A 75-year-old former Florida cult leader has been arrested in Georgia on charges of abusing and murdering a toddler, and authorities said an unfolding investigation reveals that many more children were abused under her care.
Anna Elizabeth Young was arrested in Cobb County near Atlanta Thursday after the investigators in Central Florida determined through a year-long investigation that she allegedly murdered a toddler between ages 2 and 3 between 1988 and 1989 while operating the House of Prayer in Micannopy, Florida, Art Forgey, public information officer for the Alachua County Sheriff's Office, told ABC News.
Young allegedly killed the toddler, Emon Harper, by withholding food and by "willfully torturing" and "maliciously punishing" him, causing him "great bodily harm" and "permanent disability" or disfigurement, Florida State Attorney Bill Cervone said in a press release, citing an investigation into the child's abuse and death from March 1988 through June 1992.
The investigation into Harper's death began about a year ago when a relative of Young's who witnessed violence and deaths take occur at the House of Prayer as a child came forward to police to detail what she witnessed, Forgey said. The witness' account opened up a "Pandora's box" for investigators as they looked into Young's past and continued to find more witnesses and cooperating evidence, Forgey said.
Now, authorities believe that Young has been abusing children since the 1960s across several states.
Authorities believe that Young began abusing children as early as 1968, when a minor may have died "as a result of her treatment," Forgey said.
She is also believed to be connected to a 6-year-old who went missing in Michigan 1973. Young is even listed on the original missing person report and is now believed to have buried him before reporting him missing, Forgey said. She was never considered a suspect until the investigation into Harper's death began, he added.
Investigators believe that Young established roots in Alachua County in 1983 and came to the Micanopy area in 1985, founding the House of Prayer shortly after on Southeast 138th Avenue, Forgey said.
Police are also investigating similar cases of abuse that may have been committed by Young in Puerto Rico in the 1980s as well, after she had moved to Alachua County but before the House of Prayer had been founded, Forgey said.
In 1992, a 13-year-old girl who was placed in Young's care by her parents was burned badly after Young bathed her in a bathtub full of chemicals, Forgey said. The child's parents had brought her to the House of Prayer for "schooling" and "teaching," Forgey said.
After the incident, Young fled the area and was found eight ears later living in an attic of a relative's home in Illinois, according to the Cobb County Sheriff's Office. She was then extradited back to Florida and served prison time for that crime after she was convicted in 2001, Forgey said.
Great Work by the Cobb County Sheriff's Office Fugitive Unit and United States Southeast Regional Fugitive Task Force on the arrest of a former cult leader and fugitive from justice from Florida! #cobbsheriff???? #CobbCounty @cobbcountygovt @cobbpolice1 @mdjonline @CobbNewsNow pic.twitter.com/OscRHhsIBD— Cobb Co. Sheriff (@CobbSheriff) December 1, 2017
At the time of Harper's death, Young had been running the House of Prayer for All People, described as a "religious boarding school" by the Cobb County Sheriff's Office, on Southeast 138th Avenue in Micanopy, Forgey said.
"It was run, obviously, like kind of a religious institution," Forgey said. "However, the treatment and care that these children received was anything but biblical or church-related."
Alachua County authorities had investigated the House of Prayer prior to the 1992 incident, but "nothing was ever substantiated at the time," Forgey said.
It is unclear how many people participated in the cult, Forgey added. Young's husband was allegedly also involved in the operation, The Gainesville Sun reported.
"Really, the hard part here is we know there were probably a lot more people who were associated with her and knew her and may have been at the House of Prayer, Forgey said. "There were no records of who were there and what children were there."
Investigators hope that the media attention garnered by Young's arrest will inspire additional witnessed and victims to come forward, Forgey said.
Young was charged with first-degree murder for Harper's death, an indictment filed by Cervone last week shows.
After an arrest warrant was secured, U.S. Marshals located and apprehended in Cobb County, Georgia, near Atlanta, according to the Cobb County Sheriff's Office. She waved extradition, Forgey said, and is currently being held in the Cobb County Jail without bond.
There is no attorney record for Young on file, Glenn Daniel, public information officer for the Cobb County Sheriff's Office, told ABC News.
Young will be held without bond once she is transferred back to Florida, according to the indictment.