23 Nov 2010

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

The Washington Post - February 22, 2010

Prosecutors: Boy starved to death at cult's hands

By BEN NUCKOLS | The Associated Press

BALTIMORE -- The leader of a religious cult was "outraged" when a 1-year-old boy did not say "Amen" before a meal and ordered her followers to deprive him of food and water until he died, a Baltimore prosecutor told jurors Monday.

Three members of the now-defunct cult known as 1 Mind Ministries are on trial for murder in the death of Javon Thompson, who was around 16 months old when he died of starvation and dehydration in either December 2006 or January 2007, according to authorities.

After the boy died, the cult members prayed for his resurrection, then destroyed all evidence of his death and stuffed his body in a suitcase, which they hid in a shed behind a home in Philadelphia, Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake told jurors.

The cult members - Queen Antoinette, 41; her daughter, Trevia Williams, 22; and Marcus A. Cobbs, 23 - are representing themselves at trial. Antoinette declined to make an opening statement, while Williams and Cobbs spoke briefly; Williams in a voice so quiet that jurors, prosecutors and the judge strained to hear her.

Williams suggested the prosecution's theory of the case was flawed. "Pay attention to details," she said.

Cobbs pledged that "when the truth comes out," jurors would realize the defendants are not guilty. "The truth shall set you free," he said.

The jury of seven men and five women listened intently as Drake recounted how Javon's mother, Ria Ramkissoon, was recruited into the cult and did nothing to stop her son from wasting away, even though she was "distraught" over his slow and agonizing death.

Ramkissoon pleaded guilty last year to child abuse resulting in death and plans to testify against Antoinette, Williams and Cobbs. At her insistence, the plea deal included an extraordinary provision: If Javon comes back to life, the plea will be vacated.

Ramkissoon, then a teenage single mother, joined the cult because she wanted to become a Christian and was told she wouldn't have to work or go to school, Drake said.

The cult members lived together in a small apartment and were forced to abide by an increasingly strict set of rules, and Antoinette was "leery" of Javon, Drake said.

"If she perceived a rebellious spirit in someone, she would characterize it as demonic," Drake said.

The cult members "did everything they could think of" to make Javon say "Amen" before Antoinette ordered them not to feed him until he did, Drake said. She later took the boy away from his mother and placed him in Williams' care, the prosecutor said.

"In full view of every member of that household, Javon wasted away," Drake said. "If this little boy had ever had the capacity to say 'Amen,' he surely lost it. He could not say anything."

Ramkissoon prayed for days for Javon to be resurrected, and Antoinette "told her it was her fault" the boy did not come back to life, Drake said.

Prosecutors are seeking a first-degree murder conviction for Antoinette - also known as Toni Sloan - and second-degree murder convictions for Williams and Cobbs.

Antoinette smiled and scoffed throughout Drake's opening statement, at one point laughing out loud. Cobbs occasionally smiled and shook his head.

Williams had little reaction. After announcing that she wanted to make an opening statement, she stood silently for more than a minute before beginning to speak. Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy J. Doory asked her twice to speak louder, but she did not raise her voice either time. At least one juror beckoned for her to move closer to the panel, which she did.

Williams and Cobbs acknowledged that the state's witnesses would present testimony consistent with Drake's opening statement, and neither indicated that they planned to call their own witnesses.

"I'm sure the testimony will all collaborate, seeing as how the defendants have all been in jail for 21 months," Williams said.

She specifically disputed the assertion that the cult members brought the suitcase with Javon's body to a Red Roof Inn outside Philadelphia.

"How a dead body was taken to a hotel and not noticed, I don't know," Williams said.

The jury was seated after a selection process that took up parts of two days. More than 150 potential jurors were brought in, and many said they could not be impartial because of the age of the victim.

Two jurors were struck and replaced by alternates before opening statements began. One of those could be heard telling Judge Doory he had read media coverage of the case after he was called in last Wednesday as a potential juror.

