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Globe/Roger Nomer Newton County sheriff’s and juvenile-agency officers go about their duties Thursday while removing 10 children from the rural Granby compound of a fringe church whose pastor has been charged with sexual abuse of a child.

By Jeff Lehr

jlehr@joplinglobe.com

GRANBY, Mo. - Newton County authorities on Thursday removed all remaining children from the rural Granby compound of a fringe church whose pastor remains wanted on eight felony counts of sexual abuse of a child.

County deputies and juvenile officers late Thursday morning descended on the compound of Grandview Valley Baptist Church North at 1939 Hebron Road. Eight children were quickly located inside mobile homes on the property and were placed in the protective custody of the state.

Sheriff Kenneth Copeland said investigators had reason to believe that 10 children were still on church members' leased property after deputies and juvenile authorities removed four children on Monday. Two of those 10 were not at the compound when deputies arrived Thursday morning, and were not located and taken into protective custody until later in the day.

The sheriff said the children were being removed from the property on the authority of a court order issued by Newton County Associate Circuit Judge Kevin Selby in the midst of an investigation into child-sexual-abuse allegations leveled against the church's 63-year-old pastor, George Otis Johnston.

"They'll all go to the Children's Center in Joplin (for sexual-abuse forensic examinations) and then be taken to foster-care homes for the night," Copeland said.

The 10 children who were taken into protective custody Thursday came from three or four families living at the compound, investigators said. The four children taken into custody Monday all belonged to another family.

The sheriff said efforts would be made by the Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services to keep siblings together in foster-care placements.

Johnston's whereabouts remained out Thursday. He has been absent from the property since seven counts of first-degree statutory sodomy and one count of second-degree statutory sodomy were filed against him on Tuesday.

The charges were filed by the Newton County prosecutor's office based on allegations made by a 17-year-old girl who formerly lived with the church group, both at its original location in McDonald County and at its location for the past five or six years on Hebron Road east of Granby.

The girl told authorities that Johnston began molesting her when she was 8, according to Assistant Prosecutor Bill Dobbs. The early abuse allegedly consisted of inserting his tongue while kissing her on the mouth, and fondling her genitals, Dobbs said.

The girl told investigators that when she was 12, Johnston began to pressure her to have sexual intercourse with him, according to a probable-cause affidavit. He reportedly told her that sex with him would keep her pure and a virgin.

The affidavit states that she resisted his pressure, and he did not force intercourse on her. But Johnston continued to fondle her as often as two to three times a week until she was 17, according to the affidavit.

The girl also alleges that Johnston exposed himself to her on several occasions and forced her to fondle him. On one occasion, when she was 14, he reportedly exposed himself to her and made her strip her clothes off in front of him.

A second woman who formerly lived with Johnston's church group came forward Wednesday with more information for investigators, Chief Deputy Chris Jennings said.

Jennings said the woman, age 20, did not report sexual abuse of herself while she was legally still a child. She instead reported sexual advances that allegedly had been made on her while she was living there, he said. Those advances did not rise to the level of a crime, Jennings said. He declined to say who allegedly had made the advances toward her.

Jennings said the woman corroborated a good deal of information that investigators have received from other sources.

The sheriff said Thursday that Johnston is the uncle of Raymond Lambert, the pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church, which has a similar compound near Powell in McDonald County. Lambert, 51; his wife, Patty Lambert, 49; and her two brothers, Tom Epling, 51, and Paul Epling, 53, are facing child-sexual-abuse charges in McDonald County.

The patriarch of the group reportedly was Cecil Lee Epling, of Newtonia, who died in 1982. He was the father of the Epling brothers and Patty Lambert. Raymond Lambert reportedly was his stepson. Cecil Epling was the pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church at Stark City, according to an obituary published in the Globe at the time of his death at the age of 55.

Johnston and several of his church's members once belonged to the McDonald County church and lived in the compound near Powell. Investigators said a split in the church took place five or six years ago, and Johnston and his group moved to Newton County. The two churches remained affiliated, and members would get together for some social functions, investigators said.

Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church purportedly contains a school called Grand Valley Christian Academy.

Deputy Mike LeSueur, a child-abuse investigator with the McDonald County Sheriff's Department, said authorities have no evidence that children remain inside the church compound near Powell.

"To the best of our knowledge, there are no children in there," he said Thursday.

Neighbors have told the Globe that the compound contained about 100 people until the last three months, when people began moving out. The number has dwindled to less than two dozen, according to neighbors.

LeSueur said only two or three families, whose children are all adults, remain.

Copeland said the court order issued Thursday to remove children from the church compound in Newton County did not include any search warrant. State child-abuse investigators and juvenile officers have the legal authority to walk through residences when possible child abuse is involved, and they were exercising that authority in looking for children at the compound on Thursday, the sheriff said.

Copeland said no search warrants have been executed at the compound because of a lack of probable cause.

Two vehicles, an old Chevy truck and a Chevy van, remained parked outside Johnston's mobile home on Thursday. The sheriff said investigators believe that a third vehicle possibly in Johnston's possession is missing. He said they believe it is a white car, but they have yet to come up with a make and model for the missing vehicle.

Church members who remain on the property on Hebron Road have been described as less than cooperative by investigators.

"We've met with a lot of deception," said Pat Stuart, chief deputy juvenile officer.

The sheriff said parents of the children who were removed Thursday reacted differently to the action taken by authorities. Some remained "unresponsive," he said, while others were "more belligerent."

Globe staff writer Derek Spellman contributed to this report.

Tips

The Newton County sheriff said Thursday that tips received from the general public as to the whereabouts of fugitive pastor George Otis Johnston have been all over the board and of limited value to date. He said the department has been told that Johnston may be in states as distant as Ohio and North Dakota.

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