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Marcos Cruz was just 2 years old when his mother walked him up to a bench outside a church in San Juan, Puerto Rico and left him crying and alone.
She never saw him again, but would remain haunted for decades about abandoning her child in December 1984, allegedly at the direction of Anna Young, the strict leader of a Micanopy, Florida-based religious community known as the House of Prayer.
“I didn’t want to leave him,” Sabrina Hamburg recalled in the UCP Audio podcast “The Followers: House of Prayer,” which explores the years of alleged abuse Young inflicted upon members, particularly the commune's children. “I wish I could have taken him.”
Former followers say Young subjected them to forced labor, ordered vicious beatings for perceived infractions, and punished members with lengthy stays in a box without food or water—but some of the most horrific abuse was subjected on the group’s youngest members.
Last month, Young, now 79, pleaded no contest to manslaughter in the 1983 death of Katonya Jackson, who died after she was denied her seizure medication. She also entered a no-contest plea to second-degree murder for the death of Emon Harper, a small boy who died after being beaten, starved and locked in a small closet, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
But the fate of Cruz, who was left in Puerto Rico more than three decades ago, remains unknown.
‘It Was Just Like Family’
Hamburg moved to the House of Prayer with her 1-year-old Marcos in 1983 when she was 24 years old. She was drawn to the sense of community and common religious beliefs among the group’s members.
“It was just like a family,” she said of the initial camaraderie she felt. Members ate lunch together, cooked meals, and met in the sanctuary daily for prayers and scripture.
“I think for me, I was seeking a relationship with the father. Loving God, doing what is right, treating people kindly, keeping the commandments, all of these things were said initially,” Hamburg recalled in the podcast. “Doing right by others, helping the elderly. So it sounded, it sounded right. It sounded like what I was looking for.”
But there were also some troubling dynamics within the group—which has been likened to a cult. Followers were forced to give up their names and adopt biblical monikers. Hamburg was known as “Sister Priscilla” and everyone was required to wear “biblical clothes,” which meant long robes and head coverings for female members.
Hamburg was also soon separated from her son, who, like all children in the group, was placed in Young’s care, according to an affidavit obtained by Oxygen.com.
“She completely took him away from me. She said that we needed to be separated. I wasn’t strong enough for him and I wasn’t teaching him right and there were so many little things,” Hamburg said in the podcast. “So, she had full control of him.”
Hamburg said her days were often filled with hours of manual labor, whether it was cooking, ironing, cleaning or sewing. She stayed up until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. carrying out the tasks each day before having to get up at 5 a.m. each morning to begin her prayers.
“If you did anything, if you burned food, if you spoiled something, you know, she was irate and you were put in the wash house for days,” Hamburg said. “There were snakes and rats in that wash house.”
She also recalled once being beaten with a two-by-four piece of wood until she passed out. She later woke up on the flat bed of a semi-truck disoriented and confused.
“I tried to get up and I didn’t realize that my body was not functioning well, so I stood up only to topple over and hit my head on the steel, you know, bed of that truck and within two days my head blew up twice its size,” she said. “They called me the devil and they didn’t take me anywhere to get any kind of medical help.”
A Shocking Ultimatum
But Hamburg wasn’t the only one to allegedly suffer Young’s rage. She later told Alachua County Sheriff’s Office investigators that she saw her son being “beaten, starved, punished and placed in a small closet for days at a time without food or water” at Young’s direction, according to court records.
“She beat him so bad, she put him in a box,” Hamburg said through tears on the podcast, adding that the situation was “out of my control.”
Then one day, Young made an unusual ultimatum that either she would leave the compound or Marcos needed to leave.
“And that was it, I had no say so in it,” Hamburg said.
The reason why Young allegedly banished the young boy isn’t clear.
According to the affidavit, Young had decided that Hamburg should marry another House of Prayer member, Thomas Pough. Pough and Hamburg were both Black but Marcos’ father had been Puerto Rican. Young allegedly claimed the young boy would not look like the new couple’s biological child and should therefore be sent to Puerto Rico.
But the podcast suggests another possibility. Investigative reporter Beth Karas discovered that about a month before Young allegedly made the demand, Hamburg’s mother, Gloria Benton, had hired an attorney to look into the welfare of her grandson.
Karas tried to track down whether the Florida Department of Children and Families had ever investigated allegations of abuse related to Marcos; however, because of the significant amount of time that has lapsed in the case, the department no longer has records dating that far back.
Whatever the motive, Hamburg and another member of the community, O.D. Pough, Thomas Pough's father, who was known as “Brother Adam," got on a plane in December 1984 headed to Puerto Rico with Marcos in tow.
Hamburg said Young had dressed the young boy in girl’s clothing, including a pink bonnet, and instructed her to leave him on the streets once it got dark.
Hamburg pleaded with O.D. Pough to let her leave the child outside a church rather than on a street. The pair took him to a Catholic Church and left him crying on a bench in San Juan, she said.
Hamburg said her hope was that “someone, a believer, would find him and take care of him.”
According to National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, Cruz was about 2 years old at the time.
“It is unknown what became of him,” the profile reads.
Hamburg returned to the House of Prayer where she stayed for another eight years before gaining the courage to literally walk away from the cult in May 1992.
“I ended up walking down the street, all the way down, shaking like a leaf because I knew that I could be dead if she comes driving up and sees that I am leaving. It could be over,” Hamburg recalled in the podcast.
She later married and started a new life, but she told investigators she still becomes “sick thinking about” some of “horrifying” events at the Micanopy home, according to the affidavit.
And she has never forgotten the young son she left all those years ago. Hamburg hired a private investigator and reached out to law enforcement to try to track down her son but authorities have not been able to find out what happened to Marcos, who would now be approaching 40.
The only reunion the mother and son ever had was in one of Hamburg’s dreams.
“I think I was walking down the street and I said ‘Oh my baby’ and I went back and there he was and I kind of embraced him and I was so happy and that was the end of the dream,” she said.
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