In her rap music T-shirt, and wriggling on the witness stand, an 11-year-old girl testified Monday that she and two other girls were whipped during a December afternoon by their mothers, struck with an extension cord as the women cried out repeatedly, "Go, devil, leave this body!"
One after another, she said, the girls were bent over a crate in the living room and struck on their bare buttocks, sometimes as other children in the South Bronson Avenue apartment watched.
After the first girl was whipped, "my mother asked me was I ready to get my whipping? I said yes, I wanted to get it over with," she said.
"It wasn't that long," she said of one beating. "More like an hour or something."
The girl and a police officer were the only witnesses at the preliminary hearing for Valerie Okongwu, 31, one of three women charged with three counts of felony child abuse in a case with perplexing religious overtones. All were parishioners at the small, independent Jesus Cathedral.
Police say they would like to talk to the church's minister, 34-year-old Chester Nubine, but cannot find him. There is no complaint against him in the case.
The 11-year-old identified photographs of the girls' marked buttocks, pictures shot by police on Dec. 26 after a relative saw one girl's injuries and called authorities. Eleven children were taken into protective custody and six showed evidence of beatings--"a lot of callus formation," said Los Angeles Police Detective Vivian Gomez.
Okongwu, who wiped at her eyes with yellow tissues as the girl finished testifying, was ordered by Municipal Judge Paul Fidler to stand trial on three counts of willful cruelty to children. One of them involves her daughter, who did not testify Monday. Okongwu remained in jail on $20,000 bond.
Another defendant, Yulonda Wade, sat in the courtroom briefly Monday but made no comment. An arrest warrant is out for the third woman, Nita Sims, authorities said. Each woman faces three counts.
The incident may have been part of what one relative called "deliverance whipping." Police said children were thrashed in the belief that such chastisement could keep them from misbehaving.
"It is strictly child abuse from our angle," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Fred Klink, but "some religious influence is at play here."
Said Klink: "Apparently (the minister) taught them to spare the rod and spoil the child, but we have no proof he meant them to beat them (the children) this bad," and "he was not present at those beatings."
During cross-examination, Okongwu's attorney, Michael Fischman, sought to draw out the girl's religious thoughts, asking her whether she had ever told her mother she wanted to be a preacher. "Yes," she answered. He asked her whether she had heard the phrase, "Go, devil, leave this body," mentioned in church services. She answered "yes" again.
A Los Angeles woman who formerly attended Jesus Cathedral and is a relative of some of the women and children first reported the injuries around Christmas. The woman, who asked that her name not be used, believes that authorities have overreacted.
"Whatever (the women) believe, I know it's all for the honor and glory of God," she said. "Their belief got out of hand."
The women, she said, "are trying to make their kids be right, without sex or drugs, but in my opinion they got a tad confused on the Bible portion."
She cited Proverbs 23:13 and 14--"Withhold not correction from the child: For if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shall beat him with the rod and shalt deliver him from hell."
She added, "but I believe God gives you temperance."
"I'm not taking up for them," she said. "They're wrong in the whipping." But, she said, "it was out of love--'I'm going to get this devil out of my kids so they can get closer to God.' "
By the time of the arrests, Jesus Cathedral's membership had dwindled and services were held in airport hotel meeting rooms that Nubine rented. The last services were conducted around Christmas.
Nubine, the son of an Oklahoma-born Pentecostal minister, worked for six years as a warehouseman at a Denver pet food plant until 1981, when he answered a religious calling and moved his family to Texas and eventually to Los Angeles, says his former mother-in-law, Atherstine Hargrove.
"They were doing so well" in Denver, said Hargrove, who has not seen Nubine in several years. "I was so upset because he made (his wife) give up everything and go on a mission."
Diane and Chester Nubine, who have three children, were divorced last year.
"He's in a different faith from what he was reared in," said his father, the Rev. C. A. Nubine, who said he does not often hear from his son. "I never did challenge him in what he believed. I was just glad to know he trusted in the Lord."