The Baltimore Sun - March 7, 2010
Cult steals a daughter's love, a grandson's life
Baltimore woman recounts 2-year struggle against cult
By Tricia Bishop | Baltimore Sun
Seeta Newton has turned her Pikesville apartment into something of a shrine to her grandchild, Javon Thompson, the 16-month-old boy whose death by starvation resulted in second-degree murder convictions for three people. (Baltimore Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / March 3, 2010)
Her daughter disowned her as a devil-worshiping witch. Police didn't believe her allegations of brainwashing. And social services said they weren't equipped to deal with a cult.
But Seeta Newton still would not let her grandson Javon go. Her dreams pushed her to hold on.
In one, the infant boy clings to Newton's neck while his mother, Ria, floats toward them, her arms spread wide, gown sleeves hanging like angel wings. Javon whispers insistently in Newton's ear: I want to come live where you live. ... I want to come stay with you.
Behind Ria, there's a group of people Newton knows. They call themselves by royal titles: a prince, a princess and the queen - the cult leaders who've taken in Newton's precious daughter. The people who've taken in Javon.
That house is bad, the boy murmurs. That house is ugly.
On April 24, 2006, Ria Ramkissoon, then 19, took the baby and moved into a strict, religious Baltimore household where she was christened "Princess Marie." She was cut off from family, told to burn her belongings and to abide by seemingly random rules.
Two years later, police would find the petite young woman in a New York apartment, first mistaking her for a catatonic little girl. The mummified remains of her baby - starved because he wouldn't say "amen" - would turn up in an old man's Pennsylvania shed, packed carefully in a green suitcase among mothballs and fabric-softener sheets.
It would take another two years for justice to be done.
In a two-hour interview at her apartment last week - a day after three people were convicted of second-degree murder in Javon's death - Newton, 60, talked about the factors that might have led her daughter into a cult and the dogged pursuit of her grandson.
Newton's journey took her into an alternative world of brainwashing and dubious biblical interpretation, where one young woman was involuntarily committed to a mental hospital and a second - Ria - agreed to let her beloved boy go hungry to rid him of demons, then spent weeks trying to resurrect him after he died.
Interviews with family and friends, along with court testimony, records and statements, reveal startling scenarios and a cover-up prosecutors described as "bizarre." They point to one woman as the mastermind: "Queen Antoinette," who has also gone by Toni Ellsberry, among other names.
She claimed God spoke through her, and her followers believed.
For Ria, who had vigorously converted to Christianity from the Hinduism she was born into, moving in with Queen Antoinette seemed like "the answer to her prayers," Baltimore prosecutor Julie Drake said in court.
"She couldn't have been more mistaken."
Ria Ramkissoon, now 23, is the second-youngest of seven children. She was born on the Caribbean island of Trinidad and lived there until she was about 8, spending the past few years at a Hindu school.
When she moved to Baltimore, where her mother had come to establish a new life and home, she left Hinduism behind, but not her religious inclination. She started going to a local church with a girl whose family was also from Trinidad, embracing Christianity.
"I adored her," Newton of her daughter. But she grew concerned as Ria got older and withdrew. There were times when the teenager would stay holed up in her room, scrawling Bible passages and notes to God and Jesus Christ.
Newton worried that the fixation would become fanatic. But she didn't say anything about it to Ria, afraid it would set her off.
The household was already tense.
Newton's husband, whom she met and married here in 1992, doesn't have children of his own. And he did not always mesh well with Newton's, according to some family members. He also wanted to charge Ria rent, Newton said.
On the witness stand, Ria said her relationship with him was "difficult." She's never had a relationship with her biological father.
A romance with a boyfriend, initially hidden from her mother, was also fraught. She met Robert Thompson, who was a year older, in the neighborhood. Her bus stop was in front of his house. They passionately fought in the streets, screaming at each other, family said, and would stay up late arguing on the telephone. Thompson could not be reached for this article.
Newton didn't find out about the relationship until after Ria got pregnant, around her 18th birthday. Ria told her siblings first, then reluctantly told her mother, sobbing in a big pink robe she loved to wear.
"I know she wasn't happy with me at one point, because I didn't like Robert. I didn't like his lifestyle," Newton said.
When Javon Aidan Thompson was born, in September 2005, his father was being held without bail on murder, robbery and gun charges, which he would be acquitted of a year later. Ria brought the baby to see him in jail at least once, Newton said, but it's doubtful he ever held his son.
Javon was a chubby, playful baby, and Ria was a devoted mother. She fretted over him constantly, chastising Newton for giving him soda and controlling who could be around him. She grew possessive and paranoid, believing an older sister's claim that Newton was trying to hurt Javon, by offering him to the devil.
