The northeast corner of New Mexico is home to towns few have heard of and static-filled radio broadcasts from across the nearby state line. Travelers passing through on their way to Colorado see miles of cattle-grazing land, the only sign of life an occasional cow raising its head to offer a noncommittal stare at passing traffic.
Forty miles beyond the two-lane highway, down gravel roads guarded by dogs sleeping beneath a rare mailbox, past barbed-wire fencing stretching into indefinite horizons, lies Strong City. It appears as a small clutch of mobile homes and fifth-wheels, fenced and gated just like the neighboring plots. A drive-by glance reveals no evidence as to how this property, presided over by Capulin Volcano’s long-dormant peak, could capture the nation’s attention.
In April 2008, just weeks after a larger raid on a Texas group made headlines, New Mexico's Children, Youth and Families Department arrived with state police to escort four minors from the property. The removal was prompted by reports that inappropriate contact may have occurred between three female minors and Strong City’s leader, Wayne Bent (called Michael Travesser by his followers). What transpired was generally viewed as justice meted properly. But others—namely Bent’s followers—felt it as an assault seeped in sin and misguided righteousness.
From January to March 2009, Strong City opened its gates to the Alibi, allowing unprecedented access to its church members, including Wayne Bent himself. What follows is their story, in their own words told through interviews, e-mails and Bent’s writings.
According to the group's archived writings—provided to the Alibi by Jeff Bent, who is Wayne Bent’s son—Strong City's origins are in Idaho. Bent and a group of followers had disassociated themselves from the Seventh Day Adventist Church and formed their own church called Lord Our Righteousness. By all accounts, Bent had to that point led a typical American life. He spent two years in the Navy Reserve, got married and had three children. In 1967 he converted to Christianity. Bent graduated from Loma Linda University with a master’s degree in religion and became a minister, serving as pastor for a Seventh Day Adventist Church in California until 1982. From 1982 through 1987, he and fellow pastors David Mead, John Whitcomb and Richard Roos conducted seminars they called “Life Supports,” developed during Bent’s tenure as a pastor.
Following a split between the pastors, Bent and several congregation members retreated to a rural property near Sandpoint, Idaho. According to Bent, vandalism and increasing hostility toward the group—who dress modestly and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet—prompted them to look for a new home. In the spring of 2000 they traded their Idaho property for a ranch in Northern New Mexico.
The group settled into its new home believing it would be “fed spiritually for three and a half years.” Bent’s writings indicated that this spiritual feeding included revelations regarding the conflicting natures of God and men. In a November 2002 diary entry, Bent wrote that the group was being taught "the nature of the kingdom of God, and the emptiness from its own selfishness that a soul must experience for itself, in order to experience the kingdom of God.
"Men are basically selfish, and we were being taught to give all of that selfishness up," the entry states. "We were taught not to own anything or anyone, but simply to be stewards of God's property. We know and understand that the earth is based on its pride and selfishness.”
Jeff Bent says his father received a personal revelation from God while sitting alone in 2000. Bent gathered his followers and told them he had been anointed with God’s spirit; he was the Messiah. His announcement rocked the congregation. Some to drew closer to him, while others questioned the direction the group was taking. Several members chose to leave.
As Messiah, Bent took on the name Michael and began to regularly hand down what he said God had shared with him. His interpretation of a prophesy appeared to predict the end of days, with the specific date of Oct. 31, 2008. That caught the attention of the FBI. His prophesy of the “Seven Virgins” or “Seven Messengers” would cause more members to cut ties with the group.
Shortly after he became Messiah, Bent says he experienced a revelation that seven virgins would come to lay naked with him. Bent admitted on the group's website that criminal charges could be brought against him, as some of the virgins who approached him were minors. He decided he had no choice but to obey the directive. He saw it as God’s command.
One by one, women—at first seven, then more—approached Bent to lay naked with him. Three were minors. Some were the wives of other members and would eventually leave their husbands to be “consummated” with Bent. It wasn't the first time. In 2000, two women had done just that. One of them was Wendy Bent, the wife of Bent's son, Jeff.
By 2005, a Strong City member by the name of Prudence Welch could no longer accept Bent as her spiritual leader. She walked away from 15 years with the group but stayed in contact with the remaining members, including her sister Trudy Sayer. (Sayer has since left the group.) Welch was alarmed by the unfolding events being relayed to her—especially those concerning Bent lying naked with minors. She called the New Mexico state police.
That phone call—along with several to the Children, Youth and Families Department (CYFD)—would eventually lead to the arrest of Bent, the removal of all minors from Strong City property, and a trial resulting in Bent’s conviction on two counts of criminal sexual contact and one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Bent was sentenced to 18 years in prison, with eight years suspended.
