BEN NUCKOLS, Associated Press
WESTMINSTER, Md. -- When Ria Ramkissoon's spiritual mentor ordered her to deny food and water to her toddler son, she didn't know what to think or do. She was paralyzed by fear and confusion.
The 19-year-old mother had been living with the woman, who called herself Queen Antoinette, for several months when Ramkissoon's son did not say "amen" before a meal one morning. That word was one of the few Javon Thompson could say at 15 months old, and Antoinette told Ramkissoon not to feed him until he said it. Like always, she cited the Bible as her authority.
In Antoinette's unusual household - which police and prosecutors later described as a cult - no one questioned her orders.
Ramkissoon thought about defying her leader, grabbing Javon and leaving the house. But she didn't think Antoinette would maliciously make up her claim that the boy was possessed by an evil spirit. And she didn't want to defy God's will, guaranteeing eternal damnation.
So she did nothing.
Nobody else in the 10-person household came to Javon's aid either. Over the next week, he whimpered and grew sluggish and sallow. By the time Antoinette relented and told Ramkissoon to feed the boy, it was too late. Javon died in his mother's arms.
Investigators discovered his body more than a year later.
Antoinette is serving a 50-year sentence for second-degree murder; her adult daughter and another follower are also in prison.
Now living in a faith-based treatment center, Ramkissoon says she knows it's difficult to comprehend how any mother could watch her son starve. She freely uses the word "crazy" to describe her actions, which were set in motion by her desire to provide a better home for her son.
"It's like it's somebody else's life, but it's not," Ramkissoon told The Associated Press in her first interview since Javon's death. "That is my life, and those are the choices that I've made and those were the fears that I dealt with, no matter how ridiculous they may be to somebody else."
For years, Ramkissoon clung to the belief that Javon would be resurrected, as Antoinette said he would. When Ramkissoon pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in death, she insisted on a provision stating that her plea would be withdrawn if Javon came back to life.
Only since her release from custody last year has she fully let go of that belief, allowing her to properly mourn the boy who would have turned 6 on Saturday.
"None of that had to happen to him. He's in a house surrounded by people who are basically doing this to him," Ramkissoon said. "I felt like if anyone had a responsibility to him there that it was me, and I basically gave that up. So yeah, that's a difficult thing. To die and to suffer in that kind of way, that's not easy to have to swallow. That's something that I'm very much responsible for, as much as anybody else."
For much of her life, Ramkissoon has felt isolated and confused. She believed in God but didn't understand how to practice her faith, making her vulnerable to someone who claimed to have all the answers.
When she was 7, she left her native Trinidad to join her mother and a new American stepfather in Baltimore. Her mother is Hindu but didn't practice her religion in the United States.
Ramkissoon sought solace in Christianity, but became disillusioned with traditional churches. When she tried to read the Bible on her own, she was frustrated and sometimes threw it against the wall in anger.
Shortly after Ramkissoon graduated high school, she began dating a young troublemaker named Robert Thompson. He was her first boyfriend, and even when he ended up in jail, she insisted he was a good guy. He got her pregnant around her 18th birthday.
Thompson broke off the relationship before Javon was born. The only times he saw his son were through a plastic barrier at the Baltimore jail when Ramkissoon brought Javon for visits every Friday. Thompson was ultimately acquitted of charges including attempted murder. The AP could not locate him for comment for this story.
Meanwhile, Ramkissoon's relationship with her stepfather, Craig Newton, was deteriorating. He drank and was volatile. At times he was physically abusive, including one occasion during her pregnancy when Ramkissoon says he tried to choke her.
In a telephone interview, Newton did not dispute Ramkissoon's account of his drinking or the choking incident. But he denied her claim that he once locked Ramkissoon, her mother and her brothers out of the family home.
Javon's birth only intensified the pressure Ramkissoon felt.
She began training to be a pharmacy technician, but her heart wasn't in it. She didn't want to be away from her son, and she began to think her mother might take the infant away.
Around this time, she got an unexpected phone call from a high school friend, Tiffany Smith, who also had a baby. Smith said she wasn't working, allowing her to concentrate on her son and her faith. She said she was living in her "father's house," although it was clear she didn't mean her biological father.
Members of Antoinette's group took turns recruiting Ramkissoon. Though they were stingy with details about the arrangement, she was desperate, and their offer began to sound attractive.
"I had a really strong fear that (Javon) was going to get taken away from me if I didn't know what I was doing," she said, tears flowing. "That's kind of when I took things in my own hands."
