Doomsday Cult Exposed

CNN Larry King Live/May 8, 2008

KING: ...charged with sex crimes against children. His followers standing by the man who calls himself a messiah. His son defending shocking behavior that put his father behind bars. He wants to explain it all. And he'll have the chance...a self-proclaimed messiah was in court today facing criminal sex charges. We're going to look at the Lord of Righteousness Church - cult or not a cult?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I took off my clothes and I laid naked on his bed. And he just held me. And it was like a whole new picture opened up to me of God.

KING: We welcome to LARRY KING LIVE in Clayton, New Mexico, Matt Grubs. He's a reporter with KOAT. He was in the courtroom today for Wayne Bent's appearance. We're going to tell you about that in a moment.

Also, in Albuquerque, New Mexico is Captain Robert Shilling, the commander in charge of the investigations bureau for the New Mexico State Police.

Wayne Bent, who also goes by the name Michael Travesser is a self-proclaimed messiah, now accused of sex charges.


W. BENT: I am the embodiment of God. I am divinity and humanity combined. And I'll say more than that. I swear it by the one who lives forever and ever that it's so.

KING: OK, Matt Grubs, who is this?

MATT GRUBS, KOAT-TV, ATTENDED HEARING: Well, Larry, this is Wayne Bent. As you said, he's known to his followers as Michael Travesser. He's a man who, for a time in his past, was a preacher for the Seventh Day Adventist Church. And then he broke off from them and formed, as he said, Lord Our Righteousness Church.

They were based originally in California, eventually moved up to Sand Point, Idaho. And then in the year 2000, they moved down here to Union County in the very northeastern part of New Mexico, nestled up against Colorado and Oklahoma and Texas. And there they have been for the past eight years.

Now, as you said, he faces three counts of criminal sexual contact against a minor and then three other counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Here in New Mexico, those are all felonies. And for a man who is coming up on his 67th birthday, this represents a maximum exposure, if you will, if the judge stacks all these sentences up on each other, of about 50 years. So he could conceivably finish his life in prison, though his followers do not think that, Larry.

KING: Captain Shilling, what led to this investigation?

CAPT. ROBERT SHILLING, NEW MEXICO STATE POLICE: Our involvement initially started off about three weeks ago, when Children Youth and Families Department here in New Mexico, Child Protective Services, requested our assistance in picking up one of the children living on the compound. And then, of course, we followed up with a forensic interview of that child and the investigation grew from there.

KING: Are these charges rape or intercourse with a minor?

SHILLING: No, sir. In New Mexico, criminal sexual contact is contact with the intimate parts of a child, which doesn't have to be penetration. It just has to be touching or the application of force to the intimate parts of a child under the age of 18.

KING: Matt, have the alleged victims been introduced in public?

GRUBS: No they have not, Larry. And it's our understanding that they may not be for some time. The interviews that Captain Shilling was referring to, they took place in a safe house environment, which is something that's common all across the country. But these are underage children. And so, as such, in New Mexico, they are protected by the law.

The district attorney in this case has indicated that he may actually go to a grand jury and bump this case up a notch.

What that means is that all those proceedings will take place in secret and those children would conceivably have a number of weeks before they would actually have to appear in court and make those allegations in public.

KING: Captain, did he post bail?

SHILLING: Larry, my understanding is, is bail was reduced from a half a million to $50,000 today at his arraignment. And to our knowledge as of this evening, bail had not been raised or posted. He is still incarcerated.

KING: Did he plead to the charges?

SHILLING: At an arraignment, he's simply advised of the charges against him and his rights under New Mexico law, and, of course, his Miranda warnings. The magistrate judge, who is an elected judge here in New Mexico, at this level, does not accept or request a plea to the charges at that time.

KING: Matt, were his followers - any of his followers in court?

OK, I'm sorry, Matt.

Do you know, Captain, if any of his followers were in court today?

