When Emon Harper was brought to the "House of Prayer" as a baby in 1986, he brought “such joy.”
The "House of Prayer," a Christian community in Micanopy, Florida, was supposed to be a refuge for believers struggling or down on their luck, a place where they could organize their lives around their faith and provide care for their children. But just a few years later, Emon would be found dead in a straw clothing basket after enduring horrific abuse at the hands of the House of Prayer’s leader Anna Young.
Young pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in Emon’s death in February, more than three decades after Emon was starved and beaten to death, but he wasn’t the only child to lose his life or be maimed at the 'House of Prayer," which has been likened to a cult that Young presided over with strict authority. Young also pleaded no contest in the manslaughter death of young Katonya Jackson—who Young had reportedly believed was possessed by the devil—and was convicted in the 1990s of forcing 12-year-old Nikki Nickelson to take a bleach bath, only letting the child get out of the scalding hot tub after her skin began to fall off her foot, according to a police report obtained by local station WTLV.
The child was left with severe chemical burns and had to relearn how to walk.
“She had more power than God out there at that place,” former member John Neal, Katonya's brother, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of Young in 2018. “She was God out there. Whatever she said happened.”
The cult—and the abuse endured by children and adults living at the home—are the focus of a new Universal Content Productions podcast “The Followers: House of Prayer” hosted by Leila Day and reported by former prosecutor and investigative journalist Beth Karas, which launches Wednesday.
Behind closed doors, Young allegedly tortured and abused both adults and children for any slight or infraction she believed they had committed, but it was often the children who endured some of the worst abuse that even cost some their lives.
Katonya Jackson had been a beautiful 2-year-old girl—but Young convinced "House of Prayer" members the child was possessed.
Neal remembers moving into the cult with Katonya and his mother when he was just 6 years old, according to the podcast.
“My mom was having a hard time taking care of us,” Neal explained.
His mother had always been deeply religious and Young’s home seemed like the perfect refuge. It offered the benefit of free child care in a religious atmosphere.
“Anna Young was very charming … and, you know, charismatic and they acted like they were really followers of Christ,” Neal said.
But life at the rural farm also came with a high cost. Neal’s mom was forced to give her children over to Young, who followers referred to as “Mother Anna.” They had to follow her strict rules and interpretation of the Bible.
If anyone stepped out of line, they’d have to face Young’s unrelenting forms of discipline—which often meant beatings or being locked in a box.
Young’s target was often Katonya, who she believed was a demon because her mother had given birth to her out of wedlock.
“She tortured my little sister, treated her like an animal,” Neal told The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Young forced the child to run in circles and beat her if she stopped running. The toddler began having seizures but she was not given her medication, according to The Gainesville Sun.
“I remember hearing her screaming in the next room over getting a spanking, and it was intense,” Young’s daughter Joy Fluker told WTLV. “And then all of a sudden, the crying stopped. And then all of a sudden everyone rushed in, and I thought she was dead because they rushed her out and I just saw her limp body.”
According to a death certificate, the young girl died in 1983 from a seizure disorder at a local hospital, but a medical examiner would determine her death had been preventable.
No one would be held accountable for the death for decades, until Joy Fluker called law enforcement authorities in 2016 to report the abuse that had gone on at the home at the hands of her mother.
After Young pleaded guilty in February to manslaughter in the toddler’s death, Neal told WEAR-TV his sister finally got the justice she deserved.
“My sister was killed 38 years ago,” Neal said. “During those 38 years, I wondered if this day would ever come. I thank God it did, thanks to the hard work of detectives, Joy Fluker, and here we are.”
Emon Harper arrived at the Micanopy home as a baby in the 1980s after his mother—who had reportedly worked the streets in Chicago and was unable to care for him—handed the boy over to the House of Prayer, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Young treated Emon as her own, giving him the name “Moses,” and telling Fluker that he was her new brother.
“It was such joy,” Fluker told WTLV. “The thought that a baby was going to the property."
But when Young’s husband Robert Davidson, known as "Brother Jonah" in the group, was found fatally pinned under a truck at a nearby junkyard, those who lived with the group said Young began to take her aggression out on the young boy, often starving him, locking him in closets and beating the child.
“He started getting in trouble all the time. I do remember his beatings, a lot of his whippings,” Fluker said in the “House of Prayer” podcast. “She loved Moses but I do think part of her cruelty to him was her grief with my dad.”