Bent’s conviction stunned his followers. Upon hearing his sentence, Esther, one of the “seven,” began a fast in protest. Her fast lasted 30 days and ended when her half-sister Lorraine O’Keefe and the state interceded. The Strong City residents were outraged by the intervention—they saw it as another instance of their rights being trampled by the mainstream culture from which they sought to distance themselves. Bent was also startled by the severity of his sentence. “He [Judge Gerald Baca] went too far with it," Bent told the Alibi via a phone call from behind prison walls in Los Lunas. "He could’ve said, 'Well, Mr. Bent, you’re an old man going crazy, so we’re just gonna give you house arrest and try and get people to take care of you so you don’t do that again.’ But instead he treated me as a mass murderer.”
"He could’ve said, 'Well, Mr. Bent, you’re an old man going crazy, so we’re just gonna give you house arrest and try and get people to take care of you so you don’t do that again.’ But instead he treated me as a mass murderer.”
Esther ceased taking food after Bent’s sentencing, claiming she was following directions from God. Her fast began Dec. 30, 2008, and lasted 30 days. On days 21 and 22, the Alibi sat down with the Strong City member. Her appearance was somewhat disturbing. She spoke slowly, taking several breaks, and seemed to have difficulty maintaining focus. Her ribs could be felt through her clothing, as she had lost more than 20 pounds by her sister’s estimate. Her walking was labored and she had noticeable trouble rising to a standing position. She was taking in only water, salt and calcium supplements.
“It’s a statement. It’s not only a statement to the world, but it’s a statement to God," she said. "I feel very strongly in my heart a crime was committed. Not by Michael but by the state, and I can’t support that.”
All of Esther’s reasons for the fast center on Bent’s imprisonment. “I don’t know that anyone could know what Michael means to us and how precious he is to us," she said.
"To see him hung for something he didn’t do was more than I could take. It was not only the injustice of it," she continued. "I don’t even have a heart to just live my life if my best friend was locked away for something he didn’t do. So that was when it first came to me, the fast that I would be doing." Esther vowed to fast until Bent was released from prison or God directed her otherwise. The idea occurred to her about a month before the sentencing.
“The first few days were really hard; probably the first week I would say was really hard," she said of the fast. Her body began adjusting to the water-only diet about 10 days into the protest. "But I know I couldn’t do this if I hadn’t been given it by God to do it. ... I have done fasts before and I would say they [were] twice as hard as this one. I have not eaten anything, no juice, and I’m sitting here talking to you. That I have the strength, I know it’s a gift."
Even though the fast was relatively "easy" for Esther, it was clearly taking a toll, and not just physically. She had problems with her equilibrium and felt waves of lightheadedness. "I’ll just get these warm rushes through my body and I’ll feel kinda tipsy, and I’ve had some internal shaking.”
When asked how far she was willing to take her fast, she was frank that it could end in her death. Esther said she was “willing to go there,” but she didn't think God would let it come to that.
“I honestly don’t think Father will do that just because I’ve known him all my life, and he’s never let us down. My willingness is that I will take it to death but my vision is that Michael will be released.”
Asked to consider the impact her death would have on her sister and roommate, who were caring for her during her fast, she began to cry. Her decision could cause them pain, she said, but she was determined to follow God’s wishes for her.
Esther said she considered the jury and judge’s ruling to be “casting pearls before swine.” The phrase is taken from Matthew 7:6. The verse warns believers to not cast what is most precious before the unbelieving—in this case, Strong City’s beliefs before a worldly legal system.
Throughout the trial and sentencing, Esther has also taken issue with the media coverage of Strong City. Many in the group share her feelings and point to the media’s use of words such as “cult leader,” “compound” and “self-proclaimed Messiah” as evidence of bias and sensationalism. On Esther’s 30th day of fasting she gave an interview to Jeremy Jojola from KOB-4. After the interview, she told him she had “lost all respect” for him due to his coverage of Bent’s trial.
“I can only speak for my reports," Jojola says in response. "Throughout the trial I have tried my best to be fair to the church and I’ve tried to use terminology that would best describe for the layperson at home what this church is about.”
Jojola says he was fair in his coverage and that Esther made quite an impression on him. “I have never had anybody be so honest before. I got the sense that she believed so strongly in her convictions that she’s not afraid to tell someone what she thinks. I walked away from that interview in awe.”
Hours after Esther’s interview with Jojola, her half-sister Lorraine, having secured a temporary conservatorship over Esther, had her removed from Strong City. (Esther notes the last time she had seen her half-sister was when Lorraine arrived at Strong City with a camera crew from “The Dr. Phil Show” in tow.) Esther wasn’t heard from for more than a week. The court proceedings were sequestered, meaning no one could access any documents related to the case.