SHILLING: Larry, I do not. We did not have any personnel attending the arraignment this morning.

KING: Thank you very much, Matt Grubs and Captain Robert Shilling.

Now, Jeff Bent's father is the man we've been talking about. He's here and he says there's another side to this story, right after the break.

W. BENT: Precious friend and father, let everything you design for us as ordained by heaven.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Michael Travesser is the 66-year-old man they worship. After leading his acolytes to New Mexico seven years ago, he declared himself the messiah. He told his followers God had revealed a prophesy that signaled the apocalypse and he has told them they must rid themselves of all their earthly emotions or be lost when his prophesy is fulfilled on October 31, 2007.

KING: Obviously, that did not happen.

Joining us in Strong City, New Mexico is Jeff Bent. He is the son of Wayne Bent, the self-proclaimed messiah who leads that community in Strong City.

Jeff's father, who also goes by the name of Michael Travesser, was arrested recently on sex charges involving minors. He was in court today.

Please know, by the way, that much of the video that you're watching in tonight's show is from the documentary "Inside A Cult". It airs Saturday night, 10:00 p.m. On our good friends at the National Geographic Channel.

Jeff, thanks for joining us.

Your father goes by Michael Travesser. What is the legal name?

JEFF BENT, SON OF STRONG CITY LEADER: His legal name is Wayne Bent.

KING: So what - how do we get Michael Travesser?

J. BENT: Michael is the spirit of the angel Michael, the archangel that came to him in the year 2000. And so he adopted the name Michael, which reflects his work as the angel that is sent to redeem his people and to stand up for his people. And Travesser is the name of this area. And it's common for people in the bible to adopt their - the name of the region where they live.

KING: Were you with your dad when he was told or received the message that he was the messiah?

J. BENT: I live next door to him. He told me about it shortly afterwards. This is something that was very sudden and surprising to him. He didn't expect it. And it was something that he slowly came to grips with and shared with people as he began to understand it more. And so I learned of it shortly after that.

KING: And how did you react?

J. BENT: It was very shocking and unexpected. I didn't expect that when Christ returned, he would return into one of us. I thought it would be a man in the sky. And so I was surprised, yet I saw the truth in it because I saw a transformation in him that was very marked. The old dad that I knew wasn't there anymore. It was a new person. And that rang with my heart. I could see a different - a different person there altogether.

KING: Now, according to your...

J. BENT: So I did accept it.

KING: OK. According to your dad, God's prophesy was supposed to be fulfilled October 31 last year.

What happened?

J. BENT: Well, the prophesy was fulfilled. There is a big misconception that was deliberately spun into this movie that "National Geographic" played, and that was that we were expecting the apocalypse and the end of the world on that date and to translate to heaven and so forth.

And we spent a lot of time working with the producer and the director on that film, asking or explaining what that prophesy meant and how we didn't know what the future would hold in terms of literal developments. But we knew that the prophesy indicated the end of a very important age, a 490-year period. And so, you know, we were - it marked the beginning of the year of jubilee. And we were very much on purpose to watch it and focus on that and see what would happen when that time came.

But, you know, there was not end of the world prophesized for that date. That was - I would say that was just a lie.

KING: You were a law enforcement officer in California, right?

J. BENT: Yes, sir.

KING: Isn't this kind of a - for want of a better word - strange switch for you?

J. BENT: Yes, it was, actually. This is a good point you bring up. And that is I had a career in law enforcement in Southern California. And I enjoyed it. And I - I think the people I worked with enjoyed me.

But God forced me to leave it. And you have to experience God forcing you to do something to know what that's all about. And that's how I was prepared to understand what it's like to have a messiah come on you and force you to do things you wouldn't normally do - especially things that would threaten your self-interests.

That's how I was able to accept and understand these very unusual and unexpected events that have happened with us since the year 2000.

KING: I'll bet.

In the documentary, Jeff, we learned that your father had sex with your wife while you were still married to her - and more than once.

