Children Relate Haunting Account of Ecclesia Death

Times Staff Writer

With her hair pulled back in colored barrettes and her blue jeans cuffed at the ankles, 10-year-old Faith Lynette Cox came to the courthouse here last week and told the story of her best friend's death.

She told of kneeling beside the battered body of 8-year-old Dayna Broussard, shaking the girl in a futile attempt to revive her.

"I was saying, 'Dayna, wake up! Dayna, wake up!' . . . Her eyes was just open and she was just laying there."

Basis of Charges

Eight other children had come earlier to offer testimony about the death of the daughter of Eldridge Broussard Jr., founder and spiritual leader of the Los Angeles-based Ecclesia Athletic Assn. Their testimony has provided the foundation of the prosecution's case against the four adult followers of Broussard who have been accused in the death.

Testimony and final arguments in the trial, which for three weeks has fascinated this tiny mill town, are expected to conclude today. It will then be left to a jury to resolve a complicated case that has torn asunder Broussard's highly regimented association.

The child witnesses grew up with Ecclesia and were the focus of Broussard's dream to help black youngsters survive ghetto life through a strict regimen of religion, athletics and discipline. Now, they and about 40 other Ecclesia children are in foster homes in Oregon. They are separated from their parents--who have stuck by Broussard--because authorities say they received floggings similar to the one that allegedly cost Dayna her life.

"In a sense," said defense attorney Tim Lyons, "we are pitting the testimony of the parents against the children, in that each and every adult member considers themselves a parent of these children."

Said the mother of defendant Willie Chambers: "Those children were like his own. . . . To have to go through something like this, it's kind of like seeing your own children."

Defendants in Case

Chambers, 35, and the other three defendants--Constance Jackson, 39; Brian Brinson, 31; and Frederick Doolittle, 28--are charged with manslaughter and face a maximum of 20 years in prison if convicted.

Broussard, who was in Los Angeles at the time of his daughter's death, has placed himself squarely in the defendants' camp. He was to have testified Wednesday as the final defense witness but, in a surprise decision, defense lawyers rested their case without calling him.

The trial has not been confined to the central mystery of who killed Dayna Broussard. It also has cast new light on the lives and beliefs of the Broussard's followers who, bound by religious convictions and a shared vision of a better life for their children, became ensnarled in one of Oregon's most celebrated criminal cases.

The facts of the case begin in the fall of 1988, when the Ecclesia children, along with some adults in the group, went to a farmhouse the group maintained in rural Oregon, about 25 miles from here. At the time, the rest of the adults were renovating the South-Central Los Angeles building where the group has lived communally for a decade.

In voices so soft the prosecutor had to repeatedly ask them to speak up, the youngsters talked about their daily lives in Oregon, a routine that consisted primarily of tending to the garden, memorizing the Book of Romans and exercising, mostly by performing jumping jacks--for as long as two hours at a time.

"We did, like, 5,000 or 10,000 jacks, and then we ate raw zucchini and tomatoes, and then we did aerobics, and then I think we ate dinner, and then we did Romans, and then we laid down," said one 9-year-old girl.

They also spoke about Dayna Broussard, a strong-willed, athletic child who, at 4 feet, 8 inches and just 60 pounds, was too tall and too skinny for her age.

Dayna, they said, ran afoul of her elders on the morning of Oct. 12, a Wednesday, when she swiped a piece of zucchini from another child's plate. When Jackson tried to spank her with a paddle as punishment, the youngster bit the woman's thigh, clamping down so hard that one of the other adults had to pry her off.

Call to Los Angeles

The adults called Broussard in Los Angeles, looking for guidance, evidence in the case showed. He instructed Chambers to discipline his daughter in front of the other children.

The discipline began that night and continued on the next. The children were awakened and rounded up into the garage of the farmhouse.

Prosecutor Alfred French asked Faith Cox to tell him what happened on the second night. She spoke breathlessly, in rapid fire.

"Willie and Brian grabbed her, and they just threw her on the floor . . . and then Brian was holding her legs, and Fred was holding her arms, and Willie was just hitting, hitting her real hard, and Little El was just counting."

What was Willie hitting Dayna with?

"With the black hose."

And why was Little El--Broussard's son, Eldridge III--counting the number of lashes his sister received?

"Because Willie told him to."

In all, the prosecution contends that Dayna was whipped more than 500 times--over a period of two hours--with a braided electrical cord, the black rubber hose, a weight-lifting belt, a bamboo stick and a piece of PVC pipe that shattered when it hit her leg. Throughout the trial, French has shown these implements to the child witnesses, as well as the jury.

