CRESWELL — A mother and her husband face manslaughter charges in the death of the woman’s teenage son — a death that authorities say could have been prevented had the couple disregarded their religious beliefs and taken him to see a doctor after he fell ill in December.
Lane County sheriff’s deputies arrested Brandi Shaunai Bellew and Russel Lewis Bellew of Creswell on Friday following a seven-week investigation that began with the death of 16-year-old Austin Sprout on Dec. 20.
Their case could test a new state law that eliminates the legal defense of “faith healing” for parents who refuse medical care for a sick child. The Bellews belong to the General Assembly and the Church of the First Born, which has been linked to a number of deaths related to healing by prayer.
Sprout, a Creswell High School junior who was Brandi Bellew’s biological son, had been ill for more than a week before he died, sheriff’s Lt. Spence Slater said.
Because of their religious beliefs, the Bellews allegedly did not take the teen to a doctor after he became sick, Slater said.
Investigators on Friday declined to reveal the teen’s cause of death, but Slater said medical professionals have indicated that Sprout’s condition was “highly treatable.”
A Lane County grand jury earlier this week issued an indictment charging the Bellews with second-degree manslaughter, a charge that carries a mandatory minimum prison term of 6 years, 3 months upon conviction, Slater said.
Brandi Bellew, 36, was arrested at her Creswell home, while deputies took her 39-year-old husband into custody at his workplace, Slater said.
Under state law, the charge of second-degree manslaughter is defined in part as causing a dependent person’s death by neglect or maltreatment, including failure to provide adequate medical care.
“Our opinion is that if (the Bellews) would have taken (Sprout) to a doctor to seek medical attention, he would have survived,” Slater said.
Sheriff’s detectives have investigated two other relatively recent deaths involving Sprout’s family, Slater said.
They include the 2007 death of Sprout’s biological father, Brian Sprout. According to an obituary submitted by the family, Brian Sprout died at age 35 of sepsis related to a complication from a leg injury. Investigators found that Brian Sprout had not sought medical treatment before he died, but that didn’t constitute a crime because he was an adult, Slater said.
The second case investigated by the sheriff’s office arose in October 2010, when Austin Sprout’s grandmother, Mary Sprout of Creswell, died of what were initially described as unknown causes. Her death certificate states that investigators later learned that she died at age 54 of acute myeloid leukemia, a relatively common cancer that is curable, according to the National Institutes of Health.
State law requires police and medical examiners to investigate deaths that occur in situations where physicians are not present.
Sheriff’s officials have heard from many people in the Creswell community who have been interested in finding out whether anyone would be held responsible for Austin Sprout’s death, Slater said.
“We’ve taken a lot of heat on this case,” he said. “The community had a lot of questions, and wanted to know what we were doing.”
On Friday, state Department of Human Services officials accompanied sheriff’s deputies to the Bellews’ home on Sunday Drive. Agency spokesman Gene Evans said DHS employees conducted a “safety assessment” of other children in the home and arranged for them to be cared for by other relatives.
Austin Sprout’s obituary lists six siblings. Evans said he knew that there were several children in the home on Friday, but he did not have an exact number nor their ages.
The welfare of the other children concerned Michelle Kessel, a family member and former Lane County resident who now lives in Washington state. Kessel said she grew up in the General Assembly and the Church of the First Born with Brandi Bellew and Brian Sprout, who was Kessel’s cousin.
Kessel said she remains saddened by Austin Sprout’s death, but does not believe that Brandi Bellew should be held responsible.
“She’s a good woman and a good mother, and she would never, ever do anything on purpose to hurt her children,” Kessel said. “I don’t feel like (the Bellews) deserve to be in jail. I don’t think it’s a fair and just law, because people in this country have their freedom of religion.”
Last year, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed a bill into law that removes Oregon from the ranks of the dwindling number of states where criminal statutes provide special legal protection for parents who treat their seriously ill children with faith healing instead of providing medical care.
The General Assembly and the Church of the First Born has a history of deaths related to healing by prayer, according to the Rick Ross Institute, an Internet archive of information about cults, controversial groups and movements.
In October, an Oregon City couple went to prison after being found guilty of second-degree manslaughter in their infant son’s death in 2009. Dale and Shannon Hickman attended the Followers of Christ church, which has a long history of children dying from treatable medical conditions. However, the Hickmans did not rely on a religious defense during their trial and were prosecuted under laws in effect when the baby died.
The Hickmans are among several parents affiliated with the Oregon City Followers of Christ church charged and sentenced for manslaughter and other crimes in recent years for the death or medical mistreatment of their children.