In court, Ria also said it bothered her that the boy seemed to bond more with Newton, who watched him much of the time. Ria was enrolled at a community college, studying to be a pharmacy tech, but her heart wasn't in it. She wanted to be home with Javon.
New friends offered a way to make that happen.
Cult leader 'had smarts'
Toni Ellsberry, who would one day be known as "Queen Antoinette," and a boyfriend incorporated "1 Mind Ministries" in June 2005 as "a non-profit Christian ministry created to financially assist, train, and lead new entrepreneurs into business and/or other ministries."
She wanted one offshoot to be a clothing line called J.C. Apparel - tag line "Don't be ashamed to rock his name, Jesus Christ!" - another a barbershop, and a third a shelter for children, according to court records. But she didn't get any of them going except one, according to her one-time lover, Steven Bynum, who supported her financially.
"She had smarts about her," Bynum said in court. He helped Ellsberry and her four kids, including teenager Trevia Williams, move into an apartment on North Robinson Street, which soon morphed into a makeshift shelter for young adults and their children.
Trevia befriended two sisters - Danielle and Tiffany Smith - who moved in one after the other in early 2006. "I was basically guaranteed a [rent-free] room," Tiffany testified in court. She brought her baby son with her, and the boy's father, Marcus Cobbs, soon followed, though their relationship was over.
Tiffany also drew in Ria.
She was one of Ria's first friends in Maryland, and they had their babies together, assigned to rooms across the hall from one another at Sinai Hospital.
One day in April 2006, Newton drove her grandson and daughter to a park so Ria could talk to Tiffany and Trevia about babysitting, she said.That was the last time Newton saw Javon outside of her dreams.
Fight against cult ensues
When Ria didn't come home that night, Newton panicked. She went to the Smiths, hoping for answers. They told her that the household was some kind of religious organization, Newton said, recalling that the word "cult" was used. If that's where Ria was, it was trouble.
Over the next two days, Newton placed fliers around the area searching for Ria, and she contacted police, who helped her find the Robinson Street address. But Ria wouldn't leave, and police couldn't make her.
Those two days of fighting would kick off four years of hell as Newton, driven by fears Javon was in danger, tirelessly tried to get help.
"All I could think about was David Koresh," she said, referring to the cult leader who was killed in 1993 along with dozens of his followers in a Waco, Texas, fire.
Newton called ABC and NBC and The Baltimore Sun, which said it couldn't help but pointed her to a Web site about cults. She wrote to then- Mayor Sheila Dixon and talked to numerous police officers, who she said told her to give up because her daughter was an adult. Social Services pointed her to Child Protective Services, which didn't follow up on her claim because of some technicality, she said.
And a Baltimore lawsuit, filed in May 2006 to try to get emergency custody of Javon, went nowhere. In a November letter to the presiding judge, Newton complained that she was getting the "runaround."
She would spend months following rumors trailing behind her daughter, a moving target.
Indoctrination takes hold
When Ria moved into the house, she dropped out of school and devoted herself to her son and her new "brothers and sisters."
Ellsberry had called them all together one day and said God had renamed her Queen Antoinette. She handed out honorifics to others as well: Princess Trevia, Prince Marcus, Princess Marie.
She told the Smith sisters and Ria that their own mothers were "witches," and she encouraged the use of marijuana as a plant from God. House members burned their personal possessions, including their identification, and they weren't allowed to communicate with their biological families after a time.
They prayed and ate together, read the Bible, and wore only "royal" colors of white, tan and blue. They had to travel in pairs and to defer to Queen Antoinette at all times. The younger children were home-schooled at the queen's direction.
"She told us it was God who told her certain things," Ria said in court. And Ria believed.
Tiffany, on the other hand, was a skeptic, and she began causing problems. She slept with Queen Antoinette's teenage son and became pregnant. She performed chores wrong, and she challenged the queen's authority.
She was evicted from the house in October 2006, two weeks after her daughter - Queen Antoinette's granddaughter - was born.
Soon after, the group moved from Robinson Street to a new place in Baltimore on Auchentoroly Terrace. It was here that Javon would show what Queen Antoinette called a "spirit of rebellion."
The baby knew a couple of words - "mom" among them - and he said a toddler's version of "amen" when Ria prompted him. But one day in late 2006 or early 2007, after a meal prayer, he refused.
Queen Antoinette said he shouldn't eat until he complied. And Ria listened, fearful that the boy had a literal spirit - a demon - in him.