The state also contends that the defendants spit water in Dayna's face and stuffed a sock in her mouth to keep the neighbors from hearing her screams.

And finally, when she complained she could not breathe, the children recalled that Dayna was hung out the garage window, her arms and legs dangling.

The prosecutors asked Faith what happened after Dayna was removed from the window.

"Willie told me to go over there and shake Dayna. . . . Her eyes was just open and she was just laying there like this and, then, she had a purple dent right there," Faith said, pointing to her own forehead.

"And did she answer you when you called her name?"

"No," the fourth-grader replied quietly.

The defense has offered a far more subdued account.

Defense lawyers say the children's testimony has been exaggerated, and that most of Dayna's disciplining was theatrics, with Chambers hitting the floor, and not the child, in an attempt to scare the other youngsters.

Asked by his lawyer to estimate how many times he struck Dayna, Chambers replied: "I think with all the theatrical performance, I would say anywhere from 60 to 75."

Chambers and Brinson both told the jury that they draped Dayna out the window to give her some fresh air, and that they became worried about her when they took her down.

"She took two breaths, and then it was like she was falling off to sleep," Brinson said. "I had a nagging feeling about it. And Fred (Doolittle) did as well. I didn't want her to go to sleep. I remember putting my ear close to her face. The breathing seemed very faint."

Taken to Fire Station

So, Brinson testified, they wrapped the child in a sleeping bag, loaded her in a van and took her to a local fire station, stopping twice along the way to phone Broussard in Los Angeles.

As part of their defense, the criminal lawyers have also produced former Oregon medical examiner William Brady, who conducted an independent autopsy and--with a variety of colorful computer-drawn graphics--contradicted the testimony of the current medical examiner, Larry Lewman.

According to Lewman, Dayna died from a head injury suffered in the beating. But Brady said it wasn't the beating that killed Dayna. Rather, he said, she died of respiratory failure as a result of being hung out the window.

Defense lawyers are expected to use this information to argue that Dayna died while the defendants were trying to help rather than hurt her.

Throughout the case, the defendants have been affable, even cheerful. They are likable people, and for those who know them, this makes Dayna's death even more difficult to reconcile. Chambers' mother, Doris Ridley, flew up from Los Angeles to watch her son testify, saying she felt he could use the moral support.

"It's been very devastating to me," she said. "You don't raise a child for 35 years and not know their nature. He's basically a very quiet, conservative man. He's not vicious . . . probably a little temperamental, but not vicious. I didn't raise a vicious killer."

Not Open to Press

Chambers himself, like the other defendants, is reluctant to talk to the press. Once during the trial, however, they asked a reporter for a ride home to the farmhouse in rural Sandy where they allegedly beat Dayna to death.

On the scenic 45-minute drive along country roads, the conversation concerned the stark contrasts between life in Oregon and Los Angeles. Doolittle remarked that at night, he likes to go outside and look at the stars, something he cannot do in the city.

At the two-story farmhouse, other less pleasant differences were apparent. There is graffiti scrawled across the white shingles--painted over but still visible--and it is not of the Los Angeles gang variety.

"Child Killers Go Home," says one of the milder epithets.

Broussard, who largely has kept out of sight since January, was inside the house. He leaned out a second-floor window, and for about five minutes talked briefly of his distaste for the press, his plans to host a syndicated television talk show and his desire to someday "salvage" the religious and community work he began in Los Angeles more than a decade ago. Then, he disappeared from view.

While Broussard did not attend the trial, his presence was felt.

As he began questioning each of the children, French, the prosecutor, asked them about their relationship to the man they call "Big El."

"I just remember he was the leader," said Naquieta Cox, Faith's 12-year-old sister.

"Well," declared Joe Williams, 14, "he is my big brother, a teacher, a father."

The feelings of the adults toward Broussard were equally evident. On the witness stand Chambers' face brightened only once: when he described a gathering in which Broussard, unaware that there was a woman in his audience who had attempted suicide, began preaching about that topic.

"It was so poignant and direct," Chambers told the jury. "I knew that nobody told Eldridge about this woman. . . . There was a realness in the air of a God, or a Jesus."

Defense lawyers spent much of their time trying, in Lyons' words, to persuade the jury that Broussard is not the leader of "some wild-eyed cult from Los Angeles." They introduced a considerable amount of evidence that had nothing at all to do with Dayna's death, but much to do with Ecclesia and its members.

Chambers, who had worked as a meat cutter in a grocery store, talked at length about how he used those skills to open a pizza parlor and "gourmet meat shop" in Ecclesia's Los Angeles building.

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