Clayton, New Mexico - A judge reduced the bond of an apocalyptic-sect leader accused of sex crimes against girls who were part of his church, but she rejected his request Thursday to be released on his own recognizance.
Union County Magistrate Ilene Taylor cut Wayne Bent's bond from $500,000 to $55,000. He was returned to jail, where authorities said he has refused to eat or drink since his arrest Tuesday.
Bent, who goes by the name of Michael Travesser and claims to be the Messiah, is accused of touching three underage female followers, one of whom was 12, when they lay naked with him in 2006 and 2007.
Bent said he did not have any money to pay for an attorney, so he was assigned a public defender, Sarah Montoya.
Montoya tried to enter a plea of not guilty, but Taylor said the purpose of Bent's first court appearance was to read him his rights and the charges against him, not to enter a plea.
A preliminary hearing was to be held for Bent within 10 days, unless he posts bond, in which case the hearing would be within 60 days.
Bent, 66, is the leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church, whose members moved in 2000 to a remote former ranch near the Colorado line that they call Strong City. He has acknowledged having sex with followers and lying naked with virgins, but denies any children or adults were molested. He has said the virgins asked for sex and he refused.
Bent is charged with three counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor and three counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. District Attorney Donald Gallegos said Bent could face more than 49 years in prison if he were to be convicted of all the charges and sentenced to the maximum.
Gallegos said he will convene a grand jury in Clayton by May 22 to hear the allegations against Bent. An indictment would eliminate the need for Bent's accusers to testify and be cross-examined at a public preliminary hearing for the case to go to trial.
Gallegos objected to reducing Bent's bond, saying he had information that he possesses "at least substantial material goods if nothing else."
Montoya asked the judge to release Bent without bond to return to his compound.
Bent's followers "live there in peace. They're very kind and gentle people. They do not break the law," she said.
About 10 followers attended the hearing. Bent, dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit and a sweat shirt, was allowed to meet with them in the courtroom after the hearing.
"He is an innocent man who is being crucified by those who have an agenda against him," said his son, Jeff Bent. "This case is not about sex. It is about removing a cult leader the state wants out of the way."
After the court appearance, Bent was returned to the city-county jail, where he has turned down food and water since his arrest. Clayton police Chief Scott Julian said Bent is "extremely thin."
"We don't feel he is in need of any medical attention, but we're watching him really closely," he said.
Jeff Bent, 44, said his father drank some orange juice after his court appearance, but added that he did not think his father intended to eat or drink once he was back in jail.
The charges grew out of a state investigation. The Children, Youth and Families Department removed three teenagers - two of the girls named in the affidavit and a boy - from Strong City in late April. Authorities interviewed them, along with another teenage girl who had left the site earlier.
According to an affidavit for the arrest warrant, one of the girls, now 17, said Wayne Bent "touched and kissed her breasts" as they lay naked in early 2006.
Jeff Bent denies that allegation. He said his father sometimes had "intimate and non-sexual" sessions with unclothed followers that resulted in "healings and inner resolutions." Wayne Bent asked minors to get permission from parents for those sessions, Jeff Bent said.
Wayne Bent - whose adopted name Travesser is the name of a creek in the area - is a former Seventh-day Adventist minister who separated from that church in 1987 and formed The Lord Our Righteousness movement. He announced in 2000 that he is the Messiah.