Now, here's how he explained it in the documentary. And we'll get your reaction.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So it was just a single occasion, this literal physical consummation?

W. BENT: No, it wasn't.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So you - you consummated more than once?

W. BENT: Yes. Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why is it necessary to consummate more than once?

W. BENT: Could you not answer that question yourself?

When you marry a wife, do you consummate only once?

KING: How did you react to that circumstance?

J. BENT: Well, I would like to correct something, Larry, for the record.

KING: All right.

J. BENT: And that is that my dad did not have sex with my wife. My wife and I...

KING: He said he did there, didn't he?

J. BENT: Sir, we were divorced - separated.

KING: I'm sorry. Go ahead.

J. BENT: We were separated permanently in August of 2006 and we had terminated our marriage relationship at that time. And by the time my former wife was spiritually married to Michael and went through the consummation with him, our relationship was over. It was terminated.

So he did not have sex with my wife. And the nature of the consummations that have happened here are not are not - are not what you would call sex, even though it does - the world looks at sex as this amorous, passionate type of experience of gratifying yourself with someone else.

And with him and with these consummations that have been ordained by God, they were not that way. They were not of essential Earthly nation. It was a spiritual experience that was illustrated by a physical act. And that's the marriage that these seven women have with Michael.

KING: So is that - is your group considered polygamist?

J. BENT: No. I believe that a polygamist practice would be a literal Earthly normal marriage relationship carried out between more than two people. And that's not the nature of the relationship that Michael has with his witnesses. It's spiritual.

KING: I've got you.

J. BENT: It doesn't...

KING: He doesn't marry?

J. BENT: Well, they're not legally married. They're married in the spirit. They're married in heart. And the whole purpose of these seven that have been married to Michael is to illustrate a point of how we are married to God.

As you can imagine, being in a relationship like that, these women are going to have to overcome their own selfish desires and their own worldly interests that they have. It's a relationship where they're completely given over to others and serving others.

KING: OK, Jeff, you're going to come back with us.

Still ahead, we'll have more with Jeff. He will be with us the last two segments of the program on tonight's topic, inside a cult.

By the way, you want to interview Barbara Walters? You can submit an "I Ask" question via cell phone or Web cam. Go to and click on send us a video e-mail. You might see your question on LARRY KING LIVE Monday night with Barbara.

KING: Jeff Bent will be back with us in awhile.

We now have a panel to discuss all of this. In Seattle is Prudence Welch, a former Strong City sect member. She spent 15 years there and left in 2005 and she alerted the FBI to Michael Travesser's activities. Her mother and father still live in the compound. Her niece recently removed from it.

Here in Los Angeles, Rachel Bernstein. She's a psychotherapist, an expert on cults. In London is Ben Anthony, director of the documentary "Inside a Cult." He spent several weeks at the compound last year, interviewed Wayne Bent, who is Michael Travesser. Interviewed Jeff and other members of the cult. And that will air Saturday night, 10:00 on the National Geographic Channel. And in Yuma, Arizona is Allen Armstrong, former pastor and friend of Wayne Bent. He broke off contact with him in 1994 and knows more of the people in the cult.

Why did you spent 15 years there, Prudence?

PRUDENCE WELCH, FORMER STRONG CITY CULT MEMBER: Well Larry, I'm still asking myself that same question.

KING: What drew you to it?

WELCH: My parents joined a year before I did. And they kept calling me up and wanting me to come home. I was in Virginia, and they were in Oregon. And then Allen Armstrong stopped by the school that I was at and he helped sucker me in.

Thanks, Allen.

KING: Did you have to have relations with Mr. Bent?

WELCH: No, I didn't.

KING: OK. Ben Anthony, what did you - you did this documentary for National Geographic. What did you make of it?

