An embattled Attleboro cult couple was freed yesterday after spending nearly six months behind bars for stonewalling a probe into what happened to their latest baby, even though the newborn's fate remains a mystery to authorities.
``David and Rebecca are relieved at long last to be going home,'' said J.W. Carney Jr., attorney for David and Rebecca Corneau. ``We are grateful the judge finally released them and regret that they were ever incarcerated in the first place.''
The Corneaus were jailed on contempt charges in early February by Attleboro Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Nasif for refusing to lead authorities to the remains of a baby they say was stillborn in November. But officials fear the baby was born alive and later died or is hidden with cult members Trinette and Mark Daneau.
The Daneaus fled the area last year and are believed to have a newborn of their own. Sources close to the case say the Daneaus may be living in southeastern Massachusetts or Rhode Island and are still in constant contact with the reclusive Attleboro-based religious sect.
``We hope there still is a live child,'' Department of Social Services spokeswoman Carol Yelverton said.
In releasing the Corneaus, Nasif cited an ongoing Bristol County grand jury probe that is investigating what happened to the baby and whether any criminal charges should be lodged.
``It remains unclear as to whether the child was born alive,'' Nasif said. ``But I don't think this court is going to be any more successful than it has been with further incarceration. I feel it's best left to the district attorney, at this point.''
Sources say investigators are divided as to whether they believe the Corneaus' tale that the baby was stillborn at the Rehoboth home of fringe sect member Robert Hunter.
``There's a debate (among investigators),'' a source said. ``Some still think there was (a baby born). They were candid before the grand jury, and what they've testified to is very consistent. But who knows?''
The source theorized that the Corneaus would have likely fled with the Daneaus if they had a live child. The fundamentalist sect rejects mainstream society, including doctors, government and education, and advocates home births, herbal healing and breast-feeding.
``It seems that if they had a baby, they'd take off,'' the source said. ``I don't think there's any doubt that Mark and Trinette had a baby.''
According to Carney, the Corneaus testified before the grand jury that their baby was born dead in Hunter's living room in a home birth attended by six women. Both Corneaus were visibly upset on the stand while recalling in ``excruciating detail,'' the difficult pregnancy and death of the infant, Carney said. David Corneau appeared upset and wiped his eyes in the Attleboro courthouse yesterday while Carney recalled their testimony.
If the child was stillborn, it would be the second death out of Rebecca Corneau's last three pregnancies. She delivered a healthy baby girl in 2000 in a state prison hospital under court order. That baby was taken by DSS and has since been adopted.
``The Corneaus came before this court and told the truth. There simply is no evidence that a child ever existed,'' Carney said.
Carney said the couple refuse to divulge the burial site because they don't want the grave desecrated by investigators. ``It would be traumatic for any parent to have their child dug up,'' he said.
After being freed from their shackles, the couple embraced and left the courthouse in a car with fellow sect members Roland and Georgette Robidoux. Carney said the Corneaus ``made the most of their time in jail'' and counseled other inmates.
``Many inmates would talk to David and Rebecca and found peace in their words,'' he said.
The Corneaus are members of the same sect as Jacques Robidoux, who was convicted last week of starving his 11-month-old son Samuel to death to fulfill a bizarre religious prophecy.
Robidoux was sentenced to life in prison while his wife, Karen, will be tried in September on second-degree murder charges. Robidoux' sister, Michelle Mingo, faces accessory charges for allegedly concocting the ``vision from God'' ordering the group to deny the toddler solid food.