A self-described Messiah was arrested on sex charges involving minors two weeks after state officials took three teenagers from his New Mexico compound amid allegations of sexual abuse, authorities in New Mexico confirmed to ABC News today.
“State police and criminal agents are interviewing Wayne Bent right now,” Peter Olsen told ABC News.
Olsen had few details beyond Bent’s initial arrest, which happened without incident sometime this morning at Strong City, Bent’s compound in New Mexico’s rural northeastern corner.
Chief Scott Julian of the Clayton Police Department confirmed that Bent was charged with three counts of criminal sexual contact with a minor and three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He is being held at the Clayton-Union County Consolidated Detention Facility, Strong confirmed to ABC News.
Bent, who in his writings also goes by the name of Michael Travesser, is leader of a doomsday sect called Lord of Our Righteousness Church.
Three teens, a 16-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl, were taken into custody by state officials during a three-day period starting April 22.
Romaine Serna, a spokeswoman for the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, told ABC News last week that the state is looking into the best options for the children. Serna declined to comment on today’s arrest, citing a judge’s gag order in the case.
Child welfare officials were working with the district attorney in Union County, N.M. “We’re conducting a thorough assessment,” Serna said at the time. “We did receive information alleging inappropriate contact with minors on the compound.”
Serna would not say who provided her department with the tip, but said it came from a “very reliable source.”
By his own admission, sex with his followers is an aspect of Bent’s church. He wrote in a Sept. 11, 2007, Web site post that he had sex with three women, including his son’s wife, at God’s prompting. He also wrote about virgins visiting him in his bed but claims he declined their requests for sex.
Bent’s group is featured in the National Geographic program “Inside a Cult,” scheduled to air this week. In the program, he acknowledged lying naked with virgin followers and describes nakedness as “another symbol of our relationship to God.”
Prudence Welch spent 15 years as a member of Bent’s group. She fled in December 2005. She said that she did not believe Bent had sex with virgins but that he did exert mental abuse and he did take the wives of other men as his own. “Pretty much all marriages were somewhat on hold,” Welch told “Good Morning America” last week.
John Sayer, another former Bent follower, told The Associated Press that Bent “was supposed to sleep” with his two teen daughters. He took his family and left, but one of the girls returned on her own and is among the three teens taken into custody last week, he said.
The recent string of visits by authorities is not the first time that law enforcement has descended on Strong City. The FBI, state police, local law enforcement and social workers went to the compound in 2002 when rumors circulated that the group was planning a mass suicide. No suicides took place, no arrests were made and no children were taken into custody, according to state police and child protective services.
Bent broke from the Seven Day Adventist church in 1987 to form his Lord of Our Righteousness Church. On the group’s Web site, the 66-year-old described being anointed the Messiah by God in 2000, shortly after moving to the New Mexico property.
Bent, who wears a beard and, in some photographs, flowing robes, has not granted interviews but, along with his followers, has used his Web site to criticize efforts by authorities to investigate the sect.
In one post, he referred to the media’s “witches brew” in a posting alongside a video showing one of the teens as she is taken into custody.
“There was never any child molestation, or adult molestation by anyone, including myself,” he wrote in another post. “There has never been ‘sex with minors’ or anything remotely approaching that, and I was never the initiator in any of the events.”
Bent identified the teens who were taken from the compound and provided what he claimed are writings from them that show their confusion about why the state would take them into custody. “She’s very clear about the direction she’s going in in her life,” a narrator said over video footage of one of the teens being taken away, “much clearer than many adults.”
The group claimed that the teenagers taken by the state have family members living among Bent’s followers and consent from parents who do not live on the compound.
Jeff Bent, identified as Bent’s son, appealed to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in a rambling letter in which he claimed to be a former police officer. “I am incensed at the hypocrisy of your world, that you can accuse us of the very crimes your cult is guilty of,” Bent wrote.
The group’s Web site features a slew of postings, both written and on video, by church members professing various doctrines tied to the church. An April 10, 2008, posting is titled “The Apocalypse Is Come,” and there are many references to an Oct. 31, 2007, doomsday. A recent post points to the crumbling American economy as evidence that the eternal end is near. “Never in earth’s history has the prophecy of final things come so clearly.”
The case has eerie echoes of last month’s police raid of a remote Texas ranch that is home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, a polygamist sect. Texas cops took away more than 400 children because they believe the kids were sexually abused or in danger of being sexually abused.
Since the children were admitted to the state’s foster care system, Texas officials said about 60 percent of the girls under the age of 17 were either pregnant or already mothers, that many of the children had past evidence of broken bones and that writings in confiscated journals indicated some of the boys had also been sexually abused.
The group broke away from the Mormon church when the church outlawed polygamy. But arranged marriages and pioneer-style, floor-length dresses remain staples of the community.