Jeff Bent, son of imprisoned Strong City church leader Wayne Bent, released a statement late last night to numerous media outlets, including the Alibi. Wayne Bent was convicted on one count of second-degree criminal sexual contact with a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison (with eight years suspended) in December 2008.
The remaining church members, about 70 individuals, continue to follow Wayne’s teachings. Forty-seven people still live at the Strong City property. Some have relocated to nearby ranches for work, and eight members, including Jeff Bent, have temporarily relocated to Los Lunas to be close to the prison. “Healed, aka Lakeisha Sayer, one of the minors my father was charged over, will be returning to our church property at some point soon, having turned 18,” wrote Bent in an e-mail to the Alibi.
Also according to Bent, his father is on the 18th day of a self-imposed “religious fast.” The Strong City group, also known as Lord Our Righteousness Church, has long practiced fasting as a manner of both prayer and religious/political protest. One woman, Esther, fasted for more than 30 days. Her stepsister obtained a court order that allowed her to force Esther from the church’s property.
Jeff Bent’s statement says the “media and the courts failed spectacularly at doing their job.” Citing a “maelstrom of publicity” created by a “national media feeding frenzy,” Bent holds that the courts were not able to separate his father’s media-created persona from the events called into question. “The court failed in its role to stick with the facts and the law, delivering a great injustice to my father and his church.”
Through e-mail Jeff Bent told the Alibi his father’s health condition was unknown, as Wayne, also known as Michael, has not contacted anyone from the church or been allowed visitors. Bent believes his father is in the prison hospital but says his calls to Deputy Warden Joe Garcia and Wayne’s case worker were not returned.
He does not attribute his father’s fast to hopes of release but to seeing “his continued existence in prison as supporting the state's lie that he is a child molester. He is withdrawing all cooperation with that lie.” His father will not live as a trophy or “zoo animal,” he continues, and he will not be used as an example of what happens to leaders of unconventional religions. “By the act of refusing to take food, he is accomplishing this objective every day he remains on the fast. He would rather die than continue living as a participant of a legal farce.”
Wayne and attorney John McCall are appealing the conviction. Wayne has been turned down for an appeal bond by the District Court in Las Vegas and the New Mexico Court of Appeals and will remain in prison during the appeals process. According to Bent, “The main appeal on my father's conviction is on the general calendar at the Court of Appeals. My dad's attorney should have the Brief in Chief, which is the main body of the appeal, filed by the end of this month.”
Bent also described the church’s feelings. “The events leading up to my father's incarceration, along with his present fast, consume most of our attention because of the implications it has for all of us. We believe in God, and we believe He must deliver my dad or we will all eventually be forced to give up our faith or end up where he is. We view this as religious persecution and nothing else. It is a very crucial and heart-wrending [sic] time for everyone in our church, and we feel a lot of agony over it.”