- The Washington Times - Monday, May 4, 2009

WASHBURN, Mo. | There was a lot of public attention when leaders of two obscure churches in the Ozarks woods were accused of ceremonially abusing girls, preparing them for “service to God” by molesting them.

The allegations involved extended families in southwestern Missouri, a largely rural area that has one of the state’s highest rates of reported child abuse and has had other high-profile abuse cases.

But nearly three years later, the cases have almost completely unraveled: Only one of the six defendants remains charged, and he is free on bail while waiting for a yet-to-be-scheduled trial.

All six defendants, related by blood or marriage, pleaded not guilty. Hearing after hearing was held. Many of the approximately 100 members of the churches moved away.

“This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen,” said Erin Willis, attorney for one of the accusers. “What I wanted is for them to feel vindicated, for them to come through it feeling like the legal process served them as it was meant to.

“I’m not sure we accomplished that here.”

The charges surfaced in 2006 when a handful of young women from Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church and Grandview Valley Baptist Church North told authorities that they had been sexually abused, some since the 1970s.

Raymond Lambert, pastor of Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church in McDonald County, was charged with molesting two girls with the help of his wife, Patty Lambert, over 10 years. The girls were reportedly told that their bodies were being prepared “for service to God.”

Also accused of abuse were Tom Epling, 54, and his brother, Paul Epling, 56. Tom Epling’s wife, Laura Epling, was accused of helping Mr. Lambert abuse a girl.

George Otis Johnston, Mr. Lambert’s uncle and pastor of nearby Grandview Valley Baptist Church North in Newton County, was accused of telling a suspected victim that he “was ordained by God to fulfill her needs as a woman” and that “if she would have sexual intercourse with him that she would remain a virgin and remain pure.”

The girl told investigators that she refused to have intercourse but continued to be molested.

However, the statute of limitations led to dismissal of charges against the Epling brothers because their reported crimes had taken place in the 1970s and 1980s.

In late 2007, McDonald County prosecutors abruptly dropped charges against Mrs. Lambert, 51, and Mrs. Epling, 52.

And in June 2008, McDonald County prosecutor Janice Durbin dropped all charges against Mr. Lambert, just weeks before he was to stand trial for child molestation, statutory sodomy and sexual abuse.

She said the charges were dropped because the accusers decided “they can no longer subject themselves or their families to the ongoing scrutiny and pressures of a very public proceeding.”

“In no way does this dismissal reflect the state’s opinion about the validity of the charges against the defendant,” Ms. Durbin said.

Charges are still pending against Mr. Johnston, 66, who has pleaded not guilty to 17 felonies. His lawyer, Andrew Wood, did not return calls seeking comment.

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