Mother Anna unmasked

For years, a violent Florida cult leader called Cobb County home

It was the smell that first grabbed John Neal’s attention. The elderly woman was wearing a denim skirt, a head wrap and too much perfume when she ambled by as he waited in the self-checkout line at a Walmart in Marietta last summer.

The 6-foot-5-inch Air Force combat veteran’s stomach tightened and his heart raced as he watched her move slowly toward the frozen food aisle and out of sight. In the parking lot, he took pictures of her burgundy minivan. “Forgiven,” read one of the religious bumper stickers on the back.

He quickly dialed a cold case detective in north central Florida more than 325 miles away to tell him one thing: “I saw her.”

A few months later, Anna Elizabeth Young was arrested at her Marietta home, where a flock of plastic animals and a white picket fence grace the front yard. Young, 76, had been living a quiet life there for the past 15 years. Now she stands charged with beating and starving a toddler to death decades ago at a religious cult authorities say she ran outside of Gainesville, Fla. Young has pleaded not guilty. Her attorney declined The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s request for an interview.

Anna Elizabeth Young's mugshot

Anna Elizabeth Young's mugshot

Some have trouble squaring the image of Young as a violent cult leader with the pious woman they knew in Cobb County who worked as a private nurse caring for the elderly.

“She’s a Christian lady to me,” said Modestine Henry, who attended church with Young, a former neighbor she’s known for two decades.

But others say the toddler’s death is just one breadcrumb along a well-documented trail of horror and death. The AJC found that Young — who still goes by the name “Mother Anna” — has been accused of beating, torturing and abusing numerous children and adults over the past half-century.

Court records show she was convicted in 1992 of child abuse after bathing a young cult member in bleach. She was investigated for allegedly convincing a family to leave a young boy on the steps of a church in Puerto Rico.

And on Wednesday, an FBI agent traveled to the Alachua County Jail in Florida to ask Young new questions about the disappearance of her 6-year-old stepdaughter in the 1970s. She refused to answer their questions but their investigation could end with more charges for Young in connection with the death of a second child.

Last summer, authorities swarmed the old cult property outside Micanopy, Fla. after receiving information taken from Young’s own daughter, who also lives in metro Atlanta.

Young now faces a charge for the death of Emon Harper, who was given the name Moses when his mother handed him over to Young’s House of Prayer for All People. Records indicate his mother worked the streets in Chicago and couldn’t take care of him. The boy died at the cult in the late 1980s at the age of two or three. Witnesses inside the cult reported his body was burned, but it has still not been found.

Neal, who told the AJC he was abused at the cult, recalled Young’s hold on her members. “She had more power than God out there at that place. She was God out there. Whatever she said happened.”

Young sits in jail without bond on a first-degree murder charge, the most serious murder count Florida has. It carries two punishments: life in prison or death by the state. Life or death.

John Neal during an interview at his home in Kennesaw.

Making Mother Anna

Mother Anna didn’t exist in 1973. There was Anna Davidson, who loved disco and lived in Chicago with her husband, Robert, and their children.

Anna Davidson was a strict disciplinarian, but wasn’t religious. That, and a lot of other things, changed following Labor Day weekend that year.

A six-year-old girl with French braids who loved her Raggedy Ann doll was reported missing along Lake Michigan — Catherine Davidson, the biological daughter of Robert Davidson and stepdaughter to Anna.

The story the family told was that they went to Warren Dunes State Park to enjoy a picnic. Once there, the siblings zipped down to the water. Fifteen minutes later, Cathy was gone.

The search for her drew hundreds from Detroit, northern Ohio, Indiana and other parts of Illinois. Helicopter pilots scanned the area, but found nothing.

Of course not, said Joy Fluker, Anna’s daughter. Fluker recently told the FBI that her half-sister Cathy was already dead after being beaten, tied up and gagged in a closet in the Davidsons’ Chicago apartment.

But back in 1973, the parents told police they were eager to help with the search. A local police chief in Michigan reported that the third night their little girl was missing, the Davidsons were seen sitting in a station wagon with another couple about 2 or 3 a.m.

