“John Neal was about 6 when he and his little sister, Katonya, went to live with Anna Young at the House of Prayer, and he was 12 when he was spirited away.
During those years, Neal saw Katonya tortured until she eventually died. He was beaten and saw others beaten. He said Young forced a mother to take her son to Puerto Rico and abandon him at a church, or else the boy might have died from abuse.
Neal, now 40, saw a lot more and kept quiet, until recently. Now, thanks to him and others who went to law enforcement, Young is a 76-year-old in the Alachua County jail facing murder charges in connection with the death of a toddler about 30 years ago.
“People were brainwashed. Like the Jim Jones thing — if Anna had said ‘Drink the Kool-Aid,’ we would have drunk the Kool-Aid,” Neal said. “She used fear and she used God. Number one, she used God. Everybody was going to burn in hell. The kids had demons in them — that’s why they got treated so bad.”
Young’s arrest and the details now emerging about the House of Prayer raise questions about missed opportunities to end the abuse earlier.
The indictment is for the death of Emon Harper sometime between 1988 and 1989. Also called Moses, he was 2 or 3 years old at the time and was allegedly killed by Young through starvation and torture.
The boy’s remains have not been found. Multiple people who lived at the church compound said his body was burned in a pit. They said he was from Chicago and that his parents did not live at the compound.
Neal lived at the House of Prayer property, first in Waldo and later on Southeast 138th Avenue off Wacahoota Road, while Emon was there. Neal said he cannot talk about Emon because of the legal case against Young.
But Neal talked about how he ended up at House of Prayer, his life there and his recovery.
And he talked about his little sister.
“She died. (Young and her husband) signed for the body and they buried her out there in Hawthorne. My mom didn’t even know she was dead until after she was buried,” Neal said. “My sister — that has bothered me my whole life.”
Neal’s mother, Lea Vera Jackson, was a single mom struggling to care for two children with little income. She worked with a woman from the church who introduced her to Young.
Church folk befriended Jackson, offered to care for the children, and told her the House of Prayer was a path to God. It was in Waldo at the time, and Jackson started visiting before turning over her children to Young and eventually moving to the church when it relocated to a Micanopy fenced compound of multiple buildings and a farm tended by church members.
Life was modeled on the Bible’s Book of Acts: Residents would have all things in common and have no need or want.
But after moving in, Jackson said she gradually began experiencing anything but communal peace.
Everybody had a role to play. One person looked after the children exclusively. One did all of the cooking. Jackson said she was not allowed to spend time with her children, who lived in separate quarters.
Jackson and a few other adults had outside jobs, and their paychecks were handed over to Young and her husband, Robert. The Youngs ate steak while everyone else lived on beans and rice.
They wore clothing that covered their bodies. For the women and girls, the clothing was similar to the dress of conservative Muslim women.
Residents were so fearful of Young that those who had qualms about House of Prayer never talked about it.
Jackson said she had no idea her children were being abused.
“Once you got there you had no contact with your child. You didn’t see your child except for maybe during prayer time but other than that, you didn’t see them,” Jackson said. “If I could have seen a glimpse of what was happening with (Katonya) I just know that God would have given me the strength to get out.”
Others say Young would let parents interact with their children. Among them is Gerri Hill, whose little sister, Nikki Nickelson, was entrusted to Young’s care by her parents.
They lived in South Carolina but both Hill and court documents indicate they regularly visited Nikki. In 2001, Young was convicted of child abuse for bathing Nikki in a detergent with bleach, causing severe burns. She was sentenced to the time she had already spent in jail: six months.
Neal said Young abused his sister from the start. Young made Neal and her daughter, Joy, abuse Katonya too.
“She would make Kay run. Behind the house in Waldo there was a little stick and (Young) would say to make sure she doesn’t stop. We would run behind Kay like it was a game and hit her on the butt. We’re talking about a 2-year-old baby,” Neal said. “They would have these services and adults would be standing around and Anna Young would have Kay in the middle running in place saying ‘Jesus,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Jesus,’ ‘Jesus’ over and over again. Kay had a demon in her — that was the whole reason for why she treated her like that.”
No adults spoke up or tried to stop the abuse, including the abuse of adults. Out of trust or fear, no one challenged Young on anything.
The end for Katonya came from starvation and abuse, Neal said. She began having seizures, so Young allegedly found other ways to torture the girl, including sleep deprivation and making her stand for hours and hours.
One day in 1983, Katonya had a major seizure and was taken to Shands Hospital. She died from cardiac arrest a few days later. The girl’s surname was listed as Young on the autopsy report, Neal said.
Alachua County sheriff’s spokesman Art Forgey said deputies had suspicions about Katonya’s death, along with other incidents associated with Young and the House of Prayer, but could not develop evidence to pursue cases.
Investigators are taking a fresh look at Katonya’s case now, he said.
“That is definitely still very hot and ongoing,” Forgey said last week. ”(Investigators) are very aware of it and are working on that as we speak today.”
