The group was in the yard praying the day Dennis Mingo returned. Everyone ignored him--even his wife--because he was an outsider now. Outside the group, and outside the Lord.
He'd been living apart for 10 months but tried to keep an eye on Michelle and the kids. Sure, he still believed in God and the Bible, but the group had become too strange, Mingo thought. Maybe even dangerous.
He kept remembering a disastrous trip the group took to Maine in June 1998 to seek the New Jerusalem, which they believed was up north, a wilderness away from the world of Satan. Sure that God would provide, they took no money, no food, no water, no clean clothes, no diapers for the babies. It took three days before the group gave up, with the kids falling ill and people arguing.
Dennis Mingo didn't want his children to go through anything like that again. That's why he'd come back--to find out what the group was planning next.
He poked through the gray-shingled house, looking for clues. In the home-schooling classroom, he saw some papers stuck between two Bibles. Handwritten, they looked like a journal. He grabbed them.
Until that moment a year ago this month, the small, eccentric Christian group--just 22 adults and children from related families--had lived here near the Rhode Island line mostly unnoticed.
What Mingo found would bring the group into conflict with the world it had tried so hard to reject and set into motion a bizarre legal and religious battle over two missing children, feared dead.
Members of the sect won't talk with outsiders. Their side of the story remains unknown. What is known was compiled from court and police documents and interviews with social workers, prosecutors, cult experts who investigated the case for the court, and former friends and neighbors of sect members.
The journal Mingo found covers a two-week period in March 1999. Its author is unknown. The first entry describes Mingo's wife, Michelle, having a vision. It said her sister-in-law, Karen Robidoux, needed to overcome her vanity.
Karen, already slender, should forsake the flesh by consuming nothing but almond milk--broth from boiled almonds--and revert to only breast-feeding her 10-month-old, Samuel.
Another entry: "Sunday, March 14: Karen's day started strong and positive with a good attitude. As the day grew on, Satan used the physical sight of Samuel to really get to her. He was obviously losing much weight and becoming much weaker."
In the last entry, March 17, God tells Karen, "Just as it pleased Me for you to grow your hair long, to stop drinking coffee and to pray for another child, it would please Me if you took Samuel and left him in the palm of My hand."
How had people Mingo trusted and lived with for more than 10 years veered so far from their simple beginning?
And what had happened to Samuel?
In 1986, Mingo was working the night shift at a dairy, a lonely job. At 22, he was uneasy with his life. He wanted his family to be close, but it wasn't. Reared Catholic, he had questions about God. He was looking for something and hoped he'd found it when he met Michelle Robidoux, a clerk in a video store.
Michelle, then 21, lived with her parents. She invited Mingo over for a cookout. Roland, her father, gave Mingo a look when he started eating his burger before the others. The Robidouxs always said grace.
Soon Mingo was coming to Roland Robidoux's weekly Bible group, and after about a year, he realized this was the closeness he'd been longing for. He and Michelle got married.
At first the Bible group was mostly about accepting Jesus as the savior, but the focus changed to Jesus the healer.
Shortly after his wedding, Mingo got sick. Lumps swelled on his arms and legs, and his joints stiffened. The Bible group said he should trust God. Mingo went to the doctor anyway. A test showed something wrong with his white and red blood cell count. His father begged him to go to the hospital right away.
But this time, Mingo listened to his in-laws. He stayed home and waited for God to work. The group prayed for him. In a month, the lumps were gone. And Mingo was a full believer.
Outsiders like Mingo's parents didn't understand the group's attitude toward doctors or why members wouldn't send their children to school. For the small circle around Roland Robidoux, though, it seemed the best way to serve God.
Robidoux's enthusiasm for whatever idea struck his fancy was irresistible. One year, he got everyone to eat an all-protein diet. The next year, it was vegetarian. Under his guidance, women in the group gave birth at home, eventually rejecting even midwives. And when he decided hymns like "Amazing Grace" belonged to the "false churches," the group made up its own songs.
By this time, Dennis and Michelle Mingo had been married five years and had their first two children. To save money, they moved in with her family, joining Roland and Georgette Robidoux and their younger children, Jacques and Trinette.
Back in the '70s, Roland Robidoux had been a member of the Worldwide Church of God, a California-based sect well known to organizations that monitor cults. Many of the ideas he brought to his Bible group came from the Worldwide Church: visions, faith healing, home births, rejection of holidays such as Christmas and Easter in favor of Old Testament holy days and festivals such as Pentecost and Passover.
