Las Vegas, New Mexico - The leader of a small religious sect was sentenced Tuesday to 10 years in prison for sexual misconduct with two teenage female followers.
Wayne Bent, 67, who claimed the encounters were spiritual, not sexual, was convicted this month of criminal sexual contact with a minor and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Judge Gerald Baca imposed the maximum sentence of 18 years but suspended eight years. He will have to serve at least 8 1/2 years before becoming eligible for release.
Bent, who calls himself Michael Travesser, is the leader of The Lord Our Righteousness Church. Its almost four dozen adult followers live in a compound called Strong City in a rural area of northeastern New Mexico.
A jury this month convicted Bent for lying in bed with naked 14- and 16-year-old sisters in separate incidents in 2006. But Bent maintained Tuesday that no crime was committed.
"Nobody has been molested," he said, adding that he had "never touched a girl sexually."
Bent and the sisters testified the incidents were spiritual exercises. The teens said Bent did not touch intimate areas, and Bent testified he had placed his hands on the chests, but not the breasts, of the girls.
The judge, in explaining his sentence, said Bent had "crossed the line" under state law in allowing the girls to lie naked with him.
"I am not punishing you for your religious beliefs," Baca told Bent.
However, Bent said prosecutors never tried to understand the group's religious beliefs and his actions before charging him with sex crimes.
"I have been accused and convicted over the rumors of my enemies who just hate our kind of living," Bent said.
Bent's lawyer, Sarah Montoya, said she would appeal his convictions and was surprised by the severity of his sentence. She had recommended that Bent be spared a prison term and instead be allowed to live on the sect's land while wearing an electronic monitor.
About a dozen of Bent's followers spoke to the court Tuesday, describing him as a kind and caring man who was unwavering in his religious beliefs.
His son, Jeff Bent, told the judge, "If he were a child molester, I would know it by now."
Jeff Bent said in an interview that his father would begin a fast. Wayne Bent refused to eat or drink while in jail after his arrest this year.
The elder Bent was a minister for the Seventh-day Adventist Church but separated from it more than 20 years ago. He claims God spoke to him in 2000 and told him he was the Messiah.