15 Nov 2010

Member of cult-like Brooklyn Orthodox church on trial for starving her children, may file insanity defense

The Star-Ledger - New Jersey January 15, 2010

Defendant raised in cult-like faith, brother testifies

by Joe Moszczynski | STAR-LEDGER STAFF

A New York City woman on trial for starving four of her children was brought up in a "cult-like" religion that prohibited its members from direct contact with the outside world, her brother testified yesterday.

"It was an almost cult-like existence. We weren't allowed to watch TV, go to the movies, or vote," said Frederick Phillips, 45, of Manhattan, describing the lifestyles of members of the Brooklyn-based Church of the Brethren, an Orthodox Christian church that believed in a strict interpretation of the Bible.

Phillips also recalled growing up with his sister, Estelle Walker, in the family's devoutly religious household in New York City.

On Sundays, his parents and four siblings would wake up at 4 a.m. to board a train to attend day-long Brethren services that began at 6 a.m. Once a month, the church held services that lasted from Friday through Sunday, he said.

"My mother "¦ was a little defiant and she went out and bought a little TV that she used to hide in the closet. One day, she kept the TV out and my dad saw it and he went ballistic," said Phillips, adding that he didn't drink his first beer until age 30 because he was always instructed that drinking alcoholic beverages was a sin.

Phillips, a defense witness, testified that he and one of his brothers eventually left the Brethren church. Estelle Walker, his only sister, went on to join a religious commune.

"She became even more religious" then and he sometimes saw her distributing religious pamphlets on the streets of New York City, said Phillips, under questioning by Walker's attorney, public defender Ronald Nicola.

"out of reality'

Earlier in the day, psychologist Frank Dyer of Montclair, who briefly interviewed an uncooperative Walker on behalf of the state Division of Youth and Family Services while she was an inmate at the county jail, described her as being "delusional."

"She was clearly in a delusion state "¦ out of reality," said Dyer.

Walker, 50, is charged with four counts of child endangerment for allegedly allowing her children -- ages 8, 9, 11 and 13 -- to go for up to 11 days without food while they were living in a lakefront cabin at Lake Hopatcong.

The Walkers were temporarily placed in the cabin in 2005 by her church, the Manhattan-based Times Square Church, which she joined after leaving the commune, to help Walker escape a husband she claims was an alcoholic.

support cut off

But when it came time for Walker to leave the cabin in May 2006, she refused and told church officials that God told her to stay. The church then cut off her support -- $700 to $1,000 per month -- and began eviction proceedings, and the family began running low on food.

Walker was arrested July 25, 2006, after she and her children, including an 18-year-old daughter, were found to be emaciated. She was charged with four counts of second-degree child endangerment.

Phillips was the third and final witness to be presented in the trial by Nicola, who is attempting to portray Walker as a religious zealot who suffers from psychological problems that prevented her from taking proper care of her children.

Walker decided yesterday not to testify on her own behalf. "It's something I've prayed about," she told Superior Court Judge N. Peter Conforti.

The defense has filed a motion with Conforti saying they may file for a diminished capacity or insanity defense, which, if accepted by the judge, could affect how the jury decides the outcome of the case.

The trial is scheduled to resume in Newton on Wednesday.

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