Authorities said Young forced Moses into a small closet downstairs in the home and demanded he repeat biblical prayers.
“I remember once Moses, he was starving, and I had to give him some water. I remember like looking how pitiful he looked. His eyes were like big and glassy and there was crust all over his lips. It was just like his lips looked like they were diseased,” Fluker recalled in the podcast.
Member Sharon Pough—who is also sometimes referred to as Sharon Batie—later reported finding the young boy’s dead body in a straw clothing basket sometime around 1988 and 1989. He was either 2 or 3 years old at the time.
“When I saw him, I remember there was a big water bug on his forehead. He had a big forehead, and his hair was low,” Pough told investigators, according to The Gainesville Sun. “So when I saw that big water bug, I knew he was dead for a bug to be crawling on his like that. And his chest was, like, um, swollen because he was packed in it.”
Members told authorities that Young had ordered them to burn the remains.
“His body was never found but other former members said something horrific had happened to him, that he had been abused and tortured and disposed of,” Beth Karas told Oxygen.com.
Fluker’s distinct and disturbing memories of seeing the starving boy in the closet later prompted her to call police in 2016 and report her mother decades after Harper was killed.
“How can I snitch on my mom?” she’s heard telling authorities in the call, which is included in the podcast. “I don’t know if I am doing the right thing. Like is this something that a family is never supposed to tell?”
Fluker was torn about turning her mother into authorities, but seemed to find peace with her decision after Young entered the no contest plea last month.
“You can forget or try to forget many mistakes in life," Fluker told WEAR-TV. "But an innocent human life should never be forgotten.”
Katonya and Emon died of abuse, but the fate of another young boy, Marcos Cruz, is less certain.
Cruz’s mother, former member Sabrina Hamburg, told investigators that Young forced her to abandon her young child on the streets of San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1984 or 1985 when the child was just 2 or 3 years old, according to the Alachua County Sheriff's Office.
The child had been dressed in pink as if he were a girl and left outside a Catholic church in a poor neighborhood, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
Young reportedly believed the child was “full of the devil” and had ordered Hamburg and another cult member to abandon the child. He has never been found and his fate is unknown.
Hamburg told investigators that she had also seen her son beaten, starved and punished by being placed in a small closet without food or water before she was directed to abandon him.
Unlike some of the children who stayed at the Micanopy home with their parents, 12-year-old Nikki Nickelson was sent to the home—which also operated as a religious school—by her parents to get an education.
The 12-year-old was left with life-long scars after Young decided in 1992 that she smelled bad and ordered her to take a bath that consisted of hot water, a bubble bath mixture, and bleach, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
“Mother Anna supposedly said that maybe it will burn some of the evil out of her,” a police report obtained by the paper stated.
Nickelson—who died years later as an adult—was held down in the water by other members of the group until her body was covered in blisters.
She suffered second-degree burns and had to re-learn how to walk. Members called the girl's parents in January of 1992 to report there had been an accident. When they arrived at the home, they found their daughter’s hands tied to bedposts so she couldn’t touch the open wounds, according to the newspaper.
Young had reportedly been treating the wounds with herbal creams. After the incident, Young was charged with child abuse and went on the run for almost a decade until she was found in 2001.
“She was located living in an attic with relatives in Chicago,” Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Art Forgey told WLTV. “She was extradited back down here and ended up serving time.”
After serving 192 days in jail, Young was released.
While much of the child abuse known to authorities occurred in Florida, it’s suspected Young may have also abused her stepdaughter Catherine Davidson, who ultimately disappeared, in Chicago years before starting the religious group.
Fluker, who hadn't been born at the time, told WLTV another half-sibling remembered Young beating 6-year-old Davidson and locking her in a closet—an eerily similar form of punishment to how she disciplined children in Florida.
Young and her husband Robert Davidson—who was Catherine's biological father—reported her missing in 1973. They told police the family had been enjoying a picnic along Lake Michigan when Catherine disappeared, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Police launched an exhaustive search but never found any sign of her.
Fluker later told the FBI, according to reports obtained by the newspaper, that Cathy died after being beaten, tied up and gagged in the closet at the family’s apartment.
Fluker believes her grief over Catherine’s death is what prompted Young to adopt a more religious lifestyle.
“It was her penance for what happened to Cathy,” she said.
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