The dismissals left the jury with just one alternate, meaning a mistrial would be declared if two more jurors are struck.

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Baltimore Sun - February 23, 2010

Another mother testifies in cult trial

Her child also threatened with starvation, she says

By Tricia Bishop | Baltimore Sun

The accused cult leader known as Queen Antoinette, charged with murder in a toddler's starvation death, once tried to prevent another baby from being fed, according to that child's mother, who testified Tuesday that she was manipulated into giving up her maternal duties.

To stay in the religious household run by Queen Antoinette, residents "had to be broken, and you were slightly reprogrammed," said 23-year-old Tiffany Smith. Smith once lived rent-free with several others in the home, which she described as peaceful yet controlling.

Antoinette and two other defendants, all of whom are representing themselves, are charged with orchestrating the death of 16-month-old Javon Thompson by refusing to feed him until he dutifully said "amen."

One man suggested Antoinette, 41, used a sexual relationship to influence him. And Smith revealed that her eldest child, now 4, was fathered by one defendant, while her youngest child, who is 3, was fathered by Antoinette's son.

Many of the details were brought out by the defendants themselves - Antoinette; her daughter, Trevia Williams, 22; and Marcus Cobbs, 23 - on cross-examination. And the already precarious case became even shakier Tuesday when a juror was dismissed for personal reasons. He was the third juror to be let go in two days, which means there are no alternates left to turn to in case of emergency.

The day opened with prosecutors dropping all charges against Antoinette's former lover, 43-year-old Steven Bynum, whom they later put on the stand, where he described paying Antoinette's bills.

Seeta Newton, Javon's 60-year-old grandmother, sank into the witness box and described how her daughter, 23-year-old Ria Ramkissoon, once adored Javon.

"Watching Ria with Javon was like [watching] a kid with a new toy," Newton said. "She would not let anyone come close to him. ... She was very protective of her son."

Ramkissoon also wanted more time with the boy, and Antoinette's household, which included her four children, offered that. Smith said she joined because she received free housing and built-in child care.

"It seemed like a good idea at the time, kind of a stress reliever," Smith said. "I didn't have to do the nasty work that mothers do."

Her child's father, defendant Cobbs, moved in later, though they were no longer a couple. And Smith encouraged Ramkissoon, whom she had known since elementary school, to join them in April 2006.

Newton said she was cut off from contact with her daughter soon after, though she tried to keep tabs on her. Eventually, she received a phone call telling her Javon was dead.

"His remains were in a suitcase," Newton said, dabbing her eyes.

Prosecutors contend that the defendants starved the boy, then carried his remains to Pennsylvania in the hopes they could resurrect him.

Ramkissoon, who is expected to testify in the trial, has pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death.

On the stand Tuesday, Smith said Antoinette ordered starvation for her child because of something "wrong" with Smith's soul, though it didn't appear that the alleged order was ever carried out. And Smith, who became pregnant with her second child by Antoinette's teen-age son while living in their home, acknowledged that she liked the group.

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Baltimore Sun - February 25, 2010

Starved toddler may have been possessed, mother says at trial

Testimony continues in case of reputed cult

By Tricia Bishop | Baltimore Sun

The mother of a dead child testified Wednesday that she followed orders to starve her toddler son, even though it "didn't feel right," to rid him of a demon that she believed her own mother placed there by offering the boy to the devil.

There was a "strong possibility" that he was possessed by an "evil spirit," Ria Ramkissoon, 23, told a Baltimore jury in describing Javon Thompson's last days, which began one morning when he refused to say "amen" after prayer. It was the only word he knew other than "mom."

At the time, Ramkissoon was living in a strict religious household that prosecutors have characterized as a cult. Ramkissoon said the group's leader, known as Queen Antoinette, advised her to "not give [Javon] anything to eat because there was a spirit of rebellion in him."

