Children under the care of the Watts-based Ecclesia Athletic Assn. were subjected to systematic beatings with paddles and electrical cords--up to 800 strokes at a time--while their peers were forced to watch and keep count, authorities here charged Monday.
In requesting that the state be permitted to retain custody of the 55 children, Clackamas County juvenile authorities described a “cruel and terrifying experience” for the children, who were housed on a farm in Sandy, 25 miles east of Portland, in an area of dairies and Christmas tree farms.
The farmhouse has four bedrooms and two baths--one with a non-functional toilet--and “almost no furniture, to wit: three chairs, no beds for the children and no refrigerator,” wrote county Juvenile Director Donald D. Welch in a petition to Judge Patrick D. Gilroy, who granted the county’s request.
“The (55) children, boys and girls, slept in a commonly shared area with access to approximately 30 sleeping bags. . . . Available food stock . . . consisted of a few tomatoes and heads of lettuce,” Welch told the Juvenile Court judge.
The petition, written after the children were interviewed and physically examined, said the children had been “unfed for an extended period of time.”
The authorities said they had established probable abuse in the cases of 42 children, who had scars, and that the remaining 13 were without parents in Oregon to care for them.
Meanwhile, the four Ecclesia members who are suspects in the fatal beating of the daughter of the group’s leader were formally charged with manslaughter Monday. A Clackamas County District Court judge ordered each jailed in lieu of $250,000 bail.
Authorities initially said they would charge the four with murder in the death of Dayna Lorea Broussard, 8, whose father, Eldridge Broussard Jr., founded Ecclesia as an outgrowth of his Watts Christian Center.
But, said Deputy Clackamas County Dist. Atty. Alfred French: “Murder requires proof (of intent) to cause the death of this child. And the evidence that we have at this time indicates that it’s lacking, that it’s just not there.”
In a related development in Los Angeles, police on Sunday afternoon took five youths into protective custody and arrested Alvin Broussard, 25, believed to be Eldridge Broussard’s brother. Alvin Broussard was booked on suspicion of child endangerment and released on $3,000 bail.
The two-state probe into Ecclesia began Friday morning when four of the group’s members took Dayna’s bruised body to a Clackamas County fire station. An autopsy ultimately showed that she had been beaten and whipped and that she died of blunt-force injuries.
The girl’s father was in Los Angeles at the time of her death, but came to Oregon, where he issued statements through a Portland television reporter and refused all other interview requests.
Eldridge Broussard has said he blames the news media for the death of his daughter.
On Monday, Eldridge Broussard attended both hearings at the Clackamas County Courthouse, where he was accompanied by about 15 parents of the children who are now in protective custody.
The parents followed Broussard through the courthouse, responding to reporters’ questions only with silent stares. They later met behind closed doors with officials of the Oregon Children’s Services Division. It was the first face-to-face contact between authorities and Ecclesia parents other than Broussard. Four of his children are among those in custody, officials said.
Bart Wilson, the agency’s Clackamas County branch manager, said after the meeting that details of the child-abuse allegations were not discussed, but that each family was assigned a caseworker with whom to discuss the children’s problems.
He said a total of 18 families are involved and that not all of them were represented at the meeting.
He also said the parents knew their children were in Oregon with Ecclesia and that they showed “no indication of a lack of confidence in Mr. Broussard.”
Wilson said he hoped that the children would be reunited with parents after the agency had determined that they would be safe. The judge’s order gives the agency authority to release children without further legal proceedings.
Wilson added that Broussard was upset over public references to the group as the Ecclesia Athletic Assn., preferring the group be called the Watts Christian Center.
Los Angeles police officers, at the request of Oregon authorities, on Sunday afternoon went to the center in search of a boy who, Oregon authorities said, may have been abused at one of the two houses that Ecclesia maintained in Oregon and may have witnessed the abuse of others.
The officers found the youth in question, determined that he had been physically abused at some earlier date and took him into protective custody, LAPD spokesman Cmdr. William Booth said. Four other juveniles, ranging in age from 10 to 17, were also taken into custody. One of the children, a 15-year old boy, was also believed to have been beaten, Booth said. It was not initially determined if the remaining three children, all girls, had been abused.
The children were turned over to the Los Angeles County Department of Children’s Services.
The Watts Christian Center is located in an unmarked industrial building in the 7700 block of Avalon Boulevard in South-Central Los Angeles. Like many of the commercial buildings in the area, the windows are covered and the door protected by heavy bars and chains.
No one answered the doorbell Monday morning and neighbors said people are seen only occasionally at the site.
Seven Adults Held
The Los Angeles arrest of Alvin Broussard brought to seven the number of Ecclesia adults being held.
In Clackamas County Jail in Oregon were Willie K. Chambers, 35; Brian James Brinson, 30; Frederick Paul Doolittle, 28; Constance Zipporah Jackson, 37--all charged with manslaughter. Sherion Melinda Johnson, 32, and Josie Ruth Faust, 50, were being held as material witnesses.
French, the deputy district attorney, said a grand jury will begin hearing evidence in the death this week, while the child-abuse investigation continues.
The Ecclesia group last year established a presence in Oregon, where Eldridge Broussard had played basketball at Pacific University. He told local residents that the group was in town to establish a training camp to prepare its members for future Olympic games.
But the group sparked controversy among its neighbors, who were disturbed by its secrecy (residents say members come and go at night) and by its militarism, including silent drills and lineups in which the children reportedly would stand at attention for hours.
Local residents were also reminded of the controversial central Oregon commune of Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and they likened the Ecclesia group to that sort of cult.
The children also worked in the fields, picking strawberries in silence, breaking occasionally to jog around the field or practice regimented cheers and jumping-jack routines.
The group moved back and forth between two residences--the Sandy house and another farmhouse in Clackamas, not far from Oregon City.
The Sandy house appeared vacant Monday. Broussard and several other members of his organization were at the Clackamas house, where a spokeswoman declined to comment on the manslaughter and child abuse investigation.
Times staff writers Frederick M. Muir and Jack Jones in Los Angeles contributed to this story.