CLAYTON, N.M. — For 16 years, he followed the man who calls himself Michael, finally settling along with other families on a former ranch in a remote corner of New Mexico.
There were “red flags” along the way, but John Sayer said he finally parted ways with the apocalyptic church in late 2005.
Michael “said God told him that he was supposed to sleep with seven virgins,” recalled Sayer, 36. Two were to be Sayer’s daughters, then ages 14 and 15.
“I just told him no. … I’m not in agreement. I don’t see it’s right,” Sayer said.
Sayer, his wife and daughters left the compound, although his daughters returned. His youngest was still living there last week when she was removed by the state Children, Youth and Families Department, Sayer said.
Two girls and one boy, all under age 18, were taken from the community because of allegations of inappropriate contact between minors and the sect’s leader. State officials are investigating. Sayer said he’s spoken with his daughter by phone, but has been advised not to discuss the state custody case.
Sayer said Michael Travesser—real name Wayne Bent, 66—did sleep with seven virgins, but all were over 18 and did not include his daughters.
However, Sayer said his daughters “lay naked” with Michael although they said there was no sex involved. He said he doubts his daughters were molested, but that “anything’s possible.”
Bent, who said God anointed him Messiah in July 2000, wrote in a Web site posting Wednesday that “there was never any child molestation, or adult molestation by anyone, including myself. There has never been ‘sex with minors’ or anything remotely approaching that.”
District Attorney Donald Gallegos of Taos, whose jurisdiction includes the area, said Thursday authorities received a tip.
“I believe it was one of the parents—who no longer are at the compound—had a concern that led to the investigation by the department, which later involved the removal of the children,” he said.
Sayer’s younger daughter —— under the name “Healed”—has a posting on the church’s Web site dated December 2007 in which she wrote, “Michael DID NOT molest me, and my laying with him was not sexual in any way, either.”
“Michael sacrificed himself and was willing to look like a pedophile so that I might be bonded inseparably to the Father in Heaven,” she also wrote.
Bent’s Lord Our Righteousness Church settled in 2000 in northeastern New Mexico close to the Colorado border, where flatter ranch land gives way to tree-studded rock outcroppings. Families in the compound live in recreational vehicles, tents and modular buildings scattered across the property.
On Thursday, handwritten “No Trespassing” signs marked the gates to the property, and there were few signs of life. An occasional vehicle kicked up dust on the compound’s roads. A lone figure could be seen hiking a hillside in the distance, and a man walking across the property waved at reporters trying to get his attention.
Bent has declined interviews.
Residents of Clayton say the bearded men and the women in long denim skirts had a mellow relationship with the town. They would come to town to pick up food—fruits and vegetables, particularly—from the Ranch Market, the closest big grocery store.
“They’ve been very nice. … Overall, they’ve been very easy neighbors,” said Brian Moore, a state lawmaker who owns the market and has dealt with members of church since they arrived in the area.
Janet Brawley, the market’s assistant manager, said some of the compound’s members worked outside jobs, with the men doing remodeling or construction jobs and the women doing housework.
“One lady told me they’re not allowed to put what they believe on other people,” Brawley said. “I’ve never heard of them trying to convert anyone.”
Church members were familiar to residents of Des Moines, a village of 150 about 30 miles southwest of the compound.
“They painted here and put on the roof,” said Martha Meyer, who works in K and B Oil, a small convenience store and gas station.
“I think they just mostly did odd jobs. The kids worked out on the ranches and stuff,” Meyer said.
Sayer, who worked as a carpenter, said life at the compound sometimes called Strong City was hard, although he recalls some happy times.
“There was a lot of going out and walking and being alone,” he said. There were no TVs—although there were computers. Jewelry and makeup were banned, as was meat.
Raised a Seventh-day Adventist and drawn to Bent’s offshoot church when his parents became involved, Sayer said at first it was “normal in my eyes.”
But he said Bent, whom he described as quiet, nice and smart, got weirder around 1999.
“He was claiming to be God,” Sayer said.
Sayer—whose mother and sister live at the compound—believes the three children seized by the state were the only minors there. He said Bent told families with small children to leave in 2005 because some youngsters were disobedient—playing with toys, for example, which was not allowed.
He said the community, which numbered close to 80 people when it moved to New Mexico from Sand Point, Idaho, is down to about 50.
“They’re in a strong city,” he said. “They’re in their own heaven on earth. They say they’re on the sea of glass. Their lives are transparent. … They do what the Father wants them to do.”
Sayer said Bent has told him God talks to everybody at the ranch. “I can’t judge it,” Sayer said. “Every person’s got their own relationship with God.”