He was deprived of food for "at least a week," Ramkissoon said. "His body got weaker. He got thinner. His lips got dry." After days, Ramkissoon and another young woman in the home mixed a paste of carrots and dried peas for the boy, but "it was hard for him to swallow." His heart stopped.

Ramkissoon has pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death, and expects to receive a 20-year suspended sentence, along with inpatient counseling and five years' probation. Her sentencing has been repeatedly postponed in anticipation of her testimony against three other defendants, including Antoinette, 41, who are charged with murder in Javon's death.

Also on trial are Antoinette's daughter, Trevia Williams, 22, and Marcus Cobbs, 23, both of whom are charged with second-degree murder for allegedly watching Javon waste away and doing nothing. Cobbs at one point wanted to feed the boy, according to testimony. But he never did.

They have all declined lawyers and are representing themselves in the case.

"I still believe that my son is coming back, so I have no problem saying what happened," Ramkissoon said.

"I don't have a problem with sounding crazy in court," said Ramkissoon, who also testified that the group was not a cult.

According to testimony, Antoinette was developing a religious organization called 1 Mind Ministries and had plans to open a shelter for children. She ran a religious household that required its members to read the Bible, travel outside in pairs for safety and wear blue, white and khaki, witnesses have said.

Ramkissoon learned about the house through a childhood friend, who said she could live there and spend more time with her son. At the time, Ramkissoon felt the boy was bonding more with her mother than with her because she was in community college and away for much of the day.

She also said she was uncomfortable at home, where she lived with her younger brother, her mother, Seeta Newton, and her stepfather, with whom she had a "difficult" relationship.

When a juror asked Ramkissoon, via a note handed to the judge, why she trusted strangers with her baby over her mother, she said simply: "If you think your son is being offered to the devil by your mother, who do you go to?"

Ramkissoon, who converted from Hinduism to Christianity in middle school, said she found her mother and stepfather holding the boy up to the sky one evening. They "said they were showing him God's creation," she testified, but she believed they were "offering him up to the devil."

In an interview after the morning testimony, Ramkissoon's mother said she never offered her grandchild to the devil and "wasn't even holding him" that evening. She said she hopes her daughter, who sounded lucid and confident on the stand, gets counseling.

"She comes and goes. Her mood comes and goes. ... But altogether, she's a very smart girl," Newton said.

On the stand, Ramkissoon said she questioned what was going on and had "bad feelings about some things," but "she put those feelings aside" because she believed Antoinette was being instructed by God.

After the boy died, Ramkissoon kept vigil by his body, reading to him and offering him water, before packing his remains in a suitcase with the defendants' help, she said. His remains were eventually discovered in a shed in Philadelphia, where the group had moved.

"Queen told me at some point I had to nurture him back to life," Ramkissoon said.

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The Baltimore Sun - February 26, 2010

Witness: Accused cult leaders had her committed to keep quiet

Woman told N.Y. agency of boy's starvation, leading to group's arrest

By Tricia Bishop | Baltimore Sun

A woman who once lived with three people accused of leading a cult testified Thursday that they committed her to a mental hospital to keep her quiet about a toddler's starvation death.

Danielle Smith, 26, said she tried to alert neighbors to the boy's death but couldn't because she was not left alone with outsiders.

The three defendants - Toni Sloan, who's known in court as Queen Antoinette, 41; her daughter, Trevia Williams, 22; and acquaintance Marcus Cobbs, 23 - have pleaded not guilty to murder charges. They're accused of depriving Javon Thompson of food after the 16-month-old, who could barely talk, refused to say "amen" and are representing themselves in Baltimore City Circuit Court.

Smith said she left a vague hint of the child's death scrawled across one wall - the sentence "We love our children" - before the group put her out of its New York City apartment, where it had moved after Javon died in Baltimore. A day later, the group escorted her to the psychiatric ward of Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn, N.Y.

"The people at the hospital thought I was crazy," Smith said. She was there a month, yet she was able to tell her story to police and a caseworker at a New York child protective agency, leading to the group's arrest. Smith was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after she left the hospital.

