Church expects clearance in death

Pastor says service was in accordance with Bible

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel/August 25, 2003
By Kelly Wells

Members of a small church where an 8-year-old autistic boy died during a prayer session gathered Sunday at the home of their pastor, who said he was confident no church members or staff would be charged in the case.

"Didn't do nothing wrong," David Hemphill said outside his home Sunday afternoon, with the sounds of yelling and moaning from his gathered flock plainly audible from his front steps. "We did what the Book of Matthew said, Chapter 12. All we did is ask God to deliver him."

Police arrested Ray Hemphill, the pastor's brother, at the church - Faith Temple Church of Apostolic Faith, 8709 N. Fond du Lac Ave. - after paramedics were unable to revive Torrance Cantrell on Friday night. Torrance's mother, Patricia Cooper, held the boy's feet and two other women held the boy's hands during the hourlong prayer session, said Pamela Hemphill, David Hemphill's wife.

Ray Hemphill, 45, and also a minister at the church, was still being held in the Milwaukee County Jail, pending a decision on charges, officials said. No other arrests had been made. Police maintained a non-disclosure order Sunday on the medical examiner's report into the boy's death.

David Hemphill said Sunday that the boy's hands had been covered with sheets to prevent him from further scratching himself. The participants did not use force, he said, demonstrating by putting his hand gently on a reporter's shoulder.

Hemphill said he understands that police must investigate the incident and that if his child had died in such a manner, he would hope for an investigation. But he believes no one will, or should, be punished for Torrance's death.

He also said the child's death would not change the way the church operates, saying: "How you going to change the Bible?"

The boy had a spirit in him, the pastor said. Asked how he knew that, he said: "I'm 62 years old, and I can tell a person that's not normal."

When asked whether the spirit could simply be the boy's autism, Hemphill said: "He had a lot of problems."

Hemphill has said he was not at the service Friday but came to the church after people there called to tell him and his wife, Pamela Hemphill, that the boy was not breathing and 911 had been called.

Cooper, the boy's mother, returned to her home Sunday afternoon, but women with her refused to allow a reporter to speak with her.

"There's nothing to talk about," one woman shouted. She refused to give her name.

Neighbors on Sunday had put together a small memorial to the boy known as "Junior."

Several candles, a teddy bear and a stuffed bunny lined a windowsill at the duplex where the boy lived with his mother and younger sister.

Neighbors contend that Cooper underwent a change after she became involved with the church.

Before Cooper joined the church three months ago, her two children were always clean and dressed nicely, according to neighbors Gloria Lloyd and Denise Allison.

After Cooper became involved at the church, the children would often have messy hair and mismatched clothing, and sometimes Torrance would walk outside with two different shoes on or no shoes at all, they said Sunday.

Both Lloyd and Allison said Torrance hated being touched, and having people restrain him would likely have caused him a great deal of stress.

Though autism can manifest itself in a wide variety of behaviors and combinations of symptoms, those who have the complex developmental disorder may exhibit a range of characteristics such as apparent over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to pain.

With autism, the senses are not integrated so that senses of touch, smell and taste work together to help people understand experiences, according to the Bethesda, Md.-based Autism Society of America.

Church members did not meet at the facility for Sunday services, but instead met at the Hemphill home. "We wanted all our family together," Hemphill said.

In 1998, the district attorney's office looked into allegations of child abuse after a 12-year-old girl claimed to be beaten during one of the church's service. At the time, Hemphill claimed the beating was not as severe as the police alleged and that congregation members were only doing as the Bible teaches. No charges were filed.

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