BEN ANTHONY, DIRECTOR: Well, it was a fascinating experience, Larry. Unlike anything I've ever experienced before. The first thing I would like to say about it is that we were treated exceptionally well while we were there. Everyone was extremely welcoming, and very good company. It was also quite a disturbing experience, though, because the atmosphere there is pretty heavy. And people there are clearly struggling with some serious inner thoughts, so it's a very peculiar place to spend time.

KING: What did you make of the leader, Wayne Bent?

ANTHONY: For awhile, I wasn't sure. And I'm still not sure how much of Wayne's behavior is mental illness or how much of it is deliberate deception on his part. He was very courteous. He was a very easy person to talk to. And I think we got along fine. So it was, as I said, it was a rather unsettling atmosphere. But everybody was extremely nice to us.

KING: Allen Armstrong, what drew you to it, and why did you leave?

ALLEN ARMSTRONG, FORMER MINISTER: Well, I was drawn to it as a Christian, and then when I saw the direction that it was gunning to go, as far back as 18 years ago, we saw the direction was moving in a way that was more and more individual freedoms being lost by the people, and Wayne taking more and more control, when he finally decided he was going to take over.

KING: Do you feel sorry you brought Prudence in?

ARMSTRONG: No, I'm just glad that Prudence is where she is right now.

KING: One of the most disturbing things from the documentary "Inside a Cult" is to hear young girls talk openly about being naked with Michael. Watch.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Members no longer -

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This needed to be literally physically naked. And so he took me, we went to the bedroom and laid down, and he held me, and some how, it was like, all of heaven was open to me. Somehow, I started to see God. Well, somehow, it was the son of God holding me. And so, I'm laying there, and it's like - for the first time, I was like, God loves me. He loves me.

And Michael was saying things to me like, you're accepted, you know, you're healed, and I felt so secure. It was like - I don't ever want to leave this place. It was like, this was God holding me. So, and then, you know, the next day, father sent you.

KING: Rachel Bernstein, psychotherapist, cult expert, what is your read on this?

RACHEL BERNSTEIN, PSYCHOTHERAPIST: That was also the most troubling part for me, when I was watching this particularly documentary on National Geographic Channel. What I found so troubling about that was that their emotional state was so disengaged from what was really taking place.

It's as though the language that's used within the cult is something that is used to really propel people to feel very differently about what is truly going on. To have them really not see the reality of the situation.

KING: Why? Why do they not see it?

BERNSTEIN: I think in part because they don't want to see it. And also, because they have been so programmed for so long to really believe in the innocence of the leader, rather than his guilt. Very much like his own son believes, if they truly had a sense of what was happening there, they would have, I think, for some of them, nervous breakdowns. They would have to say good-bye to the life they know, to the entire goal of this group, which is to be devoted to it for life.

KING: It is a cult?

BERNSTEIN: Yes, it is.

KING: we'll be right back with more. Don't go away.

KING: We're back.

We heard about the girls being naked. Here's the way Wayne justifies it. Watch.

W. BENT: Well, it was God. God came down on them and told them to do it. Nakedness is another symbol of our relationship with God. We are naked and unashamed. I treated them with the same respect and deference as if I'd be a physician, an M.D. who was doing surgery. You know, M.D.s are with naked people.

KING: Prudence, did you have to be naked?

WELCH: I wasn't naked, no. And I thought it was a little bit crazy when I heard it.

KING: Did you ever see it?

WELCH: I did not see it. I left a few months before that started happening.

KING: You were there 15 years, though, right?

WELCH: Correct.

KING: Why did you stay so long?

WELCH: I really wanted to go to heaven, I mean, I - that was the whole trip. My - the mind games, if you left, you were going to be lost. And that's what I thought was going to happen to me, and so I stayed, because periodically, through that 15 years, Jesus was going to come. When I first joined, it was the next spring, and a few years later, well, he might come in this year or this year, and every few months, there was a possibility of him coming and pretty soon, it's 15 years.