Like everyone else in the household, Smith did nothing to save Javon while he was dying. She testified that the front door of their shared Baltimore apartment was locked and that she didn't think she could escape with the boy out the back door.

"I actually worried most about what Queen Antoinette would do," Smith said.

Smith and her sister, who testified earlier this week, moved in with Antoinette and her four children in early 2006, after Williams befriended Smith. The sisters said in court that Antoinette turned them against their own families, who didn't properly follow the Bible, and called their mother a "witch."

Cobbs, who has a child with Smith's sister, moved in about a month later. Another young woman who was friends with the Smiths, Ria Ramkissoon, followed in April of that year with her infant, Javon.

"Queen Antoinette made people believe that [living with her] would be a better situation for you," Smith said Thursday.

Antoinette ran her household with a strict set of rules that allowed children to fast and use marijuana, but prevented anyone from wearing colors other than tan, blue or white. She justified her decisions through various Scripture readings.

Antoinette did not have "to abide by certain laws of the land," Smith testified, because the leader, who had christened herself "Queen," was beholden only to God.

"She just said that God spoke to her and told her how to live in her household," Smith said.

When Javon wouldn't repeat the word "amen" after Ramkissoon one day, Antoinette declared the boy rebellious and said he shouldn't eat until he complied, according to testimony. He died after days of deprivation.

The group prayed for his resurrection and eventually packed his body in a forest-green suitcase, which it took to Philadelphia, where the group had planned to move. The household left it in a shed when it moved again to New York City, where the defendants were arrested in Javon's death in 2008. Testimony resumes Monday.

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The Baltimore Sun - March 2, 2010

Closing arguments expected in trial of reputed cult members

Defendants accused of starving toddler to death

By Tricia Bishop | Baltimore Sun

Closing arguments are expected today in the Baltimore trial of three alleged cult members accused of starving a toddler to death because he didn't pray properly.

The defendants, who are representing themselves, rested their cases within minutes Monday without calling any witnesses. They face decades in prison if convicted.

All are charged with child abuse resulting in death, which carries a maximum 30-year penalty, for depriving 16-month-old Javon Thompson of food and water. Prosecutors say the punishment began because the boy refused to say "amen."

Defendant Toni Sloan, who goes by the name "Queen Antoinette," 41, is also charged with first-degree murder, which is punishable by life in prison. She's accused of ordering the starvation. Her daughter "Princess" Trevia Williams, 22, and their friend Marcus Cobbs, 23, are charged with second-degree murder, which has a maximum sentence of 30 years, because they allegedly did nothing to help the boy as he withered.

Prosecutors claim the defendants led a religious cult focused on Antoinette, who set the house rules and determined who could stay or go in her home, which she shared with her four children, including Williams.

The family eventually took in several young women, two of whom brought babies with them, and a third got pregnant there by Antoinette's teenage son. Cobbs, who had a baby with one of the women, also moved in.

The women testified that they lived rent-free and had to follow various rules, such as regularly reading the Bible and wearing only certain colors: tan, blue or white.

As time passed, they said, they were cut off from their families.

Ria Ramkissoon, Javon's mother, said she joined the household in 2006 because her own home life was "difficult." Now 23, she said she didn't like the way her mother was interacting with Javon and she didn't get along with her stepfather. Ramkissoon has already pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death in her son's starvation and is awaiting sentencing.

In cross-examination of the state's witnesses, the defendants have suggested they lived a disciplined, religious life, but denied that they were a cult.

On Monday, the state called two witnesses before resting its case: a Baltimore police lab director who identified the child's mummified remains and a medical examiner who testified that the boy was killed by "unspecified means," likely suffocation or food and water deprivation.

"A child of this age doesn't generally die a natural death," he testified.

The boy's body was discovered in a Philadelphia shed, carefully packed inside a green suitcase that prosecutors say the group took along when they moved from Baltimore. Members had prayed repeatedly to resurrect the body.

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