April 30: John Sayer speaks at a cafe in Clayton, N.M., about his experience as a member of an apocalyptic church.
The leader of an apocalyptic religious sect in northeastern New Mexico has been sentenced to 10 years in prison for sexual misconduct with teenage female followers.
Wayne Bent, 67, received the sentence Tuesday for a conviction of criminal sexual contact of a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
State District Judge Gerald Baca imposed the maximum sentence of 18 years, but suspended eight years. Under state law, Bent must serve 85 percent of the sentence before he can be released.
Bent spoke to the court before being sentenced and maintained there had been no wrongdoing.
"No wrong has been done in Strong City. The people that live there will tell you that. No crime has been committed," Bent told the judge.
"Nobody has been molested," he said, adding that he had "never touched a girl sexually."
A jury earlier this month convicted Bent of the felonies for laying in bed with naked 14- and 16-year-old sisters in separate incidents in 2006.
Bent and the sisters testified the incidents were spiritual exercises and nothing happened sexually. The teens said Bent did not touch intimate areas, and Bent testified he had placed his hands on the sternums, but not the breasts, of the girls.
The judge, in explaining his sentence, said Bent had "crossed the line" under state law in allowing the girls to lie naked with him.
Baca said Bent was not being punished because of his religious beliefs.
"This case really was not about religion," said Baca. "It never has been about religion. The case has to deal with, 'Did you, Wayne Bent, commit a crime."'
However, Bent said prosecutors never tried to understand the group's religious beliefs and his actions before charging him with sex crimes.
"I have been accused and convicted over the rumors of my enemies who just hate our kind of living," said Bent.
Bent, who calls himself Michael Travesser, is the leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church. Its almost four dozen adult followers live in a compound they call Strong City in a rural area near the community of Clayton close to the New Mexico-Colorado border.
About a dozen of Bent's followers spoke to the court during the sentencing hearing, describing him as a kind and caring man who was unwavering in his religious beliefs.
His son, Jeff Bent, told the judge, "If he were a child molester, I would know it by now."
Bent's lawyer, Sarah Montoya of Raton, said she would appeal his convictions and was surprised at the severity of his sentence. She had recommended Bent not be sent to prison, but instead be allowed to live on the sect's land while wearing an electronic monitor.
She noted Tuesday was Baca's last day serving as a judge and said "maybe he wanted to make a statement." Baca lost in the June primary election.
Bent was a minister for the Seventh-day Adventist Church but separated from it more than 20 years ago. He claims God spoke to him in 2000 and told him he was the Messiah.
After being sentenced, Bent told the judge he did not expect to remain in prison for a long time. He did not elaborate but previously has said that he likely would die if sent to prison because he would refuse to eat. Jeff Bent said in an interview that his father statement at the sentencing hearing meant he would begin a fast in prison. Bent and his followers are vegetarians. After his arrest earlier this year, Bent refused to eat or drink while in jail before being released on bond.
Jeff Bent declined to say what his father's followers plan to do now that Wayne Bent had been sent to prison.
Bent was taken into custody after sentencing and sent to the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility at Los Lunas. He will be evaluated there before being assigned to a prison and that could take 30-60 days, according to Tia Bland, a department spokeswoman.
Bent has told prison officials that he is on a "religious fast," Bland said Wednesday. He has not eaten anything since arriving at the reception and diagnostic center Tuesday evening.
"We have medical personnel watching him closely," she said.
District Attorney Donald Gallegos said after the hearing that it's possible Bent could be sent to a prison at Clayton, which would make it convenient for visits from his followers. Prison officials, he said, will take into consideration Bent's age and crimes.
"They are not going to throw him into general population with the gangbangers and all that stuff," said Gallegos.