Other ideas Robidoux adopted seemed to come from books or articles he'd read or people he'd met. The Robidoux children grew up, and two of them married into another family in the group, weaving the circle tighter. Their lives centered even more on the family houses in Attleboro and Seekonk.
Bible study became a continuous event from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Teachings focused on family life. Women should honor their husbands as the priests of the household, second only to God. Discipline for children often meant spanking.
Dennis Mingo didn't like reading the Bible all day on Saturday, his day off, or having to give up rock 'n' roll. Sometimes he'd sneak by listening to his favorite R.E.M. song in his car.
Holding hands, the women danced in a circle, their dresses ballooning as they twirled. This was September 1998, the Feast of the Tabernacles, and the group was camping out for two weeks in the spacious yard of the Seekonk place. Prayer went on all night.
After 10 years, Dennis Mingo was ready to leave the group. He and Michelle now had five children, and he had been hanging on for their sake. But the group's way of living had become extreme--odd enough to worry the neighbors, who videotaped the dancing.
As the group rejected more and more of society--banks, jewelry, photo albums, prescription glasses--members, like Mingo, started drifting away. Once about 40 strong, the sect shrank to about two dozen.
The last straw for Mingo was when they threw away their books: cookbooks, phone books, even textbooks for home schooling, everything except the Bible. Demons were blamed for everything from a stubborn child to a creaky stair.
Roland Robidoux's son Jacques, just a boy when Mingo joined, was in his 20s now. Already declared an elder by his father, he was assuming the role of leader.
His wife, Karen, had given birth to their first son.
Dennis Mingo agonized about what to do with the journal. He didn't want his wife to get in trouble. He was afraid the state might take away their kids.
But the journal convinced him the group had gone too far. Soon after he found it in September 1999, he gave it to police.
On Nov. 8, a Massachusetts state policeman and a state child abuse investigator knocked on the door of the Seekonk house. A man with a long, dark beard, sect member David Corneau, opened it.
We're here to check on the well-being of a 1 1/2-year-old child named Samuel, the investigators said.
Corneau told police that he and his wife had three children and that a son, Jeremiah, had been stillborn and was buried. He refused to say where.
Four days later, police interviewed Karen Robidoux. She said her son Samuel had died and she did not know where his body was.
Now there were two infants to search for.
Clues came from two of the Mingo children, who told police that they saw the group standing around Samuel crying as the baby died, and that his body was placed with Jeremiah's in the Seekonk house cellar. If true, that means the bodies were in the house when Mingo discovered the journal.
The children told police a story: In late September, soon after Mingo's visit, the group took another trip to Maine, towing a red trailer. Inside the trailer were two small boxes containing Samuel and Jeremiah.
The sect camped for several weeks, including three days in a cabin in Baxter State Park, a 203,000-acre wilderness. One day, the children told police, Jacques Robidoux, David Corneau and two other men set off with rope, a pickax and shovels. They were gone for two days.
Police believe they took the bodies with them.
In April, a grand jury began investigating whether the state should press charges for the death of Samuel from neglect and for the improper disposal of his body and Jeremiah's. It is expected to make its report in October.
Sect members called before the grand jury have remained silent. Eight have gone to jail rather than answer questions. Some have been there for months.
In mid-August, Judge Kenneth P. Nasif gave the state custody of six children belonging to sect members. They will live with relatives outside the sect. Seven other children went to their fathers, who also are outside the sect.
"You are not a prophet, sir. You are a false prophet," the judge told Jacques Robidoux. "Your actions, in my judgment, have caused the death of an innocent child who suffered before he died. I am convinced of that. And you are responsible, because you are the so-called leader of this group."
Jacques Robidoux was silent.
Dennis Mingo has a girlfriend now. He and Michelle are divorcing. He still believes in some of the teachings of the sect, and sometimes he misses the closeness.
"If you had a problem, these people would actually contemplate it, think about it, pray about it," he said recently. "In that aspect, it was a very special thing."
Mingo has custody of his five children. The oldest, 9-year-old Rachel, will go to school this fall for the first time.
They live together in the gray house in Seekonk. Twice, police with shovels and backhoes have dug up his yard, searching in vain for remains of the infants.
Search dogs have found nothing in Baxter State Park.