A Missouri mother facing charges in connection with the brutal beating death of her 4-year-old daughter was described as smiling and laughing in court this week, earning harsh criticism from one child advocate.
“She laughed,” Mel Pleasant, of the Child Advocacy Against Pedophilia organization, told local station KY3 of Mary Mast’s seemingly jovial courtroom demeanor. “She laughed when she left the courtroom. I find nothing funny, not one thing funny about this case. About her daughter’s death. She turned around from her attorney. She smiled the whole way out. That’s disturbing.”
Mast, 29, is facing charges of endangering the welfare of a child resulting in death and domestic assault in a bizarre case involving the family’s neighbors.
Investigators allege the Mast family’s neighbors—Ethan Mast, 35, and Kourtney Aumen, 21—repeatedly beat and abused 4-year-old Jessica Mast over several weeks while trying to “remove a demon,” the outlet reports.
Ethan Mast—who has no relation to the family—and Aumen are now facing charges of second-degree murder, three counts of first-degree assault and sexual abuse in the case. The girl’s father, James Mast, is also facing two counts of endangering the welfare of a child.
Three of the suspects—including Mary Mast, James Mast and Kourtney Aumen—appeared in court Tuesday to request a bond hearing.
Ethan Mast does not currently have an attorney and did not appear with the other suspects.
The disturbing case began when Benton County Sheriff’s Office deputies were called to the Mast family home just after 1 a.m. on Dec. 20 and discovered Jessica dead on the floor in an upstairs bedroom of the house, according to probable cause statements in the case obtained by Oxygen.com.
James Mast, the girl’s 28-year-old father, told authorities his daughter “had been beaten, submerged in a pond, then left to freeze on the bank” before she was brought back into the home, the sheriff’s office said in a statement.
“When I encountered James I did not observe emotions that I would have expected from a parent whose child was just beaten to death,” Sgt. C. Wilson wrote in the probable cause statement.
Wilson said Jessica had been covered in bruises from her “neck to her feet,” had open wounds on the back of her legs that appeared to be from ruptured blisters and had apparent belt marks.
The couple's 2-year-old son was also found alive with "severe purple bruising to his legs" from the alleged beatings.
James told authorities said the family—including Mary Mast, another 2-year-old son, his daughter and James himself—endured weeks of abuse at the hands of their neighbors who were trying to rid the family of a “demon,” according to the court documents.
James told authorities the couple forced him the watch the beatings without intervening and told the family they would go to “hell” if they called law enforcement authorities.
Mary and James Mast told authorities that Ethan Mast and Aumen forced them to comply with the punishment and kept tabs on the family through security cameras—which they unplugged whenever they came back to the home to continue carrying out the abuse, according to the documents. They threatened the family that they’d suffer additional violence or be shot if they didn’t comply, the court documents state.
On the night Jessica died, Mary and James told authorities their neighbors beat the young girl with a belt and then forced Mary take her to a pond and dip her, naked, into the water before laying her on the shore. James eventually carried the young girl back up to her bedroom where she died, according to the probable cause statement.
Ethan Mast allegedly told authorities that he beat the family in an effort to remove “demons or evil” from the Mast family members, according to the documents. Aumen allegedly said they had carried out the beatings at the request of someone living in the Mast home, although it was unclear who that may have been, according to the documents.
While Ethan Mast and Aumen face the more serious charges, authorities say the victim's parents "failed to provide aid and protection" to their children. On the day Jessica died, Ethan and Aumen allegedly came into the family's home in the morning and beat their 2-year-old son with a wooden spoon and assaulted Mary, then left before returning hours later to carry out Jessica's fatal beating.
"During this time, James neglected to provide aid to his son, and neglected to report the assault to law enforcement to curb any further assaults," the court documents said, also indicating that Mary never sought help.
The sheriff’s office said in an updated statement about the case that despite rumors that the families had been part of a cult, there was no evidence to suggest that was the case.
“Additional interviews have been held with family members, both local and out-of-state, as well as others who know the parties involved,” the sheriff’s office said. “None of the actions contained in this case are condoned by the church they attended. The investigation done so far indicates that this is an isolated incident and NOT the actions of a cult.”
Mary and James Mast’s surviving 2-year-old sons have been taken into protective custody.
In court Tuesday, James Mast and Aumen were ordered to appear in court again on Jan. 19. Mary’s next court appearance was scheduled for Feb. 2, local station KMIZ reports.
Aumen’s attorney, Joseph Passanise, said that his team planned to file motions soon regarding her bond.
“Kourtney comes from a good family in Pennsylvania,” he said. “She’s got no prior criminal history. She’s very devout in her beliefs and her religion.”
Pleasant told KY3 that she and members of her advocacy group plan to be at every legal proceeding in the case and will hold a peaceful protest at the courthouse on Jan. 16.
“There’s some people that don’t think it’s a big deal,” she said. “She’s already dead. She’s gone. But it is. At the last minute they stripped that little girl from her pride and that’s why we stand her today.”
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