Neighbors of a rural Ozarks church community were tightlipped Wednesday about allegations that the pastor, his wife and her two brothers sexually abused young girls from their congregation for years, sometimes as part of a religious ritual.
Felony complaints including child molestation and sodomy were filed last week by the McDonald County prosecutor against the Rev. Raymond Lambert, pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church; his wife, Patty Lambert; and her brothers, Paul and Tom Epling.
Prosecutors alleged that Lambert, 51, helped by his 49-year-old wife, repeatedly molested and had sex with two underage girls,“as part of a ritual or ceremony,” according to the court filing.
The alleged abuses took place over a 10-year span until 2005, prosecutors said.
Lambert told the girls,“We are preparing your body for service to God,” according to the complaint.
Separate felony complaints against the Epling brothers – Paul Epling is 53 and Tom Epling is 51 – allege that each repeatedly had sex with girls as young as age 4 in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Also on Wednesday, The Joplin Globe reported that Newton County authorities were seeking a missing pastor of a church they believe is affiliated with Grand Valley Independent Baptist.
Felony warrants charge the Rev. George O. Johnston, 63, pastor of Grandview Valley Baptist Church North, with eight counts of statutory sodomy involving the children of church members, the newspaper reported.
The Globe also reported that authorities removed four children Monday from that church’s compound near East Newton High School.
Lambert’s church is on property owned by the Epling brothers and houses up to 100 people on a 100-acre farm in western McDonald County, Sheriff’s Deputy Michael F. Le Seuer said.
“They refer to it as a compound,” Le Seuer told The Associated Press.
An attorney for the four said they denied the allegations.
The compound is behind a high gate marked “Grand Valley Farm” on a gravel road about 13 miles west of the small town of Washburn. The gate was barred with “No Trespassing” signs on Wednesday, and attorney Robert W. Evenson said the four would not speak to reporters.
“This is a matter of facts for the court, not of public opinion,” Evenson said.
Most neighbors on the remote country road declined to talk to reporters or would not give their names.
One neighbor who did talk, Jack Gordon, said children from the church community have come to his property about 1 mile away for years to collect walnuts.
“They were very well disciplined. I never saw anything that looked like that,” he said, referring to the abuse allegations.
Gordon, 69, said he has lived along the road since the 1970s and frequently sees people from the church community on the road, although they do not visit each other often.
“We are a pretty close-knit bunch out here,” Gordon said.