The mother of a woman accused of helping starve her child to death, then stuffing him in a suitcase says her daughter was brainwashed into the acts by a cult.
Police say the child, Javon Thompson, was denied food and water for two days because he wouldn’t say “Amen” after meals.
Group members then waited for the 1-year-old’s resurrection for more than a week as the child’s lifeless body lay in the back room of an apartment, according to charging documents. Queen Antoinette, the 40-year-old leader of a group that called itself “1 Mind Ministries,” told her followers to pray. God, she said, would raise Javon from the dead. Instead, Javon’s body began to decompose.
The boy’s mother, Ria Ramkissoon, 21, and four other people who authorities say are members of the group face first-degree murder charges in his death. But Miss Ramkissoon’s mother and attorney say that she was brainwashed by a cult and acted only at the group leader’s will.
Court documents describe a group that operated secretly, dressed all in white and eschewed medical care. Miss Antoinette, also known as Toni Sloan or Toni Ellsberry, called her followers “princes” and “princesses.”
“The members of this cult, who were more than twice her age, were calling the shots,” Miss Ramkissoon’s attorney, Steven D. Silverman, said Tuesday after a court hearing. “She bought the program hook, line and sinker.”
The group never had more than a dozen members and did not operate out of a remote compound. However, it meets the definition of a cult, said Rick A. Ross, who has studied cults for 26 years, provided expert testimony and staged hundreds “interventions” to get people out of cults.
“It fits the profile of a classic cult in the sense that it’s a personality-driven group and that Queen Antoinette is that animating personality and central defining element of the group,” he said.
Miss Ramkissoon’s association with the group began shortly after the child was born in September 2005, said her mother, Seeta Khadan-Newton. She gave birth at 18 and was struggling to care for her baby while working and taking college classes, Miss Khadan-Newton said.
She and her daughter moved from their native Trinidad when the girl was 8. Miss Khadan-Newton is Hindu, but her daughter became a Christian. Miss Ramkissoon’s church betrayed her trust, her mother said, when its pastor pleaded guilty to molesting boys in the congregation.
Miss Ramkissoon was friends with Tiffany Smith, then a member of the group, when 1 Mind Ministries began recruiting her, Miss Khadan-Newton said.
Miss Ramkissoon left home with Javon in April 2006, and Miss Khadan-Newton has not seen them since. “She was brainwashed,” she said.
Miss Khadan-Newton said she attempted to rescue the boy and his mother - pleading with police, social workers, judges and politicians. She said she always received the same response: Because the child was with his mother, who left home willingly, nothing could be done.
“I fear for [my grandson’s] and my daughter’s safety, you see. They are in a cult. I haven’t seen or heard from my daughter since April,” she wrote in a letter to Circuit Judge Audrey J.S. Carrion about a month before the child died.
State Secretary of Human Resources Brenda Donald said her agency has records of a couple of calls about Javon, including one in October from a person who said he was a relative of the boy and one several months later from a health care worker who knew a cult member.
Investigators went to an address that they were given by the first caller but found it was vacant, Miss Donald said. She said they weren’t able to follow up because the caller would not leave his name or contact information.
After cult members abandoned hope of Javon’s resurrection, Miss Antoinette burned Javon’s clothing and mattress and put his body in a green suitcase. She stuffed the suitcase with mothballs and fabric softener sheets and opened it occasionally to spray disinfectant inside.
In early 2007, cult members stored the suitcase behind a home in Philadelphia and relocated to New York City, according to police, who found the suitcase more than a year later, the body still inside.
Not knowing her grandson was dead, Miss Khadan-Newton traveled in February 2008 to the Brooklyn apartment where the group was staying and spoke to her daughter through an intercom. In part because of Miss Khadan-Newton’s contact with a social worker in New York, authorities there tracked down Miss Antoinette and two other cult members wanted in a separate case: Trevia Williams, 21, and Marcus A. Cobbs, 21. They were later charged in Javon’s death. Miss Ramkissoon returned to Baltimore and was living in a homeless shelter when she was arrested. A fifth person charged in the case, Steven Bynum, 42, is being sought in New York.