“They were all laughing and drinking beer,” according to a police record the chief dictated. “They had a bottle in the car, he feels it was a whiskey bottle, but can not say for sure. He thought to himself, they sure don’t appear to be grieving parents.”

When police interviewed the family two weeks after Cathy went missing, the remaining kids all told the same story as their parents.

Not anymore.

Fluker, who wasn’t born at the time of the disappearance, recently told police that her older sister admitted to her many years later that Cathy died in a closet at their home in Chicago. Fluker said her sister described hearing scratching all night that suddenly stopped. Fluker told police that when her sister peered inside the closet, she saw Cathy’s body in the fetal position.

A new report from Michigan police last year said the picnic was a guise to cover up Cathy’s death.

In their grief over Cathy’s death, Fluker said her parents turned to religion. They moved to Zebulon, about 50 miles south of Atlanta. It was here the teachings of the House of Prayer for All People began to take shape. Her mother turned to a rigid Old Testament set of beliefs. That meant wearing full-length robes, adhering to a “Levitical diet” — the rules of eating laid out in the book of Leviticus. Essentially, they kept Kosher.

“It was her penance for what happened to Cathy,” said Fluker, who believes her half-sister’s death in the closet was an accident.

They soon put down roots in an even more remote location. Robert and Anna Davidson and a fellow believer they met in Georgia signed the deed on Sept. 28, 1983 to four acres of property in a rural stretch of Florida.

The House of Prayer for All People started there with good deeds.

Fluker said her mother prayed with people and took in children and sometimes whole families. But things changed.

The Town that Time Forgot

There aren’t many kids off U.S. 441 where Marshall Odham lives in north central Florida. There were even fewer when he was growing up.

Three decades ago, when Odham was 10 years old, he and his sister rode their bikes down Wacahoota Road and onto a dirt path. It’s now a rutted residential road where Spanish moss hangs to meet the top of your car and palm fronds tickle your windows.

As they pedaled around a curve they saw children in the yard of a large house surrounded by trees with wooden crosses nailed to them. He was excited to see other kids — maybe they’d want to play.

But the children, dressed in long robes, dropped what they were doing and vanished inside. He never saw them again.

This was the House of Prayer for All People.

The closest town is Micanopy, with an estimated population of 636 people. Historians say it’s Florida’s oldest continuously settled inland community. It’s dubbed itself “The Town that Time Forgot.”

The House of Prayer for All People operated there for about a decade starting in the mid-1980’s, reaching about 24 resident members at its largest. Its members were recruited by various methods, including taking in people from rehabilitation and nursing homes, and taking children from parents struggling financially.

Art Forgey, spokesman for the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office, said forensic scientists spent two weeks digging at the old property last summer looking for human remains, but found nothing.

Forgey said he is aware of allegations that Young killed other children but he said he doesn’t anticipate his agency will file any more charges.

In the hundreds of pages of police reports reviewed by the AJC, dating from 1983 to 2017, officers wrote that many of the alleged crimes Young committed happened too long ago to bring charges. They also said they had trouble getting the truth out of witnesses and victims, who were often members of the cult.

“The tears wouldn’t come”

One of the kids living in the Florida cult compound was Fonda Favors. Now 45, Favors said her family ended up at the compound after her older sister met a cult member’s mother on a bus.

Favors was nine and wanted a dollhouse, so the cult got her one. Her mother was poor and liked seeing her daughters happy and well fed. So they stayed.

Favors was given the name Sister Rachel. The abuse began after she was separated from her mother, sister and nephew.

“You got beaten so bad to where I wouldn’t cry,” said Favors now living in nearby Ocala, Fla. “I don’t think anyone could hit me today and I would cry. The tears wouldn’t come.”

In March 1988, Anna Young’s husband Robert Davidson was found crushed to death under a Ford pick-up truck at a nearby junkyard. The medical examiner ruled his death accidental. With her husband dead, Young’s beatings grew worse. So did other forms of abuse.

Favors’ mother and Young had a confrontation over money that ended with her and her mother finally escaping from the cult.

