ATTLEBORO, Mass. (AP) It began more than 20 years ago as a bible study group, formed by a group of community-oriented people who were ''great role models.''
But philosophical differences caused a rift, and one small faction went on its own to become a tiny self-sufficient church unwilling to recognize laws made or enforced by a secular society. The group of several extended families lived together in a duplex here, following Old Testament scripture and advocating faith healing over modern medicine, viewing themselves as a bastion of biblical faith in an evil world.
The commune might have gone unnoticed indefinitely if two disaffected group members had not gone to authorities late last year with a horrific story: two baby boys born to members of the group were dead and buried in the wilderness of Maine's Baxter State Park. Since then, investigators have searched areas of Attleboro, Rhode Island and Maine looking for 10-month-old Samuel Robidoux and his infant cousin, Jeremiah Corneau.
They haven't found the boys. But investigators did uncover journals authored by an unidentified group member that claim Jeremiah was stillborn and that Samuel was denied food for weeks before dying in the early spring. The journal claimed group members viewed Samuel's death as the will of God, and that the sight of the hungry and crying child was used by Satan to test the faith of his 24-year-old mother, Karen Robidoux.
One journal entry said Karen Robidoux was instructed to drink only almond milk and nurse Samuel. Neither Karen nor Samuel was to eat any food. The diary didn't say who issued the edict.
A March 7, 1999 entry read, ''Samuel started only nursing as commanded by God. As the day grew on, Samuel was obviously not being filled. He was thirsty and hungry.'' By March 14, ''Satan used the physical sight of Samuel to really get to her (Karen). He was obviously losing much weight and becoming much weaker,'' the journal said.
On the other hand, Jeremiah was born in August, but ''never had a breath of life'' because ''the Lord never give it to him,'' his 32-year-old father, David Corneau, told police.
Corneau said Jesus told him to bury the child but Corneau has refused to say where. Karen Robidoux also admitted to investigators her son died, but wouldn't say where he was buried.
Local pastor Brian Weeks, who in the 1970s co-founded a church with Roland Robidoux, Samuel's grandfather, said he was disturbed at the accusations against his former friend.
''They really believe God is in charge, and that God is speaking to them,'' said Weeks, who now serves as a pastor at the Jericho Christian Fellowship in Middleboro.
Weeks said he and Robidoux broke from a California branch of the fundamentalist group, Worldwide Church of God, and established their own small churches in Mansfield and Mendon, R.I. Back then, Weeks said, Roland Robidoux and his wife, Georgette, were community-oriented and ''great role models'' and parents to Jacques and their other children.
A few years later, Weeks left the group over philosophical differences and joined another congregation.
It was in the decades following, Weeks said, that the Robidouxes joined with a few other families and cut themselves off from society, living frugally off money earned through masonry work, carpentry and a chimney sweep business.
The church cut themselves off entirely from outside society, he said. Some sect members intermarried, including Jacques, who wed Karen, the daughter of another group member.
The group traveled together to a farmhouse near Pawtucket, R.I., and on lengthy camping trips to Baxter State Park.
It was during one of these outings to the park's Freezeout Trail last September when police now believe the bodies of Samuel and Jeremiah were taken to Maine and buried.
Samuel's 26-year-old father, Jacques, has sat in jail for nearly three months for refusing to discuss the whereabouts of his son. In a court appearance in January, Robidoux again refused to answer questions, and told the judge a court had no jurisdiction over the child. The dozen-or-so remaining church members also have refused to talk about the missing baby boys, even after state Department of Social Services workers removed 13 other children from the Knight Avenue home where the group lives and worships.
A local cult expert speculated the loss of the children, as well as the resulting legal maelstrom, may seem like a giant test of faith to the devoutly religious congregation.
''They're probably trying to figure out what God is trying to tell them,'' said Bob Pardon, head of the New England Institute of Religious Research. ''They view themselves as people of God experiencing persecution.'' In late January, the state appointed Pardon a guardian of the sect's children.
So far, he said, members have chosen not to visit their children living in secular foster homes.
''It's a very tough situation,'' Pardon said. ''We're trying to make contact with the group.''
The lack of information also has temporarily halted the search for the children's bodies.
''It's a matter of pinpointing the area better than we can,'' said Bristol County Assistant District Attorney Gerald FitzGerald. ''The area in question is huge.''
FitzGerald said Jacques Robidoux's insistence he answers to God, not man, is no defense.
''I respect anyone's religion,'' he said. ''But I cannot imagine how it is not in the interest of society in general to know if a child is alive or dead, and what happened.''