Church beliefs at issue in case

The recent seizure of a healthy infant boy from his parents' Rancho Cucamonga home marks the second time in six months authorities have taken children from members of an Inland-based church.

In Canada last summer, social workers took seven siblings from their parents, also members of the church, Canadian authorities said.

In both cases, investigators said the parents' religious beliefs put the children at risk.

Divine healing and corporal punishment of children are central tenets of the Church of God Restoration, a small but widely scattered sect based in Upland, say researchers and authorities in the United States and Canada. The church is believed to have about 400 members.

Agnes and Richard Wiebes' belief in divine healing contributed to the death of their 11-month-old daughter and may have been a factor in the stillbirths of two other children, investigators said. Their son was taken from them last month because they refused to cooperate when authorities tried to check on the newborn's welfare.

Daniel Layne is the founder of the Church of God Restoration.

The Wiebes, charged last July in the death of their daughter, are free on bail while they await trial. A preliminary hearing in the manslaughter case is scheduled for Thursday.

Their infant son remains with a foster family pending the outcome of a custody battle.

Outside the Wiebe home on Jan. 18, a man who identified himself as Mr. Wiebe politely declined to discuss his faith or the ongoing criminal case.

"It's not so much me, it's that they don't want us to talk about it right now," he said. "So I respect their wishes."

The Wiebes' attorney, David Goldstein of Rancho Cucamonga, did not return more than a dozen phone calls seeking comment.

The church in Upland

The church is under the strict direction of its founder, Daniel Layne, according to authorities in Canada and within the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. Layne, in a 1984 autobiography, described himself as a prophet and recovering heroin addict.

The Wiebes' beliefs are heavily influenced by Layne, sheriff's Detective Leland Boldt said.

Members of Layne's church meet Sundays for prayer in a small, cream-colored building nestled in a quiet neighborhood of 1940s homes in Upland. The men dress in black suits. The women wear long skirts and buttoned-up blouses and pull their hair into tight buns.

"Essentially, Layne's followers seem to have abdicated much of their own ability to think critically and make independent decisions and instead defer to Mr. Layne," said Rick Ross, a nationally recognized cult expert who has researched the Church of God Restoration and written essays on Layne.

Reached in late January at his church, Layne said he thinks the Wiebe case should not be linked to the church he founded 12 years ago.

"This is not about religion," he said. He declined further comment on the advice of his attorney.

Past troubles

San Bernardino County coroner's officials first were called to the Wiebes' Deerbrook Street home in early July 1996, not long after the couple moved from Canada. Agnes Wiebe's full-term baby boy, Amos John, was born dead, according to the child's death report.

"I interviewed Agnes who was lying in bed," wrote Randy Emon, a deputy coroner at the time. "Agnes said she did not have any prenatal care."

Three years later, Deputy Coroner Andrew Avery described a similar scene after the Wiebes delivered a second stillborn boy, Michael Aaron, in their home in March 1999.

"They are members of the Church of God and do not believe in any medical intervention," Avery wrote. "Present at the scene were four other women from the church. They were present at the time of the delivery; however, no one was trained in midwife skills."

About 11 a.m. July 6, 2001, the Coroner's Department again was summoned to the Wiebes' ranch-style home. Hours earlier, paramedics had responded to reports that a baby had stopped breathing at the address, a coroner's report said.

Julia, the Wiebes' 11-month-old daughter, was dead. Agnes Wiebe said she had been lying on a mattress with Julia, who had had a fever for a week and three days earlier had suffered a seizure. The girl, she said, took one deep breath and stopped breathing, according to an autopsy report.

"The child had never seen a physician during her life, apparently because of her parents' religious beliefs," Deputy Coroner Jim Sedgwick wrote. "No immunizations had been administered."

Authorities said the baby died of meningitis, an inflammation of the membranes in the spinal cord or brain. Medical care neglect was listed as a contributing factor.

"Although this child died of a naturally occurring infection, i.e. meningitis, the death could have been prevented by routinely available medical treatment," wrote pathologist Steven Trenkle after he performed the autopsy. "Although the parents did not seek medical care because of personally held religious beliefs, their decision not to have the child evaluated or treated certainly contributed to this death."

The Wiebes were charged with manslaughter and willful cruelty to a child.

In January, sheriff's officials got a tip that the Wiebes had another child. Deputies went to the home to check on the newborn, but the Wiebes refused to answer questions or allow deputies to see the child. A warrant was obtained, and the boy was taken into protective custody.

The baby was moved last month to a foster family pending the outcome of custody hearings in county Juvenile Court. The hearings are not public.

Lifted out

More than 20 members of the Church of God Restoration, reached outside the Upland church or by telephone in Canada, Indiana and Ohio, declined to comment about their faith or Layne.

Some said they weren't allowed to talk to reporters. Most said all statements to the media should come from Layne.

This is indicative of Layne's authoritarian style, said Robert Tinsman, a Church of God pastor in New Castle, Ind.

