things were peaceful in the house for a time, and there was no physical violence, witnesses said, though Antoinette could have a sharp tongue.

But Tiffany Smith caused trouble and was put out for not following the rules.

Then, in late 2006 or early 2007, Javon stopped playfully repeating his version of the word "amen" when his mother cued him after prayer, Ramkissoon said. That's when Antoinette said he shouldn't eat until he complied, a punishment meant to rid him of a "spirit of rebellion." Ramkissoon took the term literally and believed her son was demonically possessed.

Days passed.

"His skin discolored, his eyes sunk in, his lips got chapped," Assistant State's Attorney Patricia McLane told the jury during her closing arguments Tuesday.

Witnesses testified that Javon moaned and grew thinner. He spat up a mysterious black fluid and lost the energy even to crawl. And no one did anything to help him. Cobbs tried early on but changed his mind after a conversation with Antoinette, witnesses said. And Williams allegedly took physical control of the boy, at least at night while the group slept.

"Nobody did anything," Drake said. "That's the basis of the crime."

After Javon died, Antoinette blamed Ramkissoon, saying she was a bad mother. Antoinette told her to nurture him back to life and condemned her when she couldn't, witnesses said.

Ramkissoon continued to care for the dead boy for weeks, singing to him and reading him stories. After nearly being found out by their landlord, the group packed up and moved, bringing Javon's body with them.

They abandoned the corpse, in its suitcase, in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City, where Cobbs had Danielle Smith committed to keep her from confessing to neighbors, according to testimony. She eventually convinced a social worker that her story was true, and the scheme began to unravel. Members of the group were arrested in August 2008.

During closing arguments Tuesday, Antoinette said she had rules but never forced compliance. She complained of the media attention and the prosecution's allegations.

"We've been like pariahs," she said, and the public's mind has been "poisoned" against them. "I've never been in a cult, nor a leader in such a way. ... These people want to blame someone for this child's death, so they've chosen us."

Deliberations began shortly before 1 p.m., and a verdict was returned by 4 p.m., leaving two hours of consideration after accounting for the lunch break. Jurors found the defendants guilty of first-degree child abuse resulting in death and second-degree murder. Cobbs was also convicted of being an accessory after the fact for participating in the cover-up: He measured Javon's body for the suitcase and burned the boy's bed.

A first-degree murder charge against Antoinette was dropped Monday by Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory, prosecutors said. Doory did not immediately return a message seeking clarification.

The defendants kept stony faces as their fate was announced, after Doory's directions to show no emotion. The judge also ordered medical evaluations and background reports for the defendants in preparation for sentencing. The women had earlier refused certain psychological evaluations.

Drake said she was "relieved by the verdict," though she bristled at the idea that Antoinette felt victimized. The only victims here were Javon and his grandmother, Drake said.

Newton stood beside her, a picture of her daughter - Javon's mother - in her pocket. Ramkissoon is about 10 in the photo, a lovely young girl with clear eyes.

Ramkissoon has pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death and is awaiting sentencing, which is expected to be a 20-year suspended term and some kind of residential counseling. She's quiet now, and withdrawn, not the vibrant daughter Newton remembers.

And she still believes her son will come back to life if she has faith enough.

"It's going to take years for Ria to get back to the child I know," Newton said. "It's going to be a long, long time."

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Murder trial begins for Baltimore cult members charged with starving toddler for not saying "Amen"


CBS13 WJZ - Baltimore March 3, 2010

Mother Of Starved Baby To Receive Counseling

Reporting by Mike Hellgren

It's one of the most stunning court cases in Baltimore. Three alleged cult members were found guilty for their role in the death of an infant.

Mike Hellgren explains what is in store for the future of the baby's mother.

Molly Koch has dealt with hundreds of people trapped in cults. For decades, she counseled and learned the inner workings of these bizarre groups.

She's also followed the case of Queen Antoinette and two other members of 1 Mind Ministries -- the group jurors found guilty of starving baby Javon Thompson to death in Baltimore.