Favors’ older sister, Sabrina, who was in her 20s at the time, stayed on at the cult with their nephew Marcos, Favors said. According to police reports, Young talked Sabrina into getting rid of Marcos, who was about 2 or 3 at the time, “because he was full of the devil.” Sabrina and another cult member flew to Puerto Rico in December 1984 with the boy dressed in pink as if he were a girl. They took him to a Catholic church in a poor neighborhood and left him there. No one knows what became of him, Favors said.

The cult began to crumble in 1992 after police investigated Young for bathing a 12-year-old girl in bleach, leaving her bedridden with blisters and burns.

The girl’s parents met members of House of Prayer for All People at a religious revival meeting, their attorney Ted Curtis told police. Their daughter was struggling in school, so they left her with Young to get an education.

One day in 1992, Young decided the girl smelled bad. She filled a metal tub with hot water, half a box of Ultra Tide, bleach and two caps of coconut Pick ‘n Save bubble bath liquid, according to multiple accounts.

Cult members held her down in the bath.

A 12-year-old was burned by bleach in the tub seen in this photograph in an incident that took place in 1992 at the House of Prayer for All People. Contributed photo

A 12-year-old was burned by bleach in the tub seen in this photograph in an incident that took place in 1992 at the House of Prayer for All People. Contributed photo

“Mother Anna supposedly said that maybe it will burn some of the evil out of her,” the police report said. The chemicals left her body covered with blisters.

Several days later, the girl’s parents were called in January 1992and told there had been an accident. They found their daughter’s hands tied to bedposts so she wouldn’t make her open wounds worse. When she was well enough to move, she was taken back home to Bishopville, S.C. and ended up in a burn ward.

After her parents filed charges against Young, she was convicted of child abuse. Without its leader, the cult dwindled and dissolved.

For the next nine years, Fluker recalls she and her mother were on the run — Georgia, Ohio, back to Chicago.

It was the National Enquirer that finally landed Young behind bars.

She was featured in the Nov. 14, 2000 edition under the headline “HELP PUT THESE DANGEROUS WOMEN BEHIND BARS.” That same month, FBI agents tracked her to an attic in Alton, Ill. and took her to prison, where she served six months on the child-abuse charge.

A Daughter Finds Her Voice

Soon after, Fluker settled in metro Atlanta. Young also later found her way to Cobb County where she led a low-key life for at least 15 years. It might have remained that way if not for a mother-daughter fight about a year ago.

Joy Fluker said her 15-year-old son had run off to his grandmother’s house without her permission.

Fluker felt Young was undermining her and they got into a heated shouting match, Fluker said. Her mother came at her with a metal lamp.

“Before I knew it, I blurted out ‘How can you tell me how to raise my children when you killed two children?’”

Everything stopped.

“When I said it and I saw the look of her face, I knew I’d crossed the point of no return,” Fluker said.

She remembers feeling her mother’s spit as she screamed at her. “You’re a liar!”

That night sparked Fluker’s quest to find justice for the boy she knew as Moses who had died in the cult. Eventually, she went to police, who knew him as Emon Harper.

Three of Fluker’s siblings who were never a part of the Florida cult, disagree with her account of her mother’s behavior, according to interviews with the FBI.

Gibran Adejele, 60, is one of them. “I think it’s all a lie. I think the whole thing is a lie,” he told The AJC. “My mother did discipline us, but no differently than the way I discipline my children.”

Adejele said he went to House of Prayer for All People once or twice and let one of his kids stay there for a bit with his mom, whom he admires.

He said the issues between his sister and mother stem from his mother interfering with how Fluker raised her children. Putting their mom in jail is revenge.

“It’s heartbreaking for all of us,” he said.

Joy Fluker holds a photo of her and her mother, Anna Elizabeth Young. Branden Camp/Special

What Happened to Moses?

But Fluker’s account is backed up by others connected to House of Prayer for All People.

Cult members, some of whom were children at the time, have described to police pieces of what happened toEmon Harper, who was given the name Moses inside the Florida cult. Sharon Batie’s description of his fate is the most vivid and damning.

Emon Harper (aka Moses) before he came to the House of Prayer for All People. Contributed photo

Emon Harper (aka Moses) before he came to the House of Prayer for All People. Contributed photo

In June 1992, Batie (formerly Sharon Pough) spoke to detectives after leaving the cult about 10 months earlier and moving to Mississippi. Her father and brother helped form the cult and she and was given the name “Sister Lois.”