He said his brother is a pastor and high-ranking member of Layne's group. Tinsman said he split with much of his own family years ago because of Layne's leadership.

Layne's control includes deciding who church members may date or marry, where they should work and even what kind of underwear they should wear, Tinsman said.

"He thinks he has that authority. He thinks he's Moses," Tinsman said. "My family has been torn because of this."

Layne spent nearly two decades as a heroin addict in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, according to his 1984 book, "He Lifted Me Out."

"I shot drugs for 19 years until I had used up every vein in my body," Layne wrote. "I had shot in the palms, in the back of my hands, in my feet, and in my jugular veins to the place where I didn't have any visible veins left in my body. . . . It's only by the grace of God that I'm alive."

In the book, Layne described four years in jail and time spent in a psychiatric hospital. Layne wrote that when he was 36, God said to him: "If you'll turn your life over to me, and if you've really had enough of doing things your way, I'll give you a new life in Jesus."

The words, Layne wrote, forever changed him into a deeply religious man devoted to helping people.

He joined the Church of God, a nondenominational, fundamentalist Christian church, and by the mid-1980s had become a preacher.

"Layne has been to my little church, and I invited him to speak, to take part," Tinsman said. "But he didn't want any part of it. He doesn't think we're Christians at all."

Tinsman said Layne believed the Church of God didn't follow the words of the Bible rigidly enough, and believed in a simpler way of life.

In 1989, Layne started the Church of God Restoration in Aylmer, a town in Ontario, Canada, Tinsman said. He said his brother and other close relatives have been part of the church since then. Though he lives near them in Indiana and often sees them on the street, they rarely talk, he said.

Training children

Steve Bailey, executive director of Child and Family Services in Ontario, Canada, estimated Layne's following at its height was a few thousand people in Canada, Germany, and the United States, plus a few in Mexico. Now, they believe there are less than 500 worldwide.

Some of Layne's followers adopted a book, "Mommy, Daddy, We Would See Jesus," as a parenting guide, Bailey said.

The 190-page volume, written by a Tennessee pastor's wife in 1999, instructs parents, among other things, how to train their children.

"Just as there are certain techniques which work for dogs, so there are techniques for training children," the book says.

"I know of a 10-month-old who learned to lie quietly in his crib and go to sleep by himself without rocking -- after only two nights of training him to do so. But the mom had to be determined. She could not give into his crying, and had to use the switch on his little leg to make him believe she meant business."

Cathy Cimbalo, director of San Bernardino County Department of Childrens Services, said physical discipline is illegal only if it leaves marks or bruising on the child.

While not necessarily abuse, she said, the "use of an instrument on a child that young is inappropriate.

"I can't imagine a reason that a child that young could deserve that," she said.

That belief in corporal punishment caused an exodus of church members from Canada last year, according to Bailey, Tinsman and articles in the London Free Press.

Conflict in Canada

Last July, about the same time Julia Wiebe was dying, images of children being dragged from their home appeared on television news in Aylmer.

Seven children from 6 to 14 years, all from the same family, were removed by Canada's Child and Family Services agency because of the parents' belief in corporal punishment, Bailey said. The parents are part of Layne's church, he said.

The children were returned after the parents agreed to stop spanking them until a trial decides whether their discipline is too severe, Bailey said.

Layne has been quoted in the London Free Press and Canadian newspapers as saying that neither he nor his church prohibits the use of medicine.

Bailey said that, based on his investigations, church members are not encouraged to seek medical care.

"The company line is: 'We don't tell them not to use medicine, but faith healing is an important part of our beliefs,' " Bailey said. "The assumption, we have learned from past members, is: If you have to go to the doctor, your faith must not be that strong."

Phone calls to two Indiana residents who have left the church were not returned.

A congregation flees

In the middle of one night last summer, more than 100 women and children belonging to Layne's group in Canada left their homes.

Taking all of their possessions, 28 mothers and roughly 80 children embarked on a journey that would take many of them from Ontario, Canada, to Ontario, Calif., Bailey said.

He said Child and Family Services had received a report alleging abuse by another family in Layne's church. The news, he said, circulated quickly.

"They said they were afraid we were going to go in like storm troopers and steal their children," Bailey said. "So they bolted."

Some settled in Ohio and Indiana. Some church members, including Layne, moved west to San Bernardino County about three years ago. Though once Canadian residents, the Wiebes were not part of the group that left Canada, Bailey said.

The Wiebes lived quietly and virtually unnoticed until Julia died last year. Now they are the subject of separate investigations by the Sheriff's Department and Upland police. Upland officials would not comment on the nature of the investigation.

Sheriff's spokesman Chip Patterson said the department takes the case very seriously.

"We think these are big crimes," he said. "We don't balk just because it might be a controversial issue. We pinpoint where we think the crime has occurred, we act on it, and then it's up to the courts to work out."