Jury convicts alleged cult members in boy's starvation

Three defendants each face up to 60 years in prison in death of 16-month-old

March 02, 2010|By Tricia Bishop | tricia.bishop@baltsun.com | Baltimore Sun reporter

A Baltimore jury on Tuesday afternoon convicted three alleged cult members on charges of first-degree child abuse resulting in death and second-degree murder for starving a 16-month-old boy in their city apartment because he did not say "amen" before meals.

Prosecutors argued that the defendants showed the "height of maliciousness" in not feeding Javon Thompson as punishment, even if they never intended the boy's death, which happened slowly and painfully over days.

"His skin discolored, his eyes sunk in, his lips got chapped," Assistant State's Attorney Patricia McLane told the jury during her closing arguments Tuesday.

The defendants -- 41-year-old Toni Sloan, who goes by "Queen Antoinette," her daughter, Trevia Williams, 22; and Marcus Cobbs, 23 -- each face a maximum of 60 years in prison when they are sentenced, scheduled for May 18. Cobbs was also found guilty of being an accessory after the fact for allegedly helping to cover up Javon's death.

Antoinette, who is accused of ordering the deprivation that others carried out, had been separately facing life on a first-degree murder charge. But Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Timothy J. Doory dropped that count against her Monday night, prosecutors said, adding that they tried to revisit the issue Tuesday morning.

"The state argued as vociferously as we could," said Assistant State's Attorney Julie Drake, chief of the felony family violence division. But Doory declined to reinstate the charge.

The remaining counts were first-degree child abuse resulting in death, second-degree child abuse, second-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Cobbs was said to have burned the boy's bed and measured his small, emaciated body in order to find a suitcase that was big enough to store it.

Javon's remains were discovered in April 2008, roughly 15 months after he died, inside a green suitcase that was left in the shed of an elderly Pennsylvania man, whom the defendants befriended for a brief period when they moved out of Maryland. They took the body in the hopes of resurrecting Javon through faith and prayer, according to testimony.

Their case has drawn national attention because of its bizarre nature. The defendants represented themselves, and they have been accused -- by prosecutors and Javon's grandmother -- of belonging to a religious cult that follows the command of Queen Antoinette.

She required her children to read the Bible regularly, travel in pairs and wear certain colors thought to be more godly: white, tan and blue. In early 2006, her daughter Williams -- sometimes referred to as "Princess" Trevia -- became friends with several other young Baltimore women and apparently invited them to live in their home as long as they abided by Antoinette's rules.

Sisters Danielle and Tiffany Smith, who had a young son named Christian, moved in, followed by Christian's father: Cobbs. Ria Ramkissoon and her son Javon came in April of that year.

"I didn't want them there," Antoinette said during her closing arguments. "I felt as though I was supposed to help because they came to me."

Ramkissoon, now 23, and the other women wanted new living situations for different reasons. Tiffany Smith testified that she liked the idea of living rent-free. And Ramkissoon wanted to get out of her mother's house, where she didn't get along with her stepfather, and spend more time with her son. Living with Antoinette seemed to offer that.

Inside the house, the women home-schooled their children and Antoinette's two youngest kids, and occasionally worked to bring in money. They generally got along, but could butt heads with Antoinette at times. She always had to be right, the Smith sisters said.

Antoinette said in court that she had rules in her house, but she never forced anyone to do anything.

But Drake told the jury that "the force exerted was psychological, perhaps spiritual," claiming that Antoinette manipulated people using their fear of eternal damnation. Queen claimed that God spoke to her, and her rules were his rules.

"Queens give orders and she expected to be obeyed," Drake said.

In a letter written to help establish her burgeoning business, 1 Mind Ministries, as a nonprofit, Antoinette described herself as "a chosen daughter of the most high God and a Queen of Jesus Christ," Drake said, reading from the document.

Things were generally peaceful in the house and there was no physical violence, though Antoinette could have a bitter tongue, Danielle Smith said.

But one day, in late 2006 or early 2007, Javon stopped playfully repeating his version of the word "amen" when his mother cued him after prayer, Ramkissoon said. And, according to testimony, that's when Antoinette said he shouldn't eat.

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