MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin (AP) — A pastor said Saturday that church leaders were trying to heal an autistic 8-year-old boy when he inexplicably stopped breathing and died during a prayer service Friday night.
During the hourlong session, the boy’s feet and hands were restrained by his mother and other church members who prayed intensely for his violent tendencies to cease, the pastor’s wife said.
“He just passed away,” Pastor David Hemphill said of the boy. “God is a mysterious person, and if he wants to call a life back, he does.”
Milwaukee police officers arrested a man Friday night at Faith Temple Church of Apostolic Faith, a small storefront in a strip mall that houses a pizza restaurant and a dry cleaner.
Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Kim Brooks confirmed Saturday night that Ray Hemphill, the pastor’s brother and also a minister at the church, was being held at the Milwaukee County Jail on suspicion of physical abuse of a child, a felony.
The medical examiner’s office declined to release results of an autopsy done on the boy, Torrance Cantrell, citing a police request for non-disclosure.
Denise Allison, 25, said she had become close friends with the boy and his mother, Patricia Cooper, during two years living in the duplex above the family.
Allison said Torrance, called “Junior” by family and friends, was brilliant with his hands, and could craft complex kites from newspaper. Though hardly able to speak, Torrance would knock on her door and shout with a smile, “Tickle,” asking Allison to play with and tickle him.
The boy often initiated play or communication by punching at people and laughing, though neighborhood kids had learned to not feel threatened, Allison said.
“He was really fun to be around, but you had to relax, get to know him and understand his ways,” Allison said. “He just wanted love and attention like any other kid.”
Milwaukee Police Capt. Linda Haynes said there was “no striking or anything like that,” when asked whether Torrance had been disciplined during the prayer service, but said police were still investigating.
“Circumstances are suspicious because most 8-year-olds don’t just die. Unless there’s a medical condition — which we’re unaware of at this time.”
Haynes added that the boy “did not die of natural causes.”
No officials would say if they thought the use of restraints was related to the boy’s death, or to Ray Hemphill’s arrest.
David Hemphill and his church were investigated in 1998 after a mother struck her 12-year-old daughter with a stick during a church service. The girl suffered bruises and cuts.
No charges were filed after authorities talked to the mother and Hemphill, who both defended the physical discipline as necessary for the unruly girl.
David and his wife Pamela said that they did not attend Friday’s service, but rushed to church after people there called to tell them the boy was not breathing and 911 had been called.
The Hemphills said they talked to the four people who had been at the service: Ray Hemphill, Patricia Cooper and two women they would not name.
Pamela Hemphill said Ray Hemphill led the service and directed the women to restrain the boy.
The women put some sheets and cloth over the boy’s outstretched hands, and “one lady held one hand and the other lady held the other, and his mother held his feet,” Pamela Hemphill said.
The boy’s leather sneakers were removed so he wouldn’t hurt anyone if he kicked, she added.
The Hemphills said the boy’s mother came to the church seeking help about three months ago and said her son was in danger of being institutionalized because he was violent toward himself and his 2-year-old sister.
“His mother couldn’t get any rest, any sleep because he (her son) was just sick,” David Hemphill said. “It had really gotten worse.”
Some church members began holding prayer sessions with the boy three times a week, he said.
“We were just trying to pray and see if God gave him a miracle,” he said.
Pamela Hemphill said the sessions would usually last about two hours with a break halfway.
“Sometimes he kicks and scratches and throws himself to the ground,” she said. “They hold his hand or maybe his feet and maybe take his shoes off.”
But at Friday’s session, Pamela Hemphill said, the boy was “unusually quiet.”
“He seemed to be extremely tired,” she said. “He just wiggled and moved a little but not as much as usual.”
She said the boy was sitting on the floor with others sitting around him. But at one point he lay down and closed his eyes, she said.
“After they got through praying, one of the ladies said, ‘He doesn’t look too good today,’ ” David Hemphill said.
Ray Hemphill checked the boy’s pulse and found none, she said. Paramedics arrived but couldn’t revive the boy, she said, and pronounced him dead.
David Hemphill said he had no explanation for the sudden death, but said the boy was taking medications.
“I said, ‘Well, God just took him,’ ” he said.
Hemphill said Cooper, who could not be reached Saturday, said “‘My baby’s got rest now.’ “
Allison and other neighbors said they’d seen radical changes in Cooper’s behavior since she joined the church this spring. Once gregarious and energetic, the single mother getting by mostly on Social Security checks began to live in near-seclusion, appearing dazed, exhausted and increasingly worried.
“They completely brainwashed Pat,” Allison said.
Allison said a church member approached Cooper one day when she was struggling to control Torrance outside their home. The person told Cooper that if she brought her son to the church, he could be “spiritually healed.”
Church members began to take Cooper and Torrance to the church in a van three and four times a day for prayer, Allison said. A woman and her daughter moved in with Cooper early this summer and recently moved out, she said. Other church members were in and out of Cooper’s apartment, helping her clean and cook. Allison said Cooper told her that during prayer sessions — both at home and at church — church members would forcibly hold down Torrance and strike him in attempts to heal him of his autism.
Allison said Friday’s session sounded like one Cooper told her about earlier in the summer.
“She called it an exorcism,” Allison said. “She said they held him down for almost two hours. He couldn’t hardly breathe, and that shocked (Cooper). Then she said the devil started to speak through Junior’s voice — though he can’t really speak — saying, ‘Kill me. Take me.’ “
Allison began to notice that each time the group gathered in the apartment, Torrance would screech, wail and cry. She and other neighbors noticed Torrance had a fattened lip and black eye the days after at-home prayer sessions, she said.
Once, Allison said, she looked through her friend’s window and saw church members taking turns striking the boy with a belt as Cooper watched.
“I told Pat that it was wrong, but she said the Bible told her you’re supposed to chastise your children,” Allison said. “I told her to stop, told her what could a little kid ever do that was so wrong to beat him like that? She said the church told her it was the only way to heal him.”
Allison said she confronted her friend several more times about her concerns, but never contacted authorities because she thought she could counsel her friend away from the church without causing her legal problems.
Now, Allison said, she is filled with remorse that she didn’t.
“All I can do now is tell what happened, and maybe this won’t happen again to someone else,” Allison said.