Church member, doctor testify at hearing in baby's death

Note: This church is independent and not affiliated with the Church of God congregations.


Los Angeles Times/February 22, 2002
By Gene Maddaus

Rancho Cucamonga -- A member of the Church of God took the stand Thursday in a case that has pitted church members against detectives and prosecutors on the issue of whether healing comes from medical care or from faith in God.

Paul McGehee testified that he went to the home of Richard and Agnes Wiebe the day before their 11-month-old daughter Julia died of meningitis, but was fuzzy about why he went there, and was not allowed to say whether he prayed for Julia, after the Wiebes' attorney objected that it was none of the court's business.

"I just went to visit them," McGehee testified repeatedly, although Deputy Dist. Atty. Jeremy Carrasco tried repeatedly to get him to say he was there to pray for Julia's health.

The Wiebes have been charged with willful cruelty to a child and involuntary manslaughter, and could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. Prosecutors allege they knew Julia was sick, but did not take her to a doctor out of religious conviction.

"They made a decision not to seek medical care, which could have treated the child and prevented the death. They chose another form of healing," Dr. Steven Trenkle testified Thursday. "They made that choice, and from my perspective as a forensic pathologist, they made the wrong choice."

The Church of God is led by pastor Danny Layne, who has attended the preliminary hearing along with 10 women from the church, who sit in the front two rows in court and all wear long plain dresses and keep their hair up in buns.

Like many of the men in the church, McGehee has a long beard and wears modest clothing.

His testimony was atypical for West Valley Superior Court even before he sat down in the witness chair. When the clerk asked if he swore to tell the whole truth, he answered "I affirm," rather than the more commonly heard "I do" or "yes."

The statement threw Judge J. Michael Gunn off, and Gunn asked the clerk to swear him in again. The second time, he said "I do."

McGehee said Julia seemed to be "not her normal self" when he visited on July 5, and he watched as Agnes Wiebe tended to the child and tried to make her comfortable.

"She was doing what mothers do," McGehee said.

The child was lying on the living room floor, and did not eat, crawl or play when McGehee was there.

Earlier in the day, defense lawyer David Goldstein pressed Trenkle on the issue of when Julia suffered seizures. Trenkle earlier testified that the girl had seizures two days before her death, but Goldstein maintained that she did not have seizures until the day before her death, and suggested that should change Trenkle's opinion about when the child should have been hospitalized, and whether the absence of care contributed to her death. Trenkle previously testified that if they had taken the girl to the hospital the day before she died, it probably would have been too late.

But Trenkle said that even if the girl had never had seizures, she still should have been taken to a doctor because of her listlessness and inability to keep food down.

"A baby that won't take the bottle, regardless of the reason for that, is set up to get dehydrated," Trenkle said. "That would be a time when I would hope they would seek some care."

But under Goldstein's questioning, Trenkle acknowledged that occasionally inexperienced doctors miss the signs of meningitis and the illness will go untreated.

"It's rare, but it does happen," he said.

Agnes Wiebe told detectives she had no idea what was wrong with her daughter and did not think her illness was terribly severe, Goldstein said. The night before Julia's death was "the hardest night of her life," he said.

Carrasco acknowledged the case is an unusually complicated one.

"There are 1st Amendment issues, there are causation issues, there are intent issues," he said.

He said he had reviewed published appeals court cases involving medical care neglect in preparing for the preliminary hearing, which has already stretched far longer than most such hearings.

Because of scheduling conflicts, the hearing, which began Feb. 14, will not resume until March 7. Carrasco said he did not expect the hearing to finish on that day, either.

The Wiebes' 2-month-old son, Titus, was taken by sheriff's deputies in January and placed in foster care out of concern for his health.

The Wiebes appeared in juvenile court on Tuesday for a hearing on the child's custody, but the proceeding was closed to the public and children's services officials are not allowed to talk about it.

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