St. Louis Church in Kidnapping Case Had Cult-Like Conditions, Prosecutor Says

But a defense attorney says police collared the wrong guys after finding a church member bound and bleeding

Feb 26, 2024 at 4:40 pm
From left, Grace Kipendo, Pasi Heri and Mmunga Fungamali all face charges related to the kidnapping of a unnamed female.
From left, Grace Kipendo, Pasi Heri and Mmunga Fungamali all face charges related to the kidnapping of a unnamed female. COURTESY SLMPD

A bizarre kidnapping case that allegedly occurred this past weekend in south St. Louis got a lot stranger this afternoon at a bond hearing for one of the defendants.

Over the weekend, police were called to Minnesota Avenue in the Patch neighborhood after a woman was found bound by ropes and bleeding from the head. She later told police she had been confined against her will in a room at the nearby Mount of Olives Ministry church. Three men were charged with felony kidnapping and assault.

This afternoon, at a bond hearing for one of those men, 28-year-old Grace Kipendo, Assistant Circuit Attorney Chris Faerber described cult-like conditions at Mount of Olives Ministry. 

Faerebr said in court he'd be reaching out to federal prosecutors regarding the case. 

He said that officers at the scene reported that members of the church referred to women as "angels" and there was a "white room" where there were women referred to as "good angels" and wore white veils.

"Officers tried to lift their veils to check on their well-being and the women started screaming," Faerber told Judge Heather Hays, in arguing that Kipendo should remain in the City Justice Center without bond.

Faerber quoted one of the officers at the scene who said, “If I hadn’t seen this with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed it.”

According to the police probable cause statement, the victim said that she was kept locked in a room where she was beaten and given only water. After police arrived, the victim led officers to a different room, one that wasn't the "white room," which had had its door knob broken off and, inside, a bucket being used as a makeshift toilet. 

Police were called because the victim was "crying out to passersby who were not members of the church," according to Faerber.

In addition to Kipendo, two other men — Pasi Heri, 32, of Dutchtown, and Mmunga Fungamali, 25, who just arrived a few days ago to the United States from Canada – have also been charged with felony kidnapping and assault.

Kipendo's attorney Chris Combs said that the victim in question is indeed a victim, but that police have arrested the wrong men, in part due to a language barrier between many of the people involved and the police.

Mount of Olives Ministry conducts services in Swahili and most of its parishioners are African. Combs said the church has been active since at least 2018 and has never before had an incident.

"No one is denying there is a victim in this case," he said, but argued that Kipendo didn't hit the victim. "Grace was there to translate between the victim's mother and the officers. He can't believe he's gotten wrapped up in this."

Kipendo is active duty U.S. military and until last year was serving in Germany. He is originally from the Congo and became a U.S. citizen in 2010.

Combs added, "There are some serious issues in this case that are going to come to light," and those issues have to do with the language barrier between the police and others involved.

click to enlarge Mount of Olives Ministry is located in St. Louis' Patch neighborhood. - RYAN KRULL
Mount of Olives Ministry is located in St. Louis' Patch neighborhood.

The sister and mother of the victim were in court to support Kipendo, Fungamali and Heri. So were about a dozen other church members. Combs said that the victim in the case had been brought from Kansas City to St. Louis for mental health treatment before her ordeal.

Combs also questioned why Fungamali, who arrived in the U.S. from Canada for a 30-day fast at the church, would immediately commit a kidnapping upon arrival.

As for Faerber, he said that the victim's family put her in the church for what they termed "healing."

Faerber added that even though the victim is supposedly in protective custody at an undisclosed hospital, some church members figured out what hospital she was at and began calling there, trying to speak to her. One of these callers identified himself as a "DA" for the city, though notably St. Louis has circuit attorneys, not district attorneys.

Judge Hays acknowledged there were "many conflicting facts" in the case and ruled that Kipendo should remain held without bond.

Heri’s and Fungamali's bond hearings were continued until March 4 so that a Swahili interpreter could be present.

This morning, an RFT reporter went to the Mount of Olives Ministry and talked to its pastor, Danny Stephen, in the parking lot. Stephen said that someone had slapped the victim but that it wasn't any of the three men arrested.

“Why are you holding these three people, innocent people,” he says.

Stephen was present in the courtroom this afternoon along with other parishioners, none of whom spoke to the media.

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