Investigators say they still have a strong case against an Attleboro cult accused of burying two boys deep in the woods of Maine, even if scientists poring over the boys' skeletal remains can't prove how they died.
"I don't know if they'll ever be able to find a cause of death," Bristol County District Attorney Paul F. Walsh Jr. said of 10-month-old Samuel Robidoux and his infant cousin, Jeremiah Corneau. "But it doesn't concern me. It would bolster the case, but we have eyewitness testimony."
The "eyewitness testimony" is expected to come from cult member David Corneau, and others in - and out - of the insular sect, who are expected to vividly describe how Samuel was allegedly starved to death over a three-week period last year. Jeremiah, the son of Corneau and his wife, Rebecca, died during a home birth last fall.
As part of an immunity deal struck with prosecutors, Corneau is expected to recount the grim details before a grand jury next week. His wife is also being granted immunity under the agreement.
After a frustrating year of searching, the boys' decomposed remains were unearthed Tuesday from a makeshift gravesite Corneau led investigators to at Maine's Baxter State Park.
Medical exams of the bodies were continuing last night and could take several weeks. In addition to the skeletal remains, medical examiners found blankets and children's clothing inside the two tiny pine coffins. Maine medical examiner Dr. Margaret Greenwald said X-rays were taken and that "the preliminary findings are consistent with information provided by Massachusetts State Police."
"Determining a cause of death on an infant is always difficult. Determining a cause of death on a decomposed infant is extremely difficult," Greenwald said.
Positively identifying the bodies could take several weeks and may require taking DNA from the Corneaus because the children have no medical or dental records, Bristol County Assistant DA Gerald FitzGerald said. The tight-knit sect, dubbed "The Body" by cult experts, denounces seven mainstream institutions, including the medical and legal systems. Walsh said he may have to seek a court order to get DNA samples from the Corneaus.
The couple was slated to return to Attleboro Juvenile Court this morning to fight for custody of their newborn baby girl, who was taken away by the state Department of Social Services, along with their three other children.
Walsh, who hospitalized Rebecca Corneau against her will while she was pregnant, was expected to withdraw from the custody case and hand it over to DSS.
"We've accomplished what we set out to do," Assistant DA Walter Shea said. "Now it's DSS' issue to deal with."
Walsh said "it's possible" he would intervene if any other members became pregnant, but insisted his goal is to "prosecute a homicide case, not bust up this cult."
DSS officials said their regulations prohibit taking action against pregnant women, which means Walsh may someday have to repeat the controversial hospitalization tactics he used against Rebecca Corneau.
While David Corneau is at odds with the tight-lipped sect, he returned to the group's Attleboro home yesterday and has not severed any ties, his attorney Robert George said. "I don't think he has any intention to leave," George said.
But ex-cult member Dennis Mingo said he thinks David Corneau is "confused" over whether to defect from the group. "I got the sense back when I left that he was questioning what was going on and wanted to leave," Mingo said. "I don't think it's any surprise that he's the one who cracked. He's always been seen as a weaker link."
In another sign the group is weakening, another member, Mark Daneau, made contact with the court from jail last week - possibly to invoke his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination - but ultimately did not come forward.
"My concern is that they'll just regroup and continue to go the way they've been going," Mingo said.
Noted cult expert the Rev. Robert Pardon, who was appointed guardian by the court for several children taken from the cult, has interviewed David Corneau extensively and thinks the recent developments have clouded the group's future. "I don't believe any more members will defect. But it (the cult) definitely is fracturing because David has broken away," Pardon said.