Pastor Raymond Lambert will plead not guilty to renewed abuse charges

Associated Press Writer

The leader of a southwest Missouri church commune plans to plead not guilty to renewed charges of abusing two girls from his congregation.A defense lawyer for the Rev. Raymond Lambert said the 52-year-old will plead not guilty when his first court appearance is rescheduled.

Lambert had been due for arraignment Monday in McDonald County, but defense attorney Duane Cooper said Associate Circuit Judge John LePage recused himself over an unspecified conflict dating back several years.

The judge asked that the case be reassigned to another judge.

Lambert faces eight counts including sexual abuse and child molestation. The county prosecutor refiled the charges this month after unexpectedly dropping the case in November.

Cooper declined to comment on the case being refiled a month after it was unexpectedly dropped.

Prosecutor Janice Durbin cited what she called technical issues for dropping the case a week before trial and more than a year after the initial charges were filed.

Durbin refiled the charges against Lambert Dec. 3, a few days after telling The Associated Press she had always intended to revive the case.

She said the technical problems were caused by difficulties scheduling the two alleged victims for depositions by the defense, which Durbin said could have prompted the judge to dismiss them as witnesses.

Lambert is the pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church, a commune founded by his stepfather in the 1970s. At its peak, about 100 people lived on and near the church’s 100-acre farm in rural McDonald County.

Two women, now 20 and 29, started the case last year by alleging they were molested and abused by Raymond Lambert from the ages of 12 to 16, telling investigators that the pastor sometimes told them he was “preparing your body for service to God.”

The case drew national attention when the original charges were filed in August 2006 alleging that Lambert, his wife, Patty Lambert, and two of her brothers repeatedly abused girls from the congregation over a period of many years. Lambert’s sister-in-law, Laura Epling, was later charged with helping abuse one girl.

All defendants pleaded not guilty, and the charges against the two brothers were dropped due to statute-of-limitation issues discovered after the case started.

The charges against Patty Lambert and Laura Epling were dismissed along with the first case against Raymond Lambert and have not been refiled.

The investigation generated another case in neighboring Newton County, where Lambert’s uncle George Otis Johnston is charged with abusing girls at a smaller church commune he led.

Durbin’s decision to drop the Lambert case in November angered the suspected victims and puzzled national victims’ rights advocates. A month earlier, Durbin had told The Associated Press she was confident about prosecuting the case.

The dismissal also prompted some criticism from local law enforcement and concern from Rep. Marilyn Ruestman, whose district covers much of McDonald County. Durbin has declined to comment on that criticism.

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