FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Authorities raided the headquarters of a Christian weight loss program and church looking for evidence connected to the suspected child abuse death of an 8-year-old Georgia boy.
Officials with Weigh Down Ministries and its affiliated Remnant Fellowship Church said they have done nothing wrong and believe the October death of Josef Mykel Smith was an accident.
The boy’s parents, Joseph Smith, 44, and Sonya Smith, 36, were charged in December with felony murder, cruelty to a child and deprivation of a minor. The parents were members of Remnant Fellowship Church, which encourages corporal punishment.
Cobb County, Ga., police detective David Schweizer and Franklin police collected files and computer disks from the ministry’s office and warehouses on Wednesday.
“We knew the family was a member of the church,” Schweizer said. “I am just trying to tie my case into a nice, little, neat knot. This is the final phase of my investigation of this case.”
Georgia authorities said the family severely beat the boy, locked him in a closet and made him pray to a picture of Jesus. Josef’s 17-month-old brother, Milek, died of pneumonia July 25, but an investigation has been reopened into his death. Child welfare workers removed two other children and placed them in foster care.
A 14-year-old relative of Josef described the boy as being “demon possessed,” a statement with which the parents agreed, authorities said.
Police said Josef was beaten so severely that his brain swelled and bruises covered much of his body. The day of his death, his mother said the boy had gotten several whippings, which normally came in increments of 10.
Weigh Down is a faith-based weight-loss program created by Gwen Shamblin. Among its concepts are that love for God can help control overeating.
Shamblin also founded the Remnant Fellowship Church. The church Web site says the Bible doesn’t refer to the Trinity as an essential concept of Christianity and several times cites the need for spanking and other discipline to make children obedient.
“Correction is the greatest love!” the Web site says. “The Bible says that if you do not discipline your child, you are ‘a willing party to his death.'”
A statement on the Web site said that Josef’s death was “the direct result of a tragic accident.”
“It is an extreme leap … to say that traditional spankings and groundings of a child to his bedroom is in any way associated with a head injury,” the statement said. “Out of respect for the legal procedures, we have chosen not to comment any more on this family’s case until they have been acquitted of the allegation and released by the court.”