And, Jesus had still not come. And I still didn't have an education. I - you know, that's - and the mind games. My mind hurt, by the time I got done there, my mind ached. I thought - KING: Ben, do you think Wayne believes it or is he in the con artist vein?

ANTHONY: I think Wayne believes it. I think that it's - it's complicated. There are things that I believe he's done which I feel are manipulative, which suggests he knows what he's doing, up to a point. But there's a strong sense of delusion I feel with him, and he is completely convinced of his own righteousness.

KING: Allen, did you like him?

ARMSTRONG: Well, as far as liking him, he was interesting person when I knew him. He got more and more, over the years, into, after I left, into taking their individuality away, taking their name away, taking their money away, taking their spouses away, taking their friendships away, to where they ended up having nothing.

KING: For what gain?

ARMSTRONG: For what gain? They believe they have to do something, or be some place or be by his presence to be saved. Without him, they would be lost. That's what they believed. They have given up -

KING: Go ahead. They have given up what?

ARMSTRONG: Well, I was going to say, they've given up grace and God for the God we know of of 2,000 years ago, they have given that up for him. You could put it this way, like he calls himself basically the sinful messiah.

KING: Rachel, the charismaticness, he has that, right?

BERNSTEIN: He absolutely does. It won't work for everyone with the people in the group, he the considered highly charismatic, and people listen to his word as though it is God's.

KING: When you see him on the screen, it is hard to turn away.

BERNSTEIN: It is hard to turn away and I think that that's part of the persona he has developed. He speaks slowly and thoughtfully, as though he's channeling some other being. But I think he's just speaking, in his own way to get his own needs met.

KING: Do you think he believes he's the messiah?

BERNSTEIN: I think he believes he has powers greater than other humans, but I think that he has really learned that his charisma can be used to control. And I think he manipulates people at will, and the fact that he calls himself this sort of sacrificial lamb for the group, I think, is laughable, in that I see his group as, well, I see him as a kid in the candy store of his own making.

KING: Thank you all very much.

The self-proclaimed messiah's son Jeff Bent will be back with us, get his thoughts on what he's just heard when LARRY KING LIVE returns.

KING: We'll be right back with Jeff Bent. Right now, let's check in with Anderson Cooper who hosts "A.C. 360" at the top of the hour.

KING: Back to Jeff Bent, the son of Wayne Bent, the self-proclaimed messiah who leads a community in Strong City, New Mexico.

Your father was arraigned today. He's in jail right now. Have you spoken to him?

J. BENT: Yes, sir, I spoke to him a little bit after the arraignment at the courtroom.

KING: What did he say?

J. BENT: Well, he - we talked a little bit about business and we talked about how he was feeling, and we talked a little bit about his bail, and that's about summed it up for today.

KING: His bail was reduced from $500,000 to $50,000. He can't post that?

J. BENT: That's still very prohibitive, considering what the charges are, and he's not willing that I pursue giving that kind of money to the court for a charge of this nature.

KING: All you need to get was $5,000 and a bail bondsman, right?

J. BENT: No, sir, I believe they are requiring that in cash. That's what my understanding is of it, so his instructions to me were that he did not want to be bailed for that amount.

KING: Let's take a call for Jeff Bent.

Union, Oregon, hello.

CALLER: Hi, I'm just curious what convinced Jeff, finally, that his father had been taken over, transformed from Jesus Christ?

KING: Did you just accept it on fact, or what convinced you, Jeff?

J. BENT: First of all, he's not Jesus Christ and what convinced me, it's the fact that I know God. And God told me personally that he is who he says he is, and he is telling the truth.

And I've known my dad for 44 years. He's never told me a lie once. I've never seen him contrive a story once for his own self- interest. So, I have a lot of experience to bank on him and I know perfectly well, because I know him better than most people, that he's telling the truth.

KING: When you watch the panel discussion, and you heard them say that this is, obviously, this is a cult, and that your father is leading the flock, and it's - what did you make of the episode dealing with naked girls?

