Autistic boy dies in service to "fix' him

Published Aug. 25, 2003|Updated Sept. 1, 2005

An autistic 8-year-old boy died while being restrained during a church prayer service held in an attempt to cure him, and one man connected with the small church was arrested, police and a church official said Sunday.

During the hourlong session, the boy's feet and hands were held by his mother and other church members who prayed intensely for his violent tendencies to cease, said Pamela Hemphill, the pastor's wife.

"The boy just had a problem in his mind, and what we were doing was asking God to fix it," said Pastor David Hemphill. "He chose to fix it by taking him back home to him."

"All I know is we're not guilty of anything," he said.

Milwaukee police officers arrested a man Friday night at Faith Temple Church of Apostolic Faith, a small storefront in a strip mall that houses a pizza restaurant and a dry cleaner.

Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department spokeswoman Kim Brooks confirmed Saturday night that Ray Hemphill, the pastor's brother and also a minister at the church, was being held at the Milwaukee County Jail on suspicion of physical abuse of a child, a felony.

The medical examiner's office declined to release results of an autopsy done on the boy, Torrance Cantrell.

Denise Allison, 25, said she had become close friends with the boy and his mother, Patricia Cooper, during two years living in the duplex above the family.

Allison said Torrance, called "Junior" by family and friends, was brilliant with his hands, and could craft complex kites from newspaper. Though hardly able to speak, Torrance would knock on her door and shout with a smile, "Tickle," asking Allison to play with and tickle him.

Milwaukee Police Capt. Linda Haynes said there was "no striking or anything like that," when asked whether Torrance had been disciplined during the prayer service, but said the boy "did not die of natural causes."

Pamela Hemphill said Ray Hemphill led the service and directed the women to restrain the boy.

The women put sheets and cloth over the boy's outstretched hands, and "one lady held one hand and the other lady held the other, and his mother held his feet," Pamela Hemphill said.

The Hemphills said the boy's mother came to the church seeking help about three months ago and said her son was in danger of being institutionalized because he was violent toward himself and his 2-year-old sister.

Some church members began holding prayer sessions with the boy three times a week.

Pamela Hemphill said the sessions would usually last about two hours with a break halfway.

"Sometimes he kicks and scratches and throws himself to the ground," she said.

But at Friday's session, she said, the boy was "unusually quiet." She said the boy was sitting on the floor with others around him. But at one point he lay down and closed his eyes, she said.

The church is not connected to any larger denomination and has only six families that gather twice a week to pray, David Hemphill said.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.