Group's role questioned in fasting man's death

World Ministries leader Stan A. Bennett drives a vehicle clearing a driveway at the group's Water of Life retreat in Sahuarita, described by Bennett as safe place to be when the world ends.

Arizona Daily Star/March 16, 2003
By Joseph Barrios and Stephanie Innes

Sahuarita -- Jimmy W. Killeen was a robust Irishman, a railroad worker described by friends and family as a leader - a leader who they say took a strange turn last year when he found a new way to God.

The path was called World Ministries - a group that is now the subject of questions from Killeen's siblings and some former members who wonder, in the wake of the circumstances of Jimmy Killeen's death, whether its religious practices are safe.

Killeen's family says Jimmy, a diabetic, was encouraged to fast and was convinced he was the group's next prophet. When he died, police reports indicate members of World Ministries, including Killeen's wife, Eleanor Killeen, believed Killeen would be resurrected so they prayed over his body for weeks.

On Jan. 27, Killeen's decaying body was discovered in his home in the 5800 block of South Hillerman Drive in Tucson while his wife and other members of World Ministries prayed for his resurrection. According to police reports, Killeen had been fasting. Friends say the fast was to last for 40 days - the same period of time Jesus wandered the desert fasting and praying before undertaking his ministry.

Killeen's family called police, who went to the home. Police reports say that when officers entered the Killeens' home, a lot of incense was burning, but that a smell of death was in the air - "almost overwhelming," one officer wrote.

The police report said World Ministries leader Stan A. Bennett answered the door. His wife told them James Killeen was unable to come to the door, the report said. Upon smelling the obvious odor of "rotting flesh," as the police report says, officers demanded entrance to the home and found Jimmy Killeen dead, lying on the bed.

"They'd rather that God perform the healing than a regular doctor,'' said former member Steven Trejo, a 40-year-old worker at a local car wash, who spent several years with World Ministries during the 1990s and kept in contact with the group while he was serving a prison sentence for forgery.

Trejo said Bennett believes the world is going to end this year, but that the religious group's retreat center in Sahuarita will be a haven when it happens.

Killeen's siblings are questioning whether World Ministries and Bennett are a cult-like Christian group that encourages members to steer clear of conventional medicine and look to God for healing - a tenet they believe was responsible for Killeen's death. Killeen's youngest brother, Chris, is convinced the group had some form of mind control over Jimmy, who was 50 when he died.

"It's hard to understand what happened. Jimmy was far from stupid," Chris Killeen said. "If they can pull the wool over my brother's eyes they can brainwash anybody and he wasn't a 14-year-old child like Elizabeth Smart."

Bennett denies he is a cult leader and says he follows only the Bible and Jesus' word.

No religious regulation

Independent religious groups like World Ministries are not regulated by any denomination, so there's no governing body that can take complaints about them. And there are no laws - federal, state or local - against mind control, or "psychological kidnapping."

Killeen's siblings hope Bennett will be held accountable. But if he's done what they claim, there's not much the U.S. legal system, which ensures protection of religious freedom, can do about it. There are no reports that Bennett has stolen anything, kidnapped anyone or committed fraud.

"The short answer is that I don't know what you'd charge them with,'' said Rick Unklesbay, Pima County's chief criminal deputy county attorney.

One minor criminal charge Bennett, Jimmy's wife Eleanor Killeen or other people who spent time in Killeen's house after his death could face is failing to report a death. Police say Killeen likely died in early January, though his body wasn't discovered until later that month. Failure to report a death is a misdemeanor crime that carries a punishment of up to six months in jail and a fine of up to $2,500, though jail time is not required.

Charges for failure to report a death fall under the jurisdiction of the Tucson City Attorney's Office, which last week was not commenting on the Killeen case.

Telltale signs

While there is no universally accepted criteria used to identify cults, there are some telltale signs to look for, experts say. Among those signs are "love bombing" - lavishing members with meals, attention and emotional support, drawing them into the group.

Cults then traditionally use five tactics, including food and sleep deprivation, isolation, fear and/or guilt, and finally some kind of indoctrination process, said Michael Trauscht, a former deputy Pima County attorney who tours and lectures about the dangers of cults and had a role in a foundation that did "deprogramming" for former cult members.

Trauscht stressed that there's plenty of "gray" between formal, recognized churches and actual cults, which eventually bring members so far into their folds that they cut off contact with everyone outside the group.

While "misinterpretation of the Bible and the Scriptures is a very common thread of cult leaders," Trauscht said, "all scriptures are open to interpretation."

Trauscht said he has not worked on the Killeen case and cannot say whether World Ministries is a cult. But he classified some facts of the case as "troubling."

