Options Vary in Arraignment

By John Ford
Neosho Daily News
August 30, 2006

George Otis Johnston was expected to be arraigned at 10 a.m. today.

Johnston is accused of seven unclassified felony counts of first degree statutory sodomy and a Class C felony charge of second degree statutory sodomy.

Johnston could enter one of two pleas today. First, if he pleads not guilty, then a preliminary hearing will be set and court proceedings will begin.

Or he could enter one of two guilty pleas: Either a direct guilty plea, at which time a sentencing hearing would be set, or an Alford plea. Although handled by the court like a guilty plea, an Alford plea is not an admission of guilt, but rather recognizes that the state has compiled enough evidence that a guilty conviction would be likely.

Should Johnston not show up for the proceeding, his bond could be forfeited and a warrant filed for his arrest.

More on today's proceeding can be found at sometime this afternoon.

Johnston, 63, is the pastor of Grandview Valley Baptist Church North, located at 1939 Hebron Road in rural Granby. If convicted, Johnston could face 10 to 30 years to life in prison on each of the unclassified felony charges, and up to seven years in prison on the Class C felony count.

Johnston turned himself in last Friday afternoon and posted a $100,000 bond.

On Monday, McDonald County Associate Circuit Court Judge John LePage ruled to maintain an ex parte order of protection on behalf of a 17-year-old girl who said Johnston has been sexually abusing her since she was 8 years old. The ruling came after consulting with Johnston's attorney, Andy Wood, who asked a year-long full order of protection not be granted until an adult abuse hearing was held Sept. 18.

Fourteen children have been removed from the church compound near East Newton High School, including 10 Thursday afternoon. The children range in age from 1 to 12 and are from three or four different families, investigators said.

The children were removed by authorities with the Missouri Division of Family Services under a court order issued by Newton County Division III Associate Circuit Court Judge Kevin Lee Selby.

Early last week, four children ranging in age from 5 to 15 were taken into protective custody from a trailer on the property.

Sheriff Ken Copeland has said while his department did not have probable cause to obtain and execute a search warrant at the property, the DFS could enter homes without a warrant if authorities believed abuse was taking place.

Copeland said Tuesday investigators were still interviewing children and looking into the possibility of more charges against Johnston.

Child custody hearings were held Monday, according to Cathy Gorham, chief juvenile officer for the 40th Circuit Court, with two attorneys asking for changes of judges in the case. Another group of children will remain in protective custody, Gorham said, while authorities continue to interview two other groups of children.

The Granby church is an offshoot of the Grand Valley Independent Baptist Church, located near Washburn, where four church leaders have pleaded not guilty to child sexual abuse charges dating back to 1977.

In the Granby case, Deputy Mike Barnett, an investigator with the Newton County Sheriff's Department, said in a probable cause affidavit that the girl told him that when she was 12 years old, Johnston told her he was "ordained by God to fulfill her needs as a woman," adding "that is she would have sexual intercourse with him that she would remain a virgin and remain pure."

In the McDonald County case, Deputy Mike LeSueur said in a probable cause statement that one of the church leaders told a child he was "preparing her body for service to God."

Facing child abuse charges in McDonald County are Pastor Raymond Lambert, his wife, Patty Lambert, and church deacons Tom and Paul Epling. The church was founded by the Eplings' father, the late Cecil Epling, who died from injuries sustained in an auto accident in 1982.

Johnston is the uncle of Raymond Lambert, investigators have said.

A preliminary hearing has been set for 1 p.m. Oct. 2 in the McDonald County case. The proceeding will be held in LePage's Pineville courtroom.

About 20 people remain at the Granby commune, while about two dozen are still at the McDonald County compound.


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