CLAYTON, N.M. – For 16 years, he followed a 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 didn't break away from the apocalyptic church until 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 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 when she was removed by the state Children, Youth and Families Department last week, Sayer said.
Two girls and one boy, all under 18, were taken from the compound amid allegations of inappropriate contact between minors and the sect's 66-year-old 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.
State District Judge John Paternoster has issued a gag order. Romaine Serna, a spokeswoman for the Children, Youth and Families Department, said she could not discuss the custody status of the three children.
Sayer said Michael Travesser — whose real name is Wayne Bent — 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 no sex was involved. He said he doubts his daughters were molested, but "anything's possible."
Bent, who said God anointed him Messiah in July 2000, wrote in a posting Wednesday on the church's Web site: "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 said Thursday the investigation stemmed from 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, using the name "Healed," wrote in a December 2007 posting on the church's Web site: "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."
Bent's Lord Our Righteousness Church settled in 2000 in northeastern New Mexico near the Colorado line, 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 hung on gates to the property, and there were few signs of life. An occasional vehicle kicked up dust on the compound's roads. A man walking across the property waved at reporters trying to get his attention.
Bent has declined interview requests.
Clayton residents say the sect's bearded men and women in long denim skirts had a mellow relationship with the town. They came to pick up food — mostly fruits and vegetables — from the Ranch Market, the closest big grocery store.
"They've been very nice. ... Overall, they've been very easy neighbors," said Brian Moore, who owns the market and has dealt with members of the church since they arrived in the area.
Janet Brawley, the market's assistant manager, said some compound residents worked outside jobs, with the men doing remodeling or construction 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."
Sayer, who worked as a carpenter, said life at the compound 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, but 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 The Lord Our Righteousness Church 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 around 80 people when it moved to New Mexico from Sand Point, Idaho, is down to about 50.
"They're in their own heaven on earth," Sayer said. "They say they're on the sea of glass. Their lives are transparent. ... They do what the Father wants them to do."
He 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."