Esther was kept in a hospital for eight days under constant supervision. She claims several attempts were made to force her to renounce her faith. She began eating in the hospital and was eventually released. Esther returned to Strong City on Feb. 7, 2009. The conservatorship was dissolved under conditions requiring Esther to submit to random phone calls and weekly welfare checks. Esther is now in contempt of those orders. She has refused to cooperate and has removed herself from the Strong City property to avoid what she considers further intrusion into her private life.
“Ever since April 22, 2008, when CYFD came and took me from Strong City, I have had much to bear, watching as well as being involved with this witch hunt the state took up against our little group,” writes Healed, one of the original “seven,” in an e-mail to the Alibi. Healed was given the alias "L.C." during the trial due to her status as a minor. Because she used the name Healed while at Strong City and in her correspondence with the Alibi, she is referred to as such in this article.
"I don’t even have a heart to just live my life if my best friend was locked away for something he didn’t do.”
“While I was in state custody, CYFD continually harassed me with questioning about my healing experience with Michael even though I had plainly shared it with them right after they abducted me. I plainly stated that nothing was against the law and that Michael never touched my intimate parts,” Healed writes in a direct fashion typical of the 17-year-old.
“They would not believe me, though, and insisted that something illegal and wrong happened." Frustration is a theme that's carried through all of her e-mails. No one was willing to hear her insistence that Bent was innocent, she says. "They were trying to get me to say something that they could construe against Michael and that would give them a good reason to keep me in custody and not allow me to return back to Strong City.”
Healed took her name following the “session” with Bent, saying the experience healed the trauma of being molested years earlier.
"Being naked and vulnerable with Michael, without being abused or used, gave me the healing I needed; and it also gave me a healing from the things inside that had led to my molestation," she says. “I knew Michael accepted and loved me and honored and respected me and it was so different from when I had been molested. ... He wasn't using me but healing and honoring me, and lifting me out of the things that had caused me such distress! This healed me of the turmoil I had inside and caused me to see reality and gave me an anchor in the Truth."
Healed has gained a reputation for being outspoken in the case. She has written letters to the Taos district attorney’s office calling for an end to Bent’s prosecution—or, as she sees it, his persecution. Healed says she has a difficult time comprehending how the outside world—an environment she considers sinful—is safer or more beneficial than Strong City, where she felt at peace and close to God.
"You only care about your own agenda," she wrote in a Oct. 27, 2008 letter to Deputy District Attorney Tomas Benavidez. "No, you are not trying to protect me from a sexual pervert as you want it to appear. ... If Michael had done what you are doing to me now and hurt me, I would have left Him long ago, but He has only loved me. I love Him because He first loved me."
Healed intends to return to Strong City once she turns 18 later this year. According to a juror, who spoke with the Alibi on condition of anonymity, the jury chose not to convict Bent on contributing to the delinquency of a minor in Healed’s case due to this reason. The jury felt that due to Healed’s age and obvious devotion to Bent, it would be “pointless” to convict Bent on that particular charge. The juror was unable to clarify the connection between Healed’s intentions and the jury’s decision.
The youngest girl removed from the property goes by the name Willow. She was 12 at the time of the incident with Bent.
In person, Willow is quiet but straightforward. She also describes her time at CYFD as being unhappy and uncomfortable. “It was like standing in front of a loaded gun, and never knowing when it was going to fire,” she described one the CYFD supervisors in a letter forwarded to the Alibi. She gives the impression that she would like to put this event behind her and return to her normal life at Strong City.
Willow describes her experience with Bent as having the same "healing" results as Healed’s, as does her older sister Liberty, who was not a minor at the time.
"I started feeling like God was putting it on my heart to go lay with Michael," she says of the incident, which was not a part of the original “seven” revelation. “So I wrote him an e-mail and asked him if I could come to his house, and he said yes, I could. So I went over there, and I was kinda nervous,” she says. “He told me, ‘Why don’t I just have you lay on my bed and I’ll hold you with your clothes on?' So he did that. So then he asked me if I was done or if I wanted anything else. I told him I wanted him to hold me with my clothes off."
Willow says Bent left the room while she undressed and laid back down on the bed. "He came back in, and I think he lay next to me. He put his hand here [Gestures to just below collarbone.] and he talked to me for a little while.”
Willow says Bent offered her words of encouragement to help her feel better about herself. He also placed his hand on her stomach when she told him she “held her stress there.”
She says the “healing session” lasted 15 minutes to half an hour.
