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 southwest 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.
Most church members moved away
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 2006 when a handful of young women from Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church and Grandview Valley Baptist Church North told authorities 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 allegedly told 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 Lambert abuse a girl.
George Otis Johnston, Lambert's uncle and pastor of nearby Grandview Valley Baptist Church North in Newton County, was accused of telling an alleged victim 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 she refused intercourse but continued to be molested.
Statute of limitations led to dismissal
However, the statute of limitations led to dismissal of charges against the Epling brothers since their alleged crimes had taken place in the 1970s and 1980s.
In late 2007, McDonald County prosecutors abruptly dropped charges against Patty Lambert, 51, and Laura Epling, 52.
And in June 2008, McDonald County Prosecutor Janice Durbin dropped all charges against Raymond 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 alleged victims 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," Durbin said.
Charges are still pending against Johnston, 66, who has pleaded innocent to 17 felonies. His lawyer, Andrew Wood, did not return calls seeking comment.
Child abuse cases can present challenges in rural areas, said Victor Vieth, director of the National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minn.
"In small, rural communities, everybody knows everybody else," Vieth said. "They've known everybody else for generations. But that doesn't mean it can't be handled successfully."
Lack of expertise in rural cases
A lack of national experts on child abuse with rural backgrounds could also be an issue in how well rural cases are processed, Vieth said.
"The vast majority of experts don't have the background where they had to figure out how to do all of this in a rural community," he said.
The southwest Missouri region, which ranked No. 1 in hot line calls for children in 2006, has seen other attention-grabbing abuse cases. Among them were 2-year-old Dominic James, who was shaken to death by a foster parent in 2002, and 9-year-old Rowan Ford, who was found raped and killed in 2007 — her stepfather and a friend of his are charged in the case.
The region also ranked first in the number of children in state custody in 2006 and in the number of substantiated child abuse/neglect cases and family assessments, according to the Department of Social Services.
"We have always had higher numbers in southwest Missouri," said Barbara Brown, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center in Springfield. "The age-old question is, is this because we're good at reporting abuse or because we have more?"
Brown, whose agency saw a record 836 alleged child victims last year, said reporting is part of the answer.
"But I don't think that's all of it," she said. Poverty and drugs also contribute, Brown said.
Lambert, 54, maintains his innocence and says he's "thankful that everybody is doing well, and that we're able to move on."
'It takes a saint to go through that'
Amey Burkett, 35, claims she was abused by people other than Lambert while she grew up in Lambert's church. She supported Lambert's accusers, but also understood when they became weary of the process.
"It gets frustrating after a while, getting nowhere, nothing happening. ... The judicial system, it takes a saint to go through that," said Burkett. "It felt like you were stuck and couldn't move."
Burkett, who has moved away from Lambert's 100-acre spread with her husband and children, has mixed feelings about Lambert.
"Even though (Lambert) did bad things, and I didn't approve of it, I know that was passed down to him through generations. This was three or four generations deep," she said. "He raised me. ... I still love him, and I really didn't ever want him hurt, even though I knew what he did was wrong."