The three teens, a 16-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a 13-year-old girl, were taken into custody over a three-day period starting April 22. They had been living at a compound called Strong City, home to the Lord of Our Righteousness Church.
“The state police are investigating what has happened there,” Peter Olsen, public safety spokesman in New Mexico, confirmed to ABC News. “State police were there to make sure the kids were safely removed and that there was no trouble.”
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Romaine Serna, a spokeswoman for the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department, said that the state is looking into the best options for the children. “We have three children in custody,” she said. “The information we have is there are other young adults residing at the compound.”
Child welfare officials will work with the district attorney in Union County, N.M., as the criminal investigation continues. “We’re conducting a thorough assessment,” Serna told ABC News. “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.”
“From a child protective standpoint, our concern is the parental role where the parents, either by neglect or active participation, abandoned or neglected a child,” she said.
It’s not the first time police have been to Strong City. The FBI, state police, local law enforcement and social workers went to the compound, run by sect leader Michael Travesser and his followers, 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.
In the current case, Serna said, concern is focused more on the parents of the teens taken into custody than the group’s leader.
Travesser, who also goes by the name Wayne Bent, broke from the Seven Day Adventist church in 1987 to form his Lord of Our Righteousness Church. On the group’s Web site, Travesser, 66, describes being annointed the messiah by God in 2000, shortly after moving to the New Mexico property in the state’s northeastern corner.
Travesser, who wears a beard and in some photographs flowing robes, is not granting interviews requests, but along with his followers, he is using his Web site to criticize efforts by authorities to investigate the sect.
“No sex acts with teenagers have ever happened here, but the satanic forces of the media continue to concoct their witches brew in order to destroy the message that was sent to you from heaven,” Travesser posted on the site, along with video shot by church members showing the first of the teens taken from the compound by officials.
“There was never any child molestation, or adult molestation by anyone, including myself,” he wrote. “There has never been ‘sex with minors’ or anything remotely approaching that, and, I was never the initiator in any of the events.”
Travesser describes the media in a post Wednesday as an “arm of the beast” that lives on “lies and hallucinations.” “I will speak with the media when they let my children go, permanently,” he wrote.
Travesser identifies the teens who were taken from the compound and provides what he claims are writings from them that show their confusion with why the state would take them into custody. “She’s very clear about the direction she’s going in in her life,” a narrator says over video footage of one of the teens being taken away, “much clearer than many adults.”
The group claims that the teenagers taken by the state have family members living among Travesser’s followers and consent from parents who do not live on the compound.
“Even so, there have been no national laws broken here in this land, even if the laws are manmade and concocted for the slavery of children,” Travesser wrote in one post. “Instead of marriage, the world now must watch their children have sex in the back seats of cars, and behind the garage, and they must submit to a million abortions every year.”
Jeff Bent, identified as Travesser’s son, appealed to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson in a rambling letter in which he claims 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 video, by church members professing various doctrines tied to the church. An April 10, 2008 posting is entitled “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.”
Another apsect of Travesser’s church, however, by his own admission involves sex with his followers. He writes in a Sept. 11, 2007, post that he had sex with three women, including his son’s wife, at God’s prompting.
He also writes about virgins visiting him in his bed, but claims he declined their requests for sex.
In what officials called coincidental timing, Travesser’s group will appear in the National Geographic channel program “Inside a Cult” scheduled to air on May 7.
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 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.