DES MOINES, N.M. — Wayne Bent said it was 10 in the morning on a July day eight years ago when he was anointed by God as he sat in the same soft purple chair on which he relaxed during a recent interview.
“I was sitting there just looking out the window, not thinking of anything, not praying,” he said. “And suddenly Father came to me and called me Messiah.”
At the time, he was merely the leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church, which he brought to northern New Mexico in 2000 with 77 followers.
So, he said, he was at first hesitant to take on this new role.
“I felt nervous,” said Bent, clad in pants, a long-sleeve flannel shirt and suspenders while meeting a Journal crew at his Strong City compound in Union County, northwest of Clayton. “False Christs and all these images of messiahs came up in me, and all those cult leaders.”
Bent said he ultimately took on the messiah mantle and for the last eight years has led the followers who live on his serene, 280-acre property in peace.
But the tranquility members once enjoyed has given way to turmoil in recent months.
Bent not only faces the prospect of prison time, but also — by his own choice — death by starvation.
He was arrested in May on charges that he had sexual contact with underage girls who once lived at his compound. His trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 17 in Clayton.
While Bent has flatly denied any wrongdoing — he claims the physical contact was a healing exercise — the pending prosecution could be the least of his problems.
Bent says he has not eaten anything since he had a bowl of cereal and fruit on Oct. 16, and he promises to fast barring a “deliverance” from God or unless the state drops the charges against him.
He had been drinking juice since the 16th, but, on Friday, he said he began drinking water only and that he will not consume anything beginning next Friday.
He said all of his followers are fasting as well. Some stopped drinking water as of Saturday, according to Bent.
“It is time for us to go, and for this we now pray,” he wrote on a Web site posting Friday. “If we cannot freely worship our God, it is a certainty that we will not worship the image of the beast. We are free, or we are gone.”
Bent also declared that he will no longer participate in court proceedings, though a hearing is scheduled for Thursday that will determine a possible change of venue for his trial. He calls his refusal to go forward with legal proceedings a “holy rebellion.”
He said public misconception of him and his belief that the judge in the case is in cahoots with the district attorney against him means he cannot be exonerated through the state’s judicial system.
“I think any jury with a lot of psychiatrists and a lot of hocus-pocus and all this cult leader sex stuff, these are just magic buttons for people in this country,” Bent said. “And I just don’t think a fair trial can be had in New Mexico.”
Meanwhile, Bent’s followers are standing behind their leader.
A 59-year-old woman, who called herself Faith, said Bent is not guilty of his charges for one simple reason: “He’s innocent because I believe he is the Son of God.”
But Faith said she is prepared for whatever may happen in the coming weeks if Bent is not “vindicated.”
“I was looking forward for this particular day to come, and it’s finally here,” she said. “That the world is gonna come to its end, and I’m leaving.”
District Attorney Donald Gallegos of Taos said recently that he doesn’t know of any precedent for handling a defendant who may be starving himself.
On Friday, his office sought permission from a judge to allow sheriff’s deputies to check on the welfare of Bent and his followers during the fast. The judge was not available Friday, however, according to Bent’s attorney, Sarah Montoya of Raton. Deputies did perform a welfare check at the compound on Friday and were assured by Bent’s son Jeff that everyone was OK.