J. BENT: Well, nakedness is a picture of what we are to be with God. I don't have a problem with nakedness. I get naked every time I get into the shower. I don't see a problem with nakedness. And with these individuals who did request to be naked with him, that was something that they wanted. It was something they asked for.

My father has never insinuated or coerced or forced anybody to come to him with a request like that. So there's a lot of misconceptions about this, that are bantered about that are simply not true. It simply is not the experience we've had here.

KING: How many people are in the compound, Jeff?

J. BENT: Here at Strong City, there's about 50 people at this present time.

KING: That's all?

J. BENT: Just 50 people here. And there are other people who are closely associated with us who live in the area, and some - there are a few people who live in South America who are with us.

KING: What do you do for a living? J. BENT: My work is here. I help my dad. We all have jobs here where we serve each other and we perform various functions. We have carpenters and plumbers and people who have various skills and trades and our work is here right now.

KING: How are you paid?

J. BENT: How am I paid? Well, what we have here is a system where we take care of everybody. Regardless of what their needs are. And everybody gives what they have into the community pot, and we all pitch in whatever we receive, whether it be, you know, some money we've made on an outside job or if we receive an inheritance or if somebody sends us some money for something, it all goes into the community fund, and we pay for the needs of everybody from that.

KING: Another call for Jeff Bent.

Dearborn, Michigan, hello. CALLER: Hi, my question for Jeff here, for his father is, I'm a born again Christian. I know the word of God. And it clearly tells us that when Jesus Christ and Messiah return how we will meet him. And that is in the air. He will not step foot on this earth.

So how is it that his father, proclaiming to be the messiah, is coming to this Earth having a compound relationship with people when in the book of Revelation clearly tells us also that false prophets will come in, saying they are the messiah, and do not be deceived?

KING: OK - Jeff?

J. BENT: Well, the Bible talks about the marriage of the lamb. It seems like the person who asked that question should consider that, because Jesus gave a parable that talked about a marriage that happens, and only those with oil in their lamp will see it and enter into it.

I have observed many times how Christians conveniently make certain parts of the Bible literal, certain parts illustrative or symbolic, and I think very well that the prophesy that Jesus would return in the air has been fulfilled.

This messiah has not touched the Earth. He has not, he's not an earthly messiah as the kind that many people follow today who touch the earth. This one does not. And so, let him who has eyes see, and let her who has ears hear. It is something that's spiritually discerned. If you don't have oil in your lamp, you're going to miss it.

KING: Jeff, what happens to your group, if your father is in prison, found guilty?

J. BENT: I don't believe that's going to happen. We see ourselves in the place now where Jesus and his followers were when Jesus was in the tomb. My father's been crucified by false charges. They couldn't find anything to charge him with that had really happened, so they trumped up something and put him in jail for it.

And they hope to keep him in there. And the tomb did not keep Jesus, he was in there a short time. When God decided it was time for him to come out, he came out. That's why I'm not looking at bail and looking for some way, legal way to get him out of there. I'm looking for God to get him out of there. God's going to do it by his hand.

KING: Do you ever question your beliefs, Jeff?

J. BENT: Do I question my beliefs? I don't have beliefs, Larry. I have God.

God is the one that leads me. I'm not confined to a set of rules or interpretations of things. I'm led by a spirit that talks to me every day that leads me and interprets things for me. I don't question that. It's always led me perfectly. It's a rock that I'm built on. And beliefs are sand. If you have something like this come and hit you, and you are just built on beliefs, you're going to get blown over. And we're not being blown over here.

KING: You worry about your dad?

J. BENT: I feel for him. He's heavy on my heart. I love him dearly. And I can tell you Larry, I of all people have a reason not to love him. But I love him with all my heart.

KING: thank you, Jeff. We're going to do more on this, but we've run out of time.


KING: That was Jeff Bent.

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