Bennett, in a brief interview at Killeen's house last week, said accusations about World Ministries being a cult are unfounded, though he refused to speak specifically about Killeen.

"It's a reaction to grief," Bennett said of his critics. "We preach the word of Jesus."

Entering the fold

Killeen's wife, Eleanor, remarried Jimmy last August, several years after they had divorced. The couple has a 19-year-old son, Timothy, who is reportedly still living with Eleanor in the the Midvale Park home the Killeens rented.

When two reporters visited the home last week, Bennett answered the door. He said Eleanor was there, but did not want to speak with the media.

Killeen's siblings say Eleanor, whom they say brought Jimmy into World Ministries, has had no contact with them. And they worry that Bennett and other members of the religious group have moved into their brother's home. Several times last week, Bennett's large white van was parked outside the Killeen home, which has an Israeli flag hanging outside.

World Ministries registered with the State of Arizona as a religious, nonprofit organization in 1997. At that time, it was known as Word in Truth Ministries Inc. but later changed its name, according to documents filed with the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Its specific purpose, according to the records, is to "distribute, teach and publish religious materials of all types to the furtherance of the religious beliefs taught by our Lord Jesus Christ."

Bennett's wife, Jill, is licensed as a registered nurse in Arizona. She was censured in September 2001 by the Arizona State Board of Nursing and had to pay a $500 fine for failing to report that she had been licensed to practice nursing in Michigan and Tennessee. She also failed to report that she had been found guilty of a misdemeanor almost two decades ago.

In 1986, while working at a Memphis, Tenn., nursing home, Jill Bennett took another employee's driver's license, credit card and three checks and used them to obtain $100, according to state board nursing records. She was found guilty, received a suspended sentence of 11 months in jail and was ordered to pay restitution and fines.

Documents indicate that Jill Bennett has inactive nursing licenses in Florida and Georgia. She also once worked at St. Mary's Hospital in Tucson, officials with Carondelet Health Network, which operates St. Mary's, confirmed. But officials refused to say when she worked there or why she is no longer there.

Believes world will end

Bennett believes that the world is going to end this year, Trejo said. First, Jesus is going to come back through Jerusalem, and Trejo said Bennett hopes to be in Israel when Jesus returns. Trejo said the group believes seven years of tribulation will follow the end of the world.

Trejo was first drawn to World Ministries during the early 1990s when he met Bennett at Agape Christian Fellowship, 5450 S. Park Ave. Later, while he was in prison, Trejo said Bennett used to send him $50 per week.

"He was interested in my prayers,'' Trejo said. "I felt like God was really talking to me."

Trejo said Bennett described the Water of Life retreat property in Sahuarita as a haven, and one of the safe places to be when the world ends. Jimmy Killeen told his sister, Carol Hershey, the same thing about the retreat while he was visiting her in California over Christmas, she recalled in a telephone interview last week.

The property is an idyllic, tree-lined area of rural land at the end of a long, dirt road. It is enclosed by a locked fence. Inside, there are picnic tables, three mobile homes, several trailers, a cross, a small Israeli flag and volleyball net.

Trejo said, initially, the group was wonderful. Bennett offered him leadership, and Trejo felt empowered. Bennett delivered groceries from Trader Joe's to Trejo's home and Trejo felt loved. The drawback, Trejo said, was that he was expected to believe Bennett's interpretation of Scripture.

"When I first met Stan I was married and I didn't know Scripture very well," Trejo said. "Basically in World Ministries you follow them and serve God, or else you are serving the devil."

Trejo said Bennett never asked him or other members for money and did not do any harm to them, other than to ask for their unyielding faith in the word from his ministry. The group is strongly reliant on the Bible and believes in speaking in tongues, they say.

A proper burial

The heartbreak for Jimmy Killeen's family is that they have been unable to get his body back from the Pima County Forensic Science Center. The autopsy is not complete, though the work on the body is finished and it could be buried. Eleanor Killeen so far has refused to sign documents that would allow Killeen's brother to plan a burial.

Killeen's siblings are optimistic they will be able to bring their brother home from the morgue, which they say would help to give them closure in terms of saying goodbye. But they remain worried about World Ministries.

"I have two main concerns. One would be that my 19-year-old nephew is still there and I worry about him. I know he loves his mother, so it's got to be hard for him,'' said Killeen's sister Patricia Doane, a Connecticut resident who spends the winter in Oro Valley.

Doane has not heard from her nephew.

"My second concern is that this could happen to someone else. After this Elizabeth Smart thing, I see it can happen. People can abuse the name of Christ. They may very well think they are prophets but it doesn't give them the right to make others believe," Doane said.

"It's perplexing. We were brought up Roman Catholic. I understand why my brother helped Eleanor and all that, but I don't understand why she didn't help him."

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