"My dear, I've come to the conclusion there is such a thing as evil people, and many of these cult leaders are evil people," said Molly Koch. "I don't think she's crazy. I think she's a bad egg. She's evil. It's a horrifying story."

The child's mother, Ria Ramkissoon, pleaded guilty to child abuse and will head to counseling once she's sentenced as part of a deal with prosecutors.

"She's very relieved that the jury was able to see the role of the other people involved in this," said Steven Silverman, Ramkissoon's attorney.

The plea agreement mentions de-programming under a cult expert named Rick Ross who runs an institute in New Jersey. But Silverman says it's unclear exactly where Ramkissoon will go.

"Everyone agrees that in-patient counseling is in her best interest," said Silverman. "She wants to do whatever she can do to live with whatever she's been through."

She still believes her child will rise from the dead. Koch believes that's a coping mechanism, and the road to recovery will be a long one.

"I feel sorry for her -- very, very sorry for her," said Koch. "As for Queen Antoinette, she'll probably find followers in jail, have a little cult in jail. She's very persuasive obviously, with no conscience."

Queen Antoinette and her co-defendants will be sentenced in May.

At this point, a sentencing date has not been set for Ramkissoon. She remains in jail until that sentencing.

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Baltimore Sun - August 4, 2010

Judge praises mother who starved son while part of cult

Woman's progress at faith-based treatment center is focus of hearing

By Ben Nuckols | The Associated Press

A Baltimore judge praised a young mother for great strides in her treatment after she starved her 1-year-old son to death while part of a religious cult, and the woman's attorney said Wednesday she is breaking free of the belief that her son will be resurrected.

Ria Ramkissoon pleaded guilty to a single count of child abuse resulting in death and received a suspended sentence. Prosecutors agreed to the deal after determining that she had been brainwashed by the cult leader, a woman who calls herself Queen Antoinette.

Ramkissoon testified in February that Antoinette ordered her not to feed or give water to her son, Javon Thompson, after the 16-month-old boy did not say "Amen" during a mealtime prayer. Javon starved to death over the course of a week.

Antoinette was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 50 years in prison. Her daughter, Trevia Williams, and another follower, Marcus A. Cobbs, received 15-year sentences.

After Javon died, Antoinette ordered Ramkissoon and her followers to pray for his resurrection, and Ramkissoon testified in February that she still believed her son would come back to life.

But her faith in the resurrection is fading, according to her attorney, Steven D. Silverman.

"She's come to realize that she was misled," Silverman said.

As part of her deal with prosecutors, Ramkissoon has spent the past 90 days in a faith-based residential treatment center. The purpose of Wednesday's hearing was to let the court know whether the treatment has been effective.

Asked outside the courtroom how she was doing, Ramkissoon said, "blessed. Very blessed."

After conferring with Silverman and prosecutors, Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory said he was impressed with Ramkissoon's progress and ordered her to remain at the treatment center until its operators decide she's ready to leave. She will likely stay there for a year or longer, Silverman said.

"You have made great strides," Doory said. "Everyone is hoping that you're going to make even greater strides in the future, and you're going to be one of our few true success stories."

Ramkissoon, a native of Trinidad, was dressed in a silk top and lavender skirt. She appeared nervous to return to the courtroom where she confronted Antoinette and described her son's death in detail. As attorneys conferred with Doory, she sat alone at the defense table, her leg shaking. She did not address the court. Outside, however, she appeared relaxed, chatting with attorneys and staffers from the treatment center.

The key to her progress, Silverman said, is that she's been able "to relearn the positive interpretation and practice of religion as opposed to what she was taught in the cult."

According to testimony at trial, Antoinette brought troubled young men and women into her household and told them to renounce their possessions and cut off contact with their families and friends. Members were told what to wear, their movements outside the house were restricted, and they shunned medical care — orders that Antoinette said she received directly from God.

After Javon died in December 2006 or January 2007 — a firm date was never established — Ramkissoon spent weeks with his emaciated body. Ultimately, the cult members stuffed the body into a suitcase and hid it in a shed in Philadelphia, where it remained for more than a year before police found it.

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