Clayton, New Mexico - Members of an apocalyptic church have had a mellow relationship with people in this northeastern New Mexico ranching community, now abuzz about the removal of three children from the church's secluded compound.
The bearded men and the women in long, denim skirts would come to town to pick up food-fruits and vegetables, particularly-from the Ranch Market, the closest big grocery store to their compound.
"They've been very nice. Overall, they've been very easy neighbors," said Brian Moore, the store's owner and a state lawmaker, who has dealt with members of The Lord Our Righteousness Church since they arrived in the area in 2000.
Moore said it was "pretty troubling" to hear about concerns of possible abuse that led state police to remove three children from the compound called Strong City and a leader who claims to be the Messiah and acknowledges having sex with some of his followers.
The children-two girls and one boy, all under 18-were taken into state custody because of allegations of inappropriate contact between minors and the leader, according to Romaine Serna, spokeswoman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department. Wayne Bent, 66, who is known in the church as Michael Travesser, established the church at a site north of Clayton. He said God anointed him Messiah in July 2000.
"There was never any child molestation, or adult molestation by anyone, including myself," Bent wrote in a posting Wednesday on the church's Web site. "There has never been 'sex with minors' or anything remotely approaching that."
Bent, in an April 27 posting on the Web site, accused the state of kidnapping the children. "My children are kidnapped because some demon wrote a letter to people in authority accusing me of some crimes," he wrote.
"When the state came against our children (seed), the state came against God, and this will NOT ever be forgiven them," he wrote.
The children were removed following an April 22 investigation. A fourth child, a girl, who used to be at the compound but is now elsewhere with her parents has agreed to be interviewed by the department, Serna said.
No charges have been filed, said Serna, who declined to elaborate because of the ongoing investigation.
Serna said two of the children removed from the compound were placed in foster homes, and one accepted voluntary placement, which usually means with a friend or relative.
The New Mexico removal came three weeks after Texas officials raided a polygamist-sect ranch and took custody of 463 children, saying that group's practice of underage and polygamous spiritual marriages endangered the children.
Bent, in comments posted on the Web site Wednesday, said people need not fear his group.
"No one has ever been hurt here by me or anyone else," he wrote. "I would say fear your own culture, the one filled with armies, jails, mental institutions, Child kidnappers and wars. Those are fearful things to one who does not know God. But our terror is only the truth. Our weapons are only words of truth."
Janet Brawley, assistant manager of the Ranch Market, said some of the residents of the community worked in outside jobs, with the men doing remodeling or construction jobs and the women doing housework.
She said she was told recently by one of the church members that there were about 50 people at Strong City.
Jeff Bent, who Serna said is Wayne Bent's son, denied in an April 29 letter to Gov. Bill Richardson and posted on the Web site that any child had been abused or neglected at Strong City.
The group educates its children "to avoid the slavery you seek to impose on them, and to experience the freedom they have in God," Jeff Bent wrote.
Jeff Bent also wrote Richardson: "Now that you have moved against us because of our faith, the cup of God's anger is full to the brim, and now He is free to move against you."
Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesman for Richardson, declined to comment on the letter.
Bent did acknowledge having sex with three women-the wives of two of his followers and his daughter-in-law. He said it was at the direction of God and the instigation of the women.
In the same posting, Bent said that in July 2006, God told him two virgins "would come and lie naked on my bed with me." He said that over a period of time, seven virgins came to his bed, but when they asked "for a literal physical union," he refused even though they told him it was God's request.