When Cathy Doughty picked up her phone last year in her Nevada home, she didn’t expect a Corona police officer to be calling.
Cpl. Margaret Bell, Doughty says, threatened her with arrest if Doughty didn’t stop calling her own sister and brother-in-law, who led a Corona church she feared was a cult controlling her son.
But the Corona officer known as a model cop had been wielding her badge for months to carry out the wishes of her pastor by threatening to arrest relatives of church members and intimidating children by visiting the schools of church members, according to former church members, police records, court documents and education officials.
Bell was charged this month with failing to report allegations that her pastor kidnapped and assaulted a 13-year-old boy in the church, crimes for which he is being prosecuted.
Former members of the Heart of Worship Community Church in Corona contend that Bell, a 43-year-old Corona resident, at times used her police authority under the direction of Pastor Lonny Remmers, but intended to help fellow parishioners.
“I think she was trying to separate being a cop from being in the church, and she was finding sometimes, she could help because she was a cop,” said Kathleen Krauss, 43, who joined the church in 2009 but left when Remmers was arrested.
Bell has not returned repeated phone calls seeking comment over the past two months and could not be reached at her Corona home.
Corona police Capt. Jerry Rodriguez said department policies don’t prohibit handling calls for acquaintances, friends, relatives or church members, but officers should use common sense when doing so.
“We have officers who were born and raised here,” Rodriguez said. “They’re going to come into contact with people they know through business or socially.”
Bell’s Upland attorney, Michael Schwartz, said he could not comment on specifics about the criminal case or internal affairs investigation but hopes the public will not judge Bell until both cases are resolved.
“A lot of these cases deal with accusations and innuendo, and that’s why many times they pan out very differently in court,” Schwartz said.
As an officer, Bell is mandated by law to report suspected child abuse. Prosecutors allege she failed to do so and filed a misdemeanor charge on July 17.
Remmers, a 54-year-old Corona resident, faces felony charges of kidnapping, false imprisonment, criminal threats, assault with a deadly weapon and inflicting corporal injury on a child in connection with the March 18 assault of the young boy. Two of Remmers’ followers face similar charges.
Prosecutors allege the group took the child to the desert, forced him to dig his own grave, then threw dirt on him. When they returned the boy to Corona, he was allegedly tortured with pliers and sprayed with mace before being forced to eat off the floor without using his hands, court documents and witnesses state.
Investigators allege Remmers was trying to scare and discipline the boy for inappropriate behavior. Remmers’ wife declined to comment Friday, July 27, at the couple’s Corona home.
Bell is set to appear in court Aug. 7 for a trial-readiness conference. She has pleaded not guilty and is not in custody. If convicted, Bell faces up to six months in jail, a $1,000 fine, or both.
The Corona Police Department placed Bell, a veteran of more than two decades, on paid administrative leave as it investigates whether she violated police codes of conduct or compromised department policies.
Those who have known Bell for years, such as Corona City Councilman Steve Nolan, 50, a former police officer, said he can’t make sense of what happened.
“She would be the last one I would ever think would be sucked into anything like that,” Nolan said. “Because she was dedicated and smart and the epitome of a professional police officer.”
Margaret Bell was the kind of cop that shined her shoes and pressed her uniform, a third-generation officer proud to wear a badge and known by colleagues for her stellar reputation.
The 23-year veteran cop and former canine officer had her eyes trained on becoming a sergeant, and from the vantage point of many colleagues, was on her way.
After being promoted to corporal in 2003 and assigned to coordinate volunteer services, her passion for helping others flourished, which some believe also could have led to her troubles.
“You gotta understand, Margaret Bell was constantly doing work for nonprofits and charities,” Nolan said. “Anything that had to do with charity, Margaret Bell was there to help.”
She coordinated police fundraisers, helped train cadets, and reached out to residents to enroll in the Corona police citizen’s academy. That role led her to the church and Remmers about two years ago when she donated supplies to one of two church-run group homes in Corona, Krauss said.
“She liked helping people,” said Krauss, who lived for a year in the Belle Street group home.
OFFICER FOR THE CHURCH
Former members say Bell played a pivotal role in the tight-knit congregation with a diverse core group of about 25 adults and children. Some members, including Remmers, had criminal backgrounds or were homeless; others worked as nurses and firefighters.
Members met in strip malls, banquet halls and congregants’ homes. Remmers, known as a charismatic leader, counseled, warned, and some say controlled parishioners with caring and violent ways, according to former members, friends and acquaintances.
Everyone called him “father” or “dad,” the man who decided when men and women in the group homes could leave, where they could go, who could carry cell phones or have access to the Internet, ex-church members said. He received some members’ disability and unemployment checks, or served as their power of attorney, Krauss said.
Many were taken by the intense leader, including Bell, Krauss said.
“He was like the knight in shining armor, without the love part,” Krauss said.
Though a top cop, Nolan warned Bell to be careful because he knew Remmers had a powerful personality and could play on people’s weaknesses.
“There was more than one of us who cautioned her, ‘Just don’t get sucked in,’” Nolan said. But she appeared to be getting more involved, he said.
Bell had told him she was fine, and he shouldn’t worry, Nolan said.
