PONCHATOULA, La. -- From his tire store next door, Donald Moore got an up-close look at the strange changes that went on at the once-bustling Hosanna Church.
For one thing, the congregation had dwindled to several reclusive members who chased away visitors. For another, the windows were painted white so that no one could see in. And just before it closed its doors for good a couple of years ago, eight dump trucks came in and spread dirt over the church's back lot.
Last month, the suspicions played out in a way that almost no one in this southeastern Louisiana town of 5,000 could have imagined: Nine people, including the pastor, his wife, and a sheriff's deputy, were accused of engaging in cultlike sexual activity with children and animals inside the hall of worship. Eight now face child rape charges that could bring the death penalty.
''You can't believe something like that was going on right under our own feet," Moore said.
Authorities said witnesses have described the use of pentagrams on the church floor, sex with a dog, and the sacrificing of cats. The alleged victims, suspected to number as many as two dozen, include children ranging from infants to young teens -- some of them the offspring of those accused.
''I've been a prosecutor in some rape cases and child molestation cases, but I've never had a group accused of doing anything like this," said Sheriff Daniel Edwards of Tangipahoa Parish, a former state prosecutor.
Investigators believe the abuse began in 1999 and continued until the church closed in 2003. But it was not until a woman called from Ohio in April, saying she had fled to protect her child, that police had even an inkling of the activities at the church, authorities said.
About the same time, the church's pastor, 45-year-old Louis Lamonica, walked into the neighboring Livingston Parish sheriff's office, sat down and, according to investigators, named names and detailed activities inside the church.
Lamonica was arrested, followed by eight others authorities described as central members of the ring. All but one are being held without bond. Even the tipster from Ohio, identified by police as Nicole Bernard, was arrested on rape charges along with her former husband.
Edwards said the group apparently had an effective formula for escaping detection: the use of a church, a close-knit relationship among the members, and victims unlikely to report abuse to authorities.
''They were very secretive and very good about keeping a secret," Edwards said.
Lamonica's attorney, Michael Thiel, did not return calls seeking comment but had said previously that the charges had been sensationalized and would not hold up in court. ''Generally, I believe there's been a rush to judge based on conjecture, rumors, and leaks to the media," Thiel told The Advocate of Baton Rouge.
Edwards stopped short of saying the cult consisted of devil-worshipers, but said some of the defendants told investigators that ''devil worship was the reason for their participation." Edwards added that defendants and witnesses also gave statements saying a dog was sexually abused and at least two cats were sacrificed.
Authorities seized two dozen computers, which the FBI is checking. Sheets and carpeting were taken from the church for DNA tests. Officers spent several days digging in the back of the church but have not said whether anything significant was found.
After Bernard was arrested, police in Ohio said they searched a storage unit and found mattresses, videos, and nine garbage bags full of costumes.
Lamonica and his wife, Robbin, also face allegations of having sex with children in their home.
A state grand jury is scheduled to start hearing evidence June 24.
US Attorney Jim Letten of New Orleans would say only that federal authorities are aiding the state investigation. He declined to say whether any federal charges might be filed.
At one time, Hosanna Church was one of the many thriving churches, of all denominations, in and around Ponchatoula, a town of antique shops that hosts Louisiana's annual strawberry festival.
Founded by Lamonica's father, who is now dead, Hosanna once boasted 1,000 members and had a private school through the sixth grade. Now, a message on the church's highway sign says: ''I went here K-4. You let us down."