SoCal pastor gets 2 life terms for abusing 5 girls
By JOHN ASBURY
Jessica Banks' adopted daughters say they still have nightmares that if their former foster mother ever gets out of jail, she will keep her promise to kill them.
On Friday, a Superior Court judge sentenced Banks to two consecutive life sentences, making it likely that the 65-year-old woman will die in prison for the years of abuse she inflicted on the five sisters.
Banks, who was convicted in July of 13 counts of child abuse and two of sexual penetration by force and fear, vehemently denied the girls' claims. She sat stoically in a blue jail uniform as Judge Richard Hanscom read the sentences.
The pastor of a church in a Riverside County strip mall was sentenced to life in state prison Friday for abusing her five adopted daughters, who were beaten daily, fed spoiled food and hidden in a garage.
Jessica Banks, 65, of Moreno Vally was sentenced to 36 years and 8 months in prison along with two consecutive terms of 15 years to life, said Michael Jeandron, a spokesman for the county district attorney's office.
Superior Court Judge Richard Hanscom in Riverside described it as the worst abuse case he had seen. "I've been in this business a long time, and I've never seen anything quite like this," the judge said. "It just defies belief, but it happened." In issuing the sentence, Hanscom ordered that Banks not be eligible for parole until she's 97 years old, because of the two counts of penetration by force or fear, which carry a life term. "There's no doubt this is a sad situation," Hanscom said. "These girls now suffer from severe problems and they had problems when they were entrusted to Ms. Banks. It's so difficult to see how anybody can treat children this way."
However, the Moreno Valley woman denied any wrongdoing and her attorney said an appeal was planned.
Banks was arrested in June 2005, about a month after one of the sisters, a bruised and emaciated 6-year-old, was found curled up on the pavement in front of a tax business at the strip mall.
The mall also housed Word of Life Apostolic Church, where Banks was pastor and the children attended school.
Her attorney, James Curtis of Riverside, said it was a storefront church, "fledgling at best," with only a handful of members. It closed after her arrest.
Authorities say the girls, who ranged in age from 4 to 11 at the time, were forced to wear two layers of diapers and long dark dresses and lived in a hidden room in Banks' unheated garage.
Banks kicked and beat them daily with sticks, high-heeled shoes, extension cords and belts, The girls ate spoiled food and were forced to clean the house. They had bedrooms with bunk beds, but were not allowed to use them, Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Elan Zekster said. She made them take sleeping pills and sexually abused two of them with paint sticks, as punishment while the others were forced to watch prosecutors claimed.
Banks presided over a satanic cult where the girls were taught to worship the devil and witchcraft, prosecutors said.
A jury deliberated fewer than five hours before convicting her in July of 16 felonies, including willful harm or injury to a child, child endangement, and sexual penetration by force or fear. Zekster said Banks' sentence should be an example for anyone else who commits child abuse.
Banks became the girls' foster parent in 2000 after they were found to have been abused by their family. She legally adopted them in 2004.
The girls are now with foster families and take medication to help them deal with lingering effects of the trauma, said Summer Norcia, a court-appointed advocate for the children. The youngest girls don't remember much, she said.
Two of the girls suffer from delayed development, low self-esteem and bouts of anger and rage, Norcia said. Only time will tell if they can recover and live normal lives, she said.
On Friday, prosecutor Elan Zekster read a letter from the oldest girl, now 15.
The girl, who said she could not go to school, have friends or tell others what was happening in that house. Norcia said the girl functions at the second-grade level though she is in ninth grade.
"Dear Mom, it was nice knowing you, and Mom, I know somewhere in your heart you were a nice person," the girl wrote. "It was not right what you did to me and my sisters. I mean, come on, we were little girls!!!"
The Press-Enterprise does not typically identify victims of sexual crimes.
"When I was living with you I wanted to be dead. I always prayed to God to take me in my sleep," she wrote. "Mom, I want you to know that I forgive you and I will be praying for you. But mom, It will never be ok what you did to me and my sisters. God Bless you Ms. Banks."
Banks told the court that the girls had a normal life. She also contended that the girls were mentally disabled and could not have written the letter.
"All the things they said about me are not true," Banks told the judge. "They're lies. I know it's all a lie... I don't know where all this stuff comes from."
Curtis, her attorney, urged the judge to give Banks concurrent sentences rather than consecutive ones so that she would be eligible for parole in seven instead of 14 years.
At her age, "it's a death sentence," he said.
"I'm happy she'll spend the rest of her life in jail," said Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Elan Zektser. "I just hope this sends a message to others that my office doesn't take child abuse lightly."
Curtis argued that the children were not abused during their early years with Banks, and in court, he displayed photographs of them at birthday parties and engaging in other regular activities.
"There was substantially a period of time when they had normal lives," he said after the hearing.
"This is a woman who is not a predator, she's not trolling for kids, she's not abducting kids," he said. "She, in my opinion, was a woman who simply got overwhelmed and potentially had some sort of mental break."
He did not argue in court that she was mentally ill but "that's the only reasonable conclusion," Curtis said.
Despite testimony from the girls and physical evidence, "she still does not acknowledge that she did anything to these kids," Curtis said. "This is a defendant who's not seeing the same reality as everybody else."
He said Banks had raised a daughter, now grown, and a niece before adopting the sisters. She apparently lived on Social Security or other government funding and government funds supplied to help her raise the adoptive children, Curtis said.
He also argued that child protective agencies were at fault for failing to prevent the abuse.
"How in the hell does a 50-plus-year-old woman who has no children... has no extended family, no other resources that support her, who in the hell let her have these kids in the first place and why weren't they checking on these kids?" he asked.
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