Willow exchanged e-mails with Bent between October 2006, when she first began sharing dreams and prayers with him, through May 2007, when Bent gave his consent for her to lie with him. The e-mails contain no obvious sexual content. Willow writes of her “desire” to participate in a healing with Bent. Bent responds that she is close to his heart and tells her to be patient. In one e-mail, he quotes from Psalm 91, a verse that's interpreted to mean that God will keep his believers safe from danger and fear.
“Before Father put it on my heart to go lay with Michael, I had been very shy and closed off with people," she says. "I wouldn’t be able to talk with you. And I couldn’t even knock on people’s doors.”
She smiles easily and makes eye contact as she relates her story. “I feel like a bird,” she says with a laugh, “just rescued from the cage.”
Willow was returned to Strong City and no charges were filed regarding her encounter with Bent. Willow’s account of the incident is remarkably similar to the other girls’ in the cases that were brought to trial. The only obvious difference between them is Willow’s parents say they gave their daughter permission to lie with Bent. The other girls’ parents claim they gave permission for their daughters to lie with Bent but not to undress. Asked to comment, DA Gallegos states, “At the time I evaluated the evidence, I determined there wasn’t enough evidence. That doesn’t mean there won’t be in the future.”
Willow now lives with her sister and father in a house outside Strong City. They all intend to return to the property.
Jeff Bent harbors no doubts about the spiritual claims his father has made. “It’s a personal witness I’ve had in my heart about … the spirit I saw come into him in 2000.”
His eyes become intense and his voice gains weight as he searches for a description of their relationship—close, and based on absolute love and trust. “There’s a lightning between us.”
Jeff seems almost empathetic as he considers how mainstream society perceives Strong City. He admits that while he “saw very clearly he [his father] was being compelled by God” to take seven spiritual wives, it’s unsurprising that outsiders looking in determined he’d simply “collected a stable of wives.”
The difference between spiritual and conventional marriage is obvious to Jeff. “It’s not like everyday marriage where people use each other and take each other for granted,” he says. “It’s very much on a spiritual level that they relate to each other.”
“It was like standing in front of a loaded gun, and never knowing when it was going to fire.”
He says his father’s conviction is only one part of a larger plan. He believes there’s a purpose attached to the events that will be revealed to them in time. As for the charges, he maintains his father's innocence. Jeff is adamant that there was “no sexual motivation.” The court has taken a sexual interpretation of the “healing sessions” his father held with minors, Jeff says.
The way he sees it, the conviction is a result of the public’s own guilt. “What they do is they judge themselves,” he says. “They judge their own motivations. What he is, is a mirror.”
“And we’ve seen no enlightened response from the court," he continues. "No response from the judge or the jury that’s like, ‘Hey, yeah, this seems offensive to some people but, no, the elements of the crime are not there, the crime did not occur, therefore he’s not guilty.’ ”
Even after the jury returned its guilty verdict, Jeff looked to Judge Gerald Baca for an “enlightened response” in the form of sentencing. He hoped the judge would concede that, “We don’t have victims here who are crying for justice. This is totally brought on by offended ex-members and members of the public who are outraged.”
Jeff refers to the case in Alamogordo where high school coach James Javier Cruz was convicted on three counts criminal sexual penetration of a minor for his sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student. Cruz was sentenced to 10 months work release. With a less severe set of convictions, Jeff expected the judge to sentence his father to probation. Instead, “The judge went to the absolute opposite extreme,” Jeff says, shaking his head.
Bent is appealing the court's decision. He was not allowed to present a religious freedom defense, and the trial was limited to the duration of Judge Baca’s remaining time in office, resulting in several witnesses not being called. Defense attorney John McCall has been retained to file the appeal based on infringements of Bent’s religious rights, issues with the grand jury, time allotment and insufficient evidence.
A writ of habeas corpus has also been filed in the hope that Bent will be allowed to return to Strong City while his case is under appeal. McCall says the sentence was extreme and uncalled-for, especially considering that this is Bent’s first offense. At the time, District Attorney Gallegos pushed for an even longer sentence than Bent received, citing Bent’s “arrogance” and refusal to admit he may have committed a crime.
Discouraging as this year has been, Jeff Bent says his father’s imprisonment has fortified the resolve and faith of the group. “We’ve become more focused on what our heavenly instructions are to our own hearts and what is next," he says. "The answer to that is he comes out of that prison because our faith is centered on the promises of the Bible, which talks about a deliverance that comes from God."
The leader's son has traded outrage for submission. Bent’s “end of days” prophesy was believed to predict the end of “life as we know it.” Since Oct. 31 did not bring about the end of days and Bent has received no further prophecy, Strong City continues to wait for God to reveal his will.
"My timeline ended Oct. 31 of last year," Jeff says. "I’m just waiting now for the deliverance time that we’re in to manifest itself. I expect a miraculous deliverance.”