In April 2006, Ramkissoon asked her mother to drive her and Javon to a park. She packed a few outfits and other supplies for him in a diaper bag. For herself, she brought nothing but the clothes she wore. Cult members met them and drove them to their home.
Ramkissoon stopped answering her cellphone, then turned it off and handed it over to Antoinette, who claimed her commands came directly from God. She and other members destroyed their identification documents. Antoinette took her shopping for clothing in the colors she said God favored: blue, white and khaki. Doctor visits were forbidden, and Smith gave birth to her second child - fathered by Antoinette's teenage son - at home, without medical care.
The group had a sole benefactor: Antoinette's boyfriend, Steven Bynum. He paid their rent and provided food and other necessities. No one else had a job.
Antoinette always made sure the kids had enough to eat and admonished followers who she thought were being neglectful.
But she seemed wary of Javon from the beginning, planting the seeds of doubt in Ramkissoon's mind. Out of the blue, she would say, "There's something wrong with that child." The boy's failure to say "amen" confirmed Antoinette's suspicions. She said Javon had a "spirit of rebellion" inside him, and that only fasting could exorcise it.
Antoinette represented herself at trial, and she acknowledged telling Ramkissoon not to feed Javon. But she characterized it as a "suggestion," not an order. The jury disagreed.
When Javon died in late 2006 or early 2007, Antoinette told her followers to pray for his resurrection. They packed the body into a suitcase. Ramkissoon sprayed it with disinfectant and stuffed the suitcase with fabric softener sheets to mask the odor.
After Javon's death, Bynum distanced himself from Antoinette and stopped paying the rent. The cult leader and her followers left Baltimore, the suitcase in tow.
Ramkissoon kept looking for signs that the horrific events were part of God's plan, and seemed to find one during a police encounter. When the group was evicted from a Pennsylvania hotel, officers handled the suitcase with Javon's body but didn't seem to suspect anything.
Antoinette continued to bend people to her will. She persuaded an elderly man to store some of their belongings, including the suitcase, in a shed behind his Philadelphia home. The cult moved to New York City, where Antoinette talked a man into kicking his wife and family out of his Brooklyn apartment and moving Antoinette and her followers in.
Back in Baltimore, Ramkissoon's mother was waging a futile battle to alert authorities. Seeta Khadan-Newton spoke to her daughter once, through an intercom at the building in Brooklyn. She said Ramkissoon sounded "like a zombie."
In court, Ramkissoon spoke in a quiet monotone, reciting the facts of the case without apparent feeling.
"I didn't feel anything for a long time," she told the AP.
Today, after more than a year in treatment, Ramkissoon has more life behind her eyes, and tears and laughter come easily. She dresses smartly and has a stylish short haircut. When she arrived, she told the center's staff that she didn't want to talk to anyone. Now she works as an intake coordinator, the first point of contact for incoming residents.
She's expected to finish this fall and hopes to enroll in college.
Edwin "Tito" Matos, Ramkissoon's pastor and the director of the treatment center, said the key to Ramkissoon's transformation was teaching her to think for herself. He would ask her to interpret Bible passages, giving her a Bible dictionary to aid her research.
When she realized that Antoinette had manipulated passages to support her commands, Ramkissoon would cry.
After several months, Ramkissoon began to open up about her experiences, and did a lot more crying. She began to realize that Javon died because of her own decisions, not because of God's will.
"It is difficult," she said, "because I don't think it's settled, fully, the weight of what was lost."
Ramkissoon said she's often asked how she can still believe in God. But she credits her faith, and the fellowship she's found at the treatment center, for allowing her to take control of her life.
"Coming from a cult, people don't want to hear you talk about God," she said. "I may have ... approached it the wrong way. It doesn't mean that God isn't true and that the community and love and family don't exist in the right way."
Several months into Ramkissoon's stay at the center, Matos wasn't sure he was getting through to her. She'd tell him she wanted to talk, then sit in his office and say nothing. One Sunday, he was invited to preach at a church in Baltimore, and Ramkissoon accompanied him and sang in the choir. From the pulpit, he referred to her obliquely, talking about the difficulty of building relationships and trust.
For years, Ramkissoon had avoided drawing attention to herself. But in the middle of the sermon, she stood up. She walked to the pulpit, climbed the stairs and extended her arms toward Matos. The pastor and his pupil embraced.
Editor's note: Ben Nuckols has been covering the Ramkissoon case since her arrest. This report is based on lengthy interviews with Ramkissoon along with court testimony, documents and other interviews.