"His body got weaker, he got thinner, his lips got dry," Ria said in court. He was put in a playpen in a communal area where "everybody saw him." And no one helped him, even as days passed and he grew more pained and lethargic. The queen forbade it, prosecutors said.
Shortly before he died, Ria said that "the queen told me I had to nurture him back to life" and she and Danielle prepared a paste of carrots and dried peas, but he was too dehydrated to swallow. He had been starved for days. His heart stopped, and they ran to tell Queen Antoinette.
She asked if they believed Javon could come back, and commanded them to pray. "I stayed near his body. I read to him and prayed," Ria testified. "I was trying to nurture him back."
She tried for months.
Group flees Maryland
Javon's body was put in a bed and kept, like a decaying doll, for weeks. When the landlord came into the house one day, Ria thought they were found out, and she told the queen.
They packed up and moved to the Philadelphia area in February 2007, because "Queen told us that's where God said he wanted her to go," Ria testified.
Prince Marcus and Princess Trevia measured Javon's body, and bought a large, green roller-bag suitcase. The boy, who died when he was about 16 months old, was put inside, along with a blanket, some dryer sheets and mothballs to mask the odor. Ria and Queen Antoinette scoured his bedroom, and his bed was broken down and burned.
Bynum drove them into Pennsylvania and abandoned the group at a Red Roof Inn, which he paid for, after Queen Antoinette told him that the boy's body was in a suitcase. They would take a train the rest of the way to Philadelphia.
There, Queen Antoinette met 79-year-old Samuel Morgan and persuaded him to let her "family" stay in an extra room in his apartment. He threw them out in mid-March after a couple of days, because they locked the door to their room, which was unacceptable in his house. But before they left, heading for New York City, he let them store their things in his shed: one blue carry-on case, one portfolio, and one big green suitcase.
Finally, a sympathetic ear
In New York, things began to unravel. Ria and Danielle, who had witnessed Javon die, were distraught. Ria, already tiny, got smaller and quieter, until it seemed she'd crawled entirely into her head. And Danielle tried to reach out for help, but she couldn't get it right. She left the message "we love our children" written on an apartment wall before Queen Antoinette and Prince Marcus escorted her to a hospital psychiatricward. There, she could tell her story to anyone and everyone, but no one would believe.
During this time, Newton, desperate to find her grandson, continued to track their movements.
She heard rumors that Javon was with a child protective agency in Philadelphia, but couldn't confirm it. Then she heard from the Smiths that their daughter Danielle was hospitalized.
The Smiths, Newton and her son Sheldon Hallal drove to the city in mid-February 2008. There, Danielle would tell a horrific story. It was so far-fetched Newton didn't know if she could believe it. But inside, she knew it was the truth. Her grandson was dead.
She continued to prod authorities with little response until one New York child services case worker listened. The woman alerted Baltimore police, who got Philadelphia law enforcement involved. Together, they verified Danielle's story, and Javon's remains were recovered in late April that year, two years after he left his grandmother's home.
The queen and her court were arrested in August 2008.
Ria pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death, but only after the judge agreed to an incredible caveat: If the child is resurrected, her charges will be dropped.
She still believes she can bring him back through faith. She can't not believe it. She is expected to be sentenced to a residential treatment facility now that the trial is over.
She's a completely different person from the sassy jokester Newton and Hallal knew.
"It's just a dry stick, there's nothing. She's all dried up," said Newton.
A cult faces justice
The trial of Queen Antoinette, Princess Trevia and Prince Marcus, which began with opening statements Feb. 22 in Baltimore City Circuit Court, was a spectacle. The defendants represented themselves and the courtroom was full each day with onlookers.
"It is the height of maliciousness not to feed a child," Assistant State's Attorney Patricia McLane told the jurors. "Either they issued the order themselves, like Queen Antoinette, or they followed it."
Newton sat in the front row, a photo of Javon pinned to her collar, a picture of Ria in a jacket pocket.
The jury deliberated less than three hours before it returned guilty verdicts March 2 on charges of second-degree murder and child abuse resulting in death. Sentencing is scheduled for May 18.
Newton said she dreamed of Javon the night after she testified. Each time she closed her eyes, she would see him, jumping about her bed, tugging at the sheets impishly, a frolicking, happy child.
"To interact with him for seven months, and then not to have him again, not to feel him again, that's always going to be something that I want to do, that I can't do," Newton said.
Her marriage is over; she moved out in December 2006, and her new apartment is a shrine to her dead grandson, whose pictures are everywhere. Her last fight was for his remains, which she collected from the Philadelphia medical examiner's office after his father never showed.
She buried him in January 2009.
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