When the Ecclesia Athletic Assn. moved into the farmhouse down the road from Linda Zade, she did not like what she saw: Children, some of them toddlers, jogging in the rain or doing jumping jacks in the hot sun or being loaded into a pickup truck to go to work in nearby berry fields.
It was June, 1987, and Zade, along with other neighbors, complained about the treatment of the children to Clackamas County authorities, who were already well aware of the controversial Watts-based group.
Sheriff’s deputies conducted a “welfare check” that June and found no evidence that the children were being abused or mistreated. The Oregon Children’s Services Division, citing that lack of evidence, declined to investigate.
Sometime between then and now, authorities allege, at least 42 of 55 Ecclesia children were subjected to systematic beatings and whippings, up to 800 strokes at a time. One child--the 8-year-old daughter of the group’s leader--died of what coroner’s officials say was a beating.
But authorities say they had no prior indication that beatings were occurring. They said there had been no complaints about Ecclesia in the past year. In part, this was because the group, which moved back and forth between two Oregon farmhouses and Los Angeles, was so secretive that few people knew it was in town.
“That there were that many children in the house is a total shock,” said Gayle Gow, who lives near the Sandy farmhouse where the 55 children were taken into protective custody Friday.
Neighbors like Zade and Gow are angry that local officials who received their complaints last year did not intervene at the time.
“I think we did the job that we’re supposed to do,” Bart Wilson, manager of the Clackamas County branch of the Children’s Services Division, said Tuesday. “The state truly doesn’t just go into people’s houses without cause.”
After the controversy of the summer of 1987, Ecclesia’s leader, Eldridge Broussard Jr., announced that he was suspending the group’s Oregon operation.
But it was not until Friday morning when four group members brought the body of Broussard’s daughter to a fire station that officials and neighbors learned that a large number of Ecclesia children were back in the area.
Authorities confirmed Tuesday that Dayna Lorea Broussard died in the Sandy farmhouse. Six members of the group are being held at the Clackamas County Jail. Four are charged with manslaughter, and the other two are being held as material witnesses. Eldridge Broussard’s brother, Alvin, was being held in Los Angeles on suspicion of child endangerment.
The majority of the 55 children have been placed in two juvenile detention centers. The children, who range in age from 1 1/2 months to 16 years, belong to 18 families, officials said.
Between 15 and 20 of the parents came to Oregon where authorities scheduled interviews with them. Broussard, however, abruptly canceled those interviews Tuesday.
Broussard founded the group to help inner-city children through what he called “toughness training"--a combination of physical labor and athletic workouts. The group’s literature boasted that the children were free of drugs, alcohol and teen pregnancy.
Residents of the community of Clackamas, where Ecclesia maintained a second farmhouse, said the group brought more than 80 children there in 1986.
A county official visited the Ecclesia residence but said he “did not observe anything that appeared to be abusive or neglectful” with regard to the children.
County officials notified the group that there was a zoning limit to the number of people who could occupy the house, and most of the children were gone by 1986.
In the summer of 1987, Ecclesia set up camp again, this time primarily in Sandy where tents were pitched for the children to live in and portable toilets were brought in. Although a county official told a Times reporter at the time that an investigation would be made, Wilson said that as far as he knows, none took place.