Neal was not spared abuse — he was often beaten, sometimes with the plug end of an electrical cord. When he was taken to Shands for treatment of ringworm, staff saw the scars and an investigation was launched that landed Neal in foster care for a time.
But he was released from foster care and taken back to House of Prayer. When authorities tried to find him again, Jackson was jailed because she would not say where he was, Neal said.
Joan Hope, Neal’s paternal grandmother, said Jackson didn’t need to send the kids to the compound. Hope used to provide food and clothes, and would have taken in the children herself.
Hope used to take Neal to Littlewood Elementary School before Jackson told her she was putting him in a private school. Hope learned Neal was at House of Prayer and, concerned about his education, she called the Alachua County School District.
A district employee who went there to investigate the children’s schooling told Young that Hope was the person who called the district.
“Oh boy. OK. From that day forward, I was the devil. They told John I was the devil, your grandma is the devil. ’You want to go visit your grandma the devil?” And he said, ‘yeah,’ ” Hope said. “That was a beating. He had to start going along. He was beaten so bad. He still has the scars.”
Hope said Young and church members, dressed in their religious clothing, stalked and harassed her at her job at the downtown Gainesville post office and around town, calling her the devil.
Jackson said she lived at the compound about seven years before deciding to leave. Jackson executed a plan on a day when she drove to work, rather than be dropped off. She had the keys to the gates at the compound.
“I called my sister and told her I would bring her in the back way and that I was not leaving the place unless I take my son,” Jackson said. “I quietly unlocked the gate. I knew which cabin John was in. I told him to be real quiet. I told him he was going to see his grandma. I pushed him along and when I pushed him into the car with my sister, I told her to drive and if anybody comes out, run them over if you have to. Don’t stop, just keep going.”
They left Alachua County immediately for another sister’s house in Atlanta, fearful church members would come looking for them.
Jackson and Neal said it took time and therapy to begin recovering from what they experienced.
Neal returned to Gainesville as a teenager to live with Hope. After high school he joined the Air Force and made it a career.
Suffering and religion followed Neal for bad and good — he saw tragedies during his Air Force deployments, and now has a divinity degree.
Guilt has been Jackson’s demon but she has faith in God to forgive her.
Joy Fluker wasn’t beaten at House of Prayer. In fact, others said he was treated like a princess. Still, as Young’s daughter, she has spent her life trying to come to grips with what went on there.
Fluker, who also lives in the Atlanta area, had some rough experiences after leaving the church and entering a world that was alien to her. It has taken time and work, but Fluker said her life is better now.
Still, the beatings and mistreatment stick with her.
“It was the way we lived. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with it at the time. It wasn’t anything that was abnormal to me — we were our own little kingdom and she was the queen,” Fluker said. “As I started getting older, I wanted to be accepted by other people. I realized we were different.”
Fluker blames mental illness for her mother’s actions. It runs in the family and became worse after her father, Robert, died. The Sun reported in 1988 that he died when his truck reportedly slipped off a jack and crushed him.
A quest to find out what eventually came of Emon Harper led Fluker to join others in telling law enforcement the secrets of the House of Prayer.
And secrets across the country, too.
In 1973, a missing persons report was filed on Catherine Davidson, 6, of Chicago. The report said Catherine and her family went to Warren Dunes State Park in Sawyer, Michigan, for a picnic. While her parents were in the car, Catherine and five older siblings explored a creek that emptied into Lake Michigan. All the other children returned but Catherine was never seen again.
Catherine was the stepdaughter of Young and the daughter of Robert, who later changed his name to Jonah Young.
People familiar with the case have told law enforcement that Young gagged the girl, put her in a closet in their Chicago home, and left her. She died there.
Detective Sgt. Doug Kill of the Michigan State Police said last week that his agency is aware of the allegation. He said the disappearance case is under investigation.
“There was a massive search for at least two weeks while she was missing — the Coast Guard, helicopters, individuals from several states looking through the woods,” Kill said. “There was some suspicion that it did not happen the way they said it did. We would certainly like to find out exactly where she is. That’s going to have to be done through interviews. With the information we have at this time, (Young) would be likely the only one we know of who could possibly have information. If (the gagging allegation) is true, she would probably be the best source.”
Neal, Jackson and Hope want justice. If they can’t get it for Kay, a conviction of Young for the death of Emon will do.
They hope that by finally coming out about House of Prayer, they may inspire others who find themselves in similar situations to break free.
And they hope that law enforcement and protective agencies will do more to investigate claims, no matter how fanciful or outlandish they may seem.
“This didn’t have to go on. It could have been stopped much earlier,” said Hope. “They didn’t do anything — the state attorney, Health and Rehabilitative Services. This child (Kay) was beaten to death. They beat her and they beat her. How could they let that lady kill her and do nothing about it?”
“I feel that we can help someone else, that we didn’t go through this in vain,” Jackson said. “I know what it’s like to be so scared you wouldn’t talk to anybody — the brainwashing. I hope I can reach out to anybody else and be of some help.””