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FBI arrests father for taking his son

Canadian lived with religious group in SC

Santa Cruz County Sentinel, Friday, Feb. 4, 1994
By Steve Perez - Sentinel staff writer

Santa Cruz — A Canadian man suspected of taking his son from the child's mother and bringing him to a religious community was arrested by federal agents Thursday morning at one of the group's homes in Santa Cruz.

His 11-year-old son was reunited with his mother later in the day, the FBI said.

Asked for comment as he was being led away from the well-kept home in the 300 block of Dakota Street, the bearded man, identified as Edward Frank Dawson, 39, said only, "Praise Yahshua, praise Yahshua."  Yahshua is Jesus's Hebrew name [sic].

District attorney's investigators and Santa Cruz police accompanied FBI agents and aided in the arrest shortly before 8 a.m.

Dawson was arrested without incident.

Press reports from Canada and the northeastern United States where the "Northeast Kingdom Community Church" is based have described it as a "cult" [aka "The Community" and "Twelve Tribes"] with a history of taking children underground.

According to a spokesman for the local community, the group describes itself as a part of a network of Messianic communities who share the same beliefs and direction "as a body under one head (Jesus)."  The community lists groups across the U.S. and in Canada, France, Brazil and New Zealand.  Members say they have no ties to any other church or community.

According to news accounts from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Dawson and his common-law wife, Judith Seymour, became embroiled in a child custody fight that became highly publicized because of his ties to the group.

Seymour was unavailable for comment Thursday and en route back to Canada, but Diane Gauthier, an attorney friend in Montreal said the members of the group had prevented the woman from visiting her son.

"The cult members, they did not want her to see her son," Gauthier said, in a telephone interview with the Sentinel on Thursday.  "That poor child, I'm sure he wanted to see his mom."

A spokesman for the religious community said the group did not prevent the child from seeing his mother.  "We leave those matters to the child's parents.  We don't get involved."

Neighbors in Santa Cruz described group members as courteous and well-behaved, but keeping to themselves.

An FBI agent said Dawson was in violation of a year-old court order issued by a Canadian court on behalf of the child's mother, giving her "interim custody" of their son.

Dawson was taken to federal court in San Jose for arraignment and ordered extradited to Canada by a federal magistrate after his arrest, said William Smith, supervisor of The FBI's San Jose office.

Dawson's arrest was the result of a six-month investigation that began after the FBI was contacted by Canadian authorities, Smith said.

Members of the community, who reportedly have forsaken their worldly possessions to join the group and "obey the Messiah" of the Bible, said the child had been living with his father since he was 3-year-old.

In a prepared statement, the group said it did not believe Dawson was guilty of any wrongdoing regarding his son "whom he had custody of.  We witnessed his love and care for his son on a daily basis.  We as a Community stand on our life, our beliefs, and the work we have done in Santa Cruz.  We lead an open and accessible life, welcoming people into our home every day."

Authorities said they found the group members praying at the Dakota Street home when they arrived.

According to Smith and Canadian press accounts, a Canadian court gave Seymour custody in February of last year, but Dawson failed to appear in Canadian court on a judicial summons the following month.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police eventually sought, and obtained a warrant for parental kidnapping and contacted the FBI for assistance when it was learned Dawson was in this country.

Dawson's arrest surprised residents of the quiet neighborhood.  They said for this last two years, members of the religious group were a common sight, the men in simple clothing with their long beards and hair tied back in pony tails, the children described as "well-behaved little adults."

"I know he (the boy) was very happy over here," neighbor Dana St. Pierre said.  "They're just the nicest, friendliest people."

Other residents complained of the noise from the group's boisterous weekend celebrations of the Sabbath around bonfires in the backyard to the beat of drums and other musical instruments.

Twelve adults, on average, live in the house, according to the group.

The mother reportedly was not a member of the community.  Neighbors say church members frequently pass literature around in downtown Santa Cruz as invitation to join.

Although press reports from Vermont contain accounts of children being flogged with thin sticks to make them "pure," the boy taken by authorities Thursday appeared to be in good health.

Those familiar with the group's practices say women and children are subservient under their beliefs.

The group, however, said that while they believe men are the head of a family, that they also believe in the equality of men and women in "God's grace."

Tom Watts, an investigator who founded Children's Rights of Pennsylvania because of a custody dispute of his own involving Northeast Kingdom Community Church 10 years ago, said in a telephone interview that it was "maybe the sixth or seventh time" members of the Church had been involved in such an incident.

"Basically, if you don't join the church after a certain period of time, they try to cut off all contact between that person and the child," he said.  "Basically, they see everyone outside their group as evil and of the world."

The group denies any such behavior.  "We don't make those judgements.  We don't look at ourselves as better than other people.  We just see that our Master saved us and we want him to save others.  We don't do any of these manipulating things."