But after a while, it was Bell — instead of Remmers — who began showing up in uniform with a police cadet to pick up food donations from Nolan’s restaurant for the church’s group homes, Nolan said.
Bell stopped calling Remmers by name and started referring to him as “Pastor.”
Bell was there, in uniform, to assist when Remmers told church members to cut off ties with their families, former members said. She went to schools if church children were being threatened or teased, police documents showed and school officials said. And she had access like no one else in the church because she was an officer.
Remmers appeared to see Bell as an opportunity to accomplish what his criminal past prevented him from doing, Krauss said.
“Like he’s living through her. She’s going to help him restore his name,” Krauss said.
When church members wanted to isolate themselves from family members outside the church, as Remmers instructed, Bell picked up the phone.
On Aug. 1, 2011, Esther Mora, 50, said she answered her home phone in Chino to hear Bell warning her to stay away from her teenage son, Daniel Mora. He had joined the church and did not want his mother visiting him. She had tried to do so days before at the church-run men’s home on 10th Street in Corona where he lived.
Corona police phone records show an Aug. 1 call from Bell’s department extension to Mora’s home number. Bell identified herself as an officer, Mora said, but made no mention of being a church member.
“You need to stay away from him and if you don’t, he’ll file a trespassing order,” Mora recalled Bell saying.
Months later, Mora received a restraining order filed by her son, court documents show.
Bell made a similar call earlier that year to Doughty, the Nevada resident. Her sister, son and nephew were members of the church. Like Mora, Doughty heard the voice of an officer, but this time, the officer identified herself as a detective. Doughty said she was warned not to contact Remmers, the church, or his wife, Lisa Remmers, who is Doughty’s sister.
“She said ‘This is detective Bell from the Corona Police Department,” Doughty, 55, said. “I understand that you have been harassing pastor Lonny Remmers. You need to quit calling him. If you call him one more time, I will have you arrested.”
Bell was never a detective, according to police records. Department officials said employees should not identify themselves incorrectly, though it’s unclear if doing so is a policy violation.
Corona police records and interviews with officials show Bell used her position to visit several campuses to handle disputes involving children from the church.
“If you did something, (Remmers) would always use Margaret and threaten Margaret was going to go to your school,” said Krauss of incidents involving her daughter, Paris Krauss, and other church children.
Paris was pulled by Bell from Letha Raney Intermediate School in Corona in March 2011, according to a Corona police report.
Paris, 16, had been threatened with a beating or stabbing by other students, Bell wrote in a police report. She pulled five students, including Paris, from class and school administrators suspended all of them, the report said.
“Margaret wanted to make her presence known in the school, that she was a police officer, and she was related to Paris, and to leave her alone. And it worked,” Krauss said. “She told me she would take care of it.”
Bell made a similar appearance for a girl church member who was threatened by a boy at Ysmael Villegas Middle School in Riverside.
“(Bell) said, ‘I’ll be at your school tomorrow and I guarantee you the kid will not do that again,’” former church member Steve Larkey said of a conversation he overheard at church between Bell, Remmers and the girl.
Larkey is the ex-church member who reported the Remmers abuse case to Nolan, his employer, when prosecutors say Bell failed to act. He left the church shortly thereafter.
Bell had called the school in March asking to visit campus, Alvord Unified School District Superintendent Nick Ferguson said. She said she wanted to talk about the police cadet program and passed out fliers, he said.
But Ferguson said he later learned from school administrators that Bell was sent to the campus by the girl’s father, a church member, to address threats against his daughter.
Bell often visited campuses as a scare tactic, said Larkey, who lived in the men’s home for about a year and left the church after reporting the abuse.
“Occasionally, the kids would pick on them because they had their Bibles,” he said.
A few times, a uniformed Bell and two cadets monitored Paris’ behavior by checking on her at Raney, she said.
“She would just watch me,” Paris said.
School officials said they have no record of Bell signing in at the office, said Mike Ilic, director of student services for the Corona-Norco Unified School District.
Former church members said the officer’s actions on behalf of the church went beyond schools.
Krauss received a call from Bell warning that the officer was going to shut down Paris’ MySpace account because the church did not allow her to have it. One day, Paris’ account was gone.
“A little thing popped up and it said ‘Your MySpace has been deleted by the Corona Police Department.’”
MySpace officials declined to release information about the account, due to confidentiality policies, company spokeswoman Neda Azarfar said. A user page may be shut down if an officer sends a written request to MySpace saying the account is part of an investigation or violates a company policy, Azarfar said.
Bell also helped Remmers form a security team for himself called Executive Protection, using men in the church, Krauss said. The training including pepper spray, she said.
“I remember all the guys and Pastor talking about who peppered sprayed who, and which guys were crying like a baby.”
The training took place about the same time Remmers was trying to become a Police Department chaplain and men in the church attended the citizen’s police academy, a program coordinated by Bell.
Corona Police Chief Mike Abel said that, because of the internal affairs investigation, he could not comment on whether Bell violated department policies or if the allegations of former church members are true.
Corona Police Officer’s Association President Jim Auck said officers should be careful how and when they use their authority because they have important responsibilities.
“Police officers are people, too. And when you have individuals who are predators, like Remmers, they look for vulnerable people,” Auck said. “And those people come from all walks of life.”
BY LESLIE PARRILLA
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