Batie was assigned to help care for Moses.

Batie told detectives that she’d seen Young beat the boy with a stick, starve him for three days, and leave him locked up.

After one beating in 1988 or 1989, Batie found Moses inside Young’s closet, slouched inside a thin straw hamper, his body covered in marks. He was dead.

Her brother carried Moses, still in the hamper, outside. Together they burned his tiny body.

John Neal

Search for a Sister

There was a reason Neal’s heart began racing when he saw Young at Walmart.

He still bears the scars from a brutal beating he says Young ordered when he was seven. It was all over a piece of candy. Fluker said he’d taken it, but he hadn’t. Young sentenced the boy to 33 licks — because Jesus was 33 years old when he died on the cross.

If he moved, the beating would start all over again. And he did, so it did.

They moved from an electrical cord to switches that tore at his skin.

At one point, Young ordered that Neal’s mom be brought in to watch. He was thrown on the floor in front of her.

“And she just looked terrified, and I was looking like ‘help!’ and she didn’t say a word, I didn’t say a word and they just carried her away and it continued,” he said.

“From that point on, I knew I was in it by myself,” he said.

But he said when Young was arrested, his thoughts went to his sister, Katonya Neal.

The toddler girl died of a seizure, police records show. Neal’s mother was questioned and spent time in jail for the girl’s death. But he said it was Young who beat the girl and refused to pay for the medication she needed.

“She tortured my little sister, treated her like an animal,” Neal said.

He said Young had such control over his life that even as he watched his own sister be beaten “I didn’t feel bad for her.”

“Immediately, Anna had me wrapped up into her. Because I called Anna ‘Mother’ all those years out there. I didn’t call my mom ‘Mom.’ My mom wasn’t my mom,” Neal said. “Anna was the one I looked to as my mother.

There’s one thing that makes him the most angry. His sister’s death certificate reads “Katonya Young.”

How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution interviewed Neal and others who survived alleged abuse inside the House of Prayer for All People; a cult operated in Florida. An AJC reporter also visited the former Florida cult site and reviewed hundreds of police and court documents obtained from state and federal agencies via multiple open records requests. The paper trail dates back to 1973 and stretches from Michigan to Puerto Rico.

Who’s who

John Neal, 40, was a child at the cult. Police reports show he was beaten, but lied about it to detectives when asked as a child. His name there was “Brother James.” He now lives in Kennesaw with his wife and children.

Anna Elizabeth Young, 76, led the cult, known as the House of Prayer for All People. The subject of multiples investigations over the past half-century, Young is accused of abusing many children and killing a toddler. Her name at the cult that she uses to this day is “Mother Anna.” She had been living at the same Marietta home for more than 15 years.

Katonya Neal was 2 years old when she died of a seizure. Her brother John Neal, accuses Anna Elizabeth Young of killing his sister by not paying for her medication. Neals calls his sister “Kay.”

Robert Davidson died accidentally when a pick-up truck he was working on crushed him in March 1988. He helped run the cult with his wife Anna Elizabeth Young. His cult name was “Brother Jonah.”

Cathy Davidson was a 6-year-old girl who went missing in 1973 at a Michigan state park. She is Robert Davidson’s daughter and Anna Elizabeth Young’s step-daughter. Michigan police and the FBI are re-investigating the case in light of Young’s charges in Florida.

Joy Fluker lives in north metro Atlanta with her husband and children. She grew up inside the cult with her mother Anna Elizabeth Young. Her father is Robert Davidson. She described being abused at the cult but not as severely as others. Her name at the cult was “Sister Mary.”

Fonda Favors, 45, spent four years at the cult with her sister and mother. She now lives in nearby Ocala, Florida. Her name at the cult was “Sister Rachel.”

Emon Harper, known as “Moses” in the cult, was 2 or 3 years old when police say he was beaten and starved to death at the cult by Anna Elizabeth Young. His mother in Chicago gave him to the cult because she couldn’t care for him, police records indicate.

Sharon Pough was 20 years old when the cult was formed with the help of her father O.D. Pough. She told police she saw Emon Harper’s body being burned.