Teen from Clayton sect released from state custody

Associated Press/June 17, 2008

Sante Fe - A 13-year-old girl whom state officials removed from an apocalyptic group in northeastern New Mexico has been returned to her parents and may eventually move back to the sect, whose leader faces charges of sex crimes against teenage girls.

The girl, known in the sect as Willow, was released to her parents on Tuesday, said Romaine Serna, a spokeswoman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department.

Serna said agency workers "believe that the parents are committed to keeping their child safe."

The sect's leader, Wayne Bent-who calls himself Michael Travesser-celebrated by ending a fast he said he began on June 6 to protest Willow's absence.

A video posted on the Web site of The Lord Our Righteousness Church showed Bent eating lunch with Willow and her parents.

The video showed the girl being embraced by Bent and other church members as she arrived at Strong City, as sect members call their community.

She was one of three children removed in late April from the compound, located in a remote ranching area north of Clayton near the New Mexico-Colorado line.

Bent, 67, has since been indicted for sex crimes against two young female followers. Willow was not one of them.

Bent's son, Jeff Bent, said Tuesday in an e-mail that Willow will live with her father, who has moved to a ranch about 20 miles away from the compound. Her mother will remain at Strong City.

The younger Bent said that arrangement would continue for the summer, after which Willow could return to Strong City if she wanted to.

Serna acknowledged that Willow could end up back at the community, although she said the agency recommended an alternative living arrangement.

"Should her parents believe they can maintain her safely at the compound, they may in fact do so. ... We were assured that this child would be safe," Serna said.

Serna said it was only after "careful, careful assessment" that social workers who had been working with the family recommended to a state district judge that the child be returned to her parents.

"And that's not a recommendation we would make lightly," she added.

District Attorney Donald Gallegos of Taos initially brought charges against Wayne Bent in magistrate court in the cases of three girls, who had told authorities they "lay naked" with Bent, who claims to be the Messiah.

Wayne Bent has denied any molestation occurred.

"As I have said before, this touching was never sexual, or even close to sexual in feeling or intent," he wrote Tuesday on the Web site. "It was for healing, and it did heal."

When Gallegos took the case to a grand jury, he presented evidence involving two of the girls-who Wayne Bent says were 15 and 16 at the time of the incidents-but not the third girl, who was 12 at the time.

Bent was indicted on two counts of criminal sexual contact of a minor and two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The case is pending.

Serna said the boy who was removed from the compound is with his parents in another state and CYFD is no longer involved. The other girl who was removed remains in foster care, and CYFD is working with the girl and her parents, Serna said.

Authorities have said no minors remain in the community, which numbers about 50 people.

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