Church `healing’ is ruled homicide

Boy asphyxiated, examiner rules

MILWAUKEE — Medical examiners ruled the death of an 8-year-old autistic boy a homicide after an autopsy showed he was asphyxiated during a church service in which participants held him down while praying to expel “evil demons” they believed caused his disorder.

Though Jeanne Wiedmeyer, an investigator for the Milwaukee County medical examiner, called Terrance Cottrell Jr.’s death Friday a homicide, the district attorney’s office said a decision on criminal charges would wait until Wednesday.

The minister who led the prayer service at the Faith Temple Church of Apostolic Faith has been in police custody since the weekend. It was the ninth service conducted for the boy over a three-week period in the now shut storefront church.

An official at the church said the 5 foot 7, 150-pound minister sprawled across the boy Friday night “to keep him from hitting his head on the floor, because he was bucking.”

The idea to lay across the boy came out of the Revised Standard Edition of the Bible, from the First Book of Kings, Chapter 17, Verse 21, said Assistant Pastor Pamela Hemphill. The passage describes a prophet who lay across a child and cried out, “Let this child’s soul come into him again,” she said.

The pastor of the church, Rev. David Hemphill, who is married to Pamela Hemphill, said outside their Milwaukee home that he didn’t believe criminal charges would be filed against the minister.

The Hemphills released a statement Monday calling the boy’s death “a great tragedy” but said “it was not a malicious act on the part of the church.”

The chain of events that led to Terrance’s death began in a doctor’s waiting room early last spring, when a member of the church, Tamara Tolefree, said she noticed Terrance pulling down pictures and suggested to his mother that they pray together.

Family members said the boy’s mother, Patricia Cooper, 29, an unemployed single parent, was at her wit’s end caring for her son, who they said screamed through the night, struck people to get attention and lashed out in frustration when he failed to communicate.

On Tuesday Pamela Hemphill described Cooper as desperate and said she often voiced concern that Terrance would be institutionalized.

Autism, a brain disorder, impairs the ability to comprehend such social cues as a parent’s command of “no,” head shaking or a family member’s embrace.

“Those are the very tools you use to raise a child. It’s a very difficult disorder for parents to manage,” said Dr. Bennett Leventhal, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago. “You need a lot of help and a lot of resources.”

Family members said Cooper had little of either.

Terrance’s medical treatment was paid for by Social Security, said the boy’s father, Terrance Cottrell Sr., and it included prescription psychiatric drugs. The boy also had been under the instruction of a special-education teacher in public school.

“He’d been getting support in school. He was getting a little medical help here and there,” Terrance’s father said.

Cooper leaped at the opportunity to improve her life and her son’s, her sister Charlotte Cooper said.

“She just wanted him delivered,” the sister said.

Terrance mostly spoke in single words, said Cooper’s cousin, Luwanda Ward, 24, of Milwaukee. “Instead of saying, `I want soda,’ he’d say, `Soda,'” Ward said. “Or for water, he’d say, `Water.'”

But at least once during prayer sessions, the boy also cried out “Shoot me,” said Pamela Hemphill.

“If you have an 8-year-old boy who can’t say anything but `water’ and `bathroom,’ tell me why this boy would look at someone and say `shoot me,’ if it wasn’t a demon?” Tolefree said. “Demons are real.”

Denise Allison, 25, a friend and neighbor of the mother, said Cooper described to her how church leaders would restrain her son at a service the mother described as “like an exorcism.”

“She said they was trying to cast the demons out of him,” Allison said.

Casting out evil spirits is “a very common practice” among Pentecostals, which includes the Apostolic church, said Thomas J. Csordas, a theology and anthropology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Typically, participants pray in a team led by a healer who commands demons to reveal their identity, he said.

But the service can be almost figurative, Csordas said. “The names of these demons are not mysterious ones like Beelzebub. They actually name characteristics, like the demon of alcohol, or the demon of addiction, or lust, or anger.”

“The vast majority of Pentecostal churches would not see autism as demonic. But even if they did, it’s usually supposed to be handled through prayer,” not restraint, said David Daniels, a professor at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. “It’s unusual the way they handled it.”

David Hemphill said the church’s religious ceremonies for the boy were revealed by God in the Bible. “All you have to do is open the Bible and read it, and God will tell you how to [expel demons],” he said.

The meetings devoted to Terrance began in a half-vacant strip mall in the gritty north end of Milwaukee three weeks ago and were held around 7 p.m. every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday for an hour and a half.

Most of the time, said David Hemphill, the boy was not restrained. “If they touched him, it was to keep him from kicking them,” he said. “That’s the spirit he had. He was unruly.”

Each service included Terrance’s mother, Tolefree and the minister.Of the Friday night service, Tolefree said there was “nothing different than before about the way they prayed.”

But she said there was something different about Terrance that night; he seemed quiet and sleepy. Cooper said she had just awakened him.

“When we got done praying, he wasn’t breathing, and I said `Something is wrong,'” Tolefree said. Then she dialed 911. “I was hysterical. I was like, `Junior, get up! Get up!'”

Terrance’s father said in a telephone interview that when he saw his son’s body in the ambulance Friday night, there were bruises on his arms and he was told there was skin under the boy’s fingernails, which he took as signs that Terrance had struggled.

“It’s like he was fighting for his life,” said Terrance Cottrell Sr.


(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Chicago Tribune, USA
Aug. 26, 2003
John Biemer and James Janega, Tribune staff reporters
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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 26, 2003.
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