After denying Javon Thompson food and water for two days because he wouldn't say "Amen" after meals, the 1-year-old's caretakers waited for a divine sign that their message had been heard: a resurrection.
For more than a week, police say in charging documents describing the scene, the child's lifeless body lay in the back room of an apartment. Queen Antoinette, the 40-year-old leader of a group that called itself 1 Mind Ministries, brought in her followers and told them to pray. God, she said, would raise Javon from the dead.
Instead, Javon's body began to decompose.
The boy's mother, 21-year-old Ria Ramkissoon, and four other people authorities say are members of the group face first-degree murder charges in his death. But Ramkissoon's mother and attorney say that she was brainwashed by a cult and acted only at the group leader's will.
"The members of this cult, who were more than twice her age, were calling the shots," Ramkissoon's attorney, Steven D. Silverman, said Tuesday after a court hearing. "She bought the program hook, line and sinker."
Court documents describe a group that operated secretly, dressed all in white and eschewed medical care. Antoinette, also known as Toni Sloan or Toni Ellsberry, called her followers "princes" and "princesses." And she and her followers were possessive of the children under their care.
The group never had more than a dozen members. It did not operate out of a remote compound, and the specifics of Antoinette's religious beliefs are unclear. 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," Ross said.
Children have been killed in similar groups for failing to follow cult teachings, Ross said, and that appears to have been the case with Javon, who was viewed as a "demon," according to police statements supporting the murder charges.
Ramkissoon's association with the group began shortly after Javon was born in September 2005, according to her mother, Seeta Khadan-Newton. She gave birth at 18, and was struggling to care for her baby while working and taking college classes, she said.
Khadan-Newton, who moved with her daughter from their native Trinidad when the girl was 8, described Ramkissoon as sweet-natured and trusting. Khadan-Newton is Hindu, but her daughter became a Christian. Ramkissoon's church betrayed her trust, her mother said, when its pastor pleaded guilty to molesting boys in the congregation.
Ramkissoon was friends with Tiffany Smith, then a member of the group, and 1 Mind Ministries began recruiting her, Khadan-Newton said. After spending time with cult members, Ramkissoon started worrying she was going to hell.
"My daughter was very religious. She was into the Bible — obsessed with it," Khadan-Newton said. "They (were) going to show her the right way. She got sucked into it."
'She was brainwashed'
Ramkissoon left home with Javon in April 2006, and Khadan-Newton, who keeps a collage of photos of the child in her apartment, has not seen them since. But Khadan-Newton hasn't wavered in her belief that her daughter was not responsible for her grandson's death.
"She was brainwashed," she said.
Fearful for her grandson, Khadan-Newton began a drawn-out, heartbreaking effort to rescue him and his mother. She pleaded with police, social workers, judges and politicians to intervene, but she said she always got the same response: Since the child was with his mother, who left home willingly, nothing could be done. She sued for custody, but her daughter could not be found to be served with papers.
"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," Khadan-Newton 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 2007 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 they were given by the first caller but found it was vacant, Donald said. She said they weren't able to follow up because the caller would not leave his name or contact information.
There was no documentation of calls from Khadan-Newton, Donald said.
"It's a tragic, tragic situation and we responded with the information that we had in a responsive way and unfortunately it didn't change the outcome," she said.
Meanwhile, after cult members abandoned hope of Javon's resurrection, they switched to Plan B, police say. 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, Khadan-Newton traveled in February 2008 to the Brooklyn apartment where the group was staying, and spoke to her daughter through an intercom. Ramkissoon called her by her first name, instead of Mom, Khadan-Newton said, and there were long pauses after Khadan-Newton asked questions about Javon's whereabouts.
A different daughter
"She said, 'My son is fine,'" Khadan-Newton said. "They (were) coaching her and telling her what to say."
In part because of Khadan-Newton's contact with a social worker in New York, authorities there tracked down 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. 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.
Ramkissoon called her mother last Sunday from the city jail. At first, Khadan-Newton didn't realize that she was speaking to her daughter — a conversation that reinforced her belief that Ramkissoon remains under the group's control.
"She sounded empty, like an empty shell. There was no emotion," Khadan-Newton said. "I was shocked. I didn't even recognize her voice. ... It's not the same person."