Oregon Faith Healer Parents Get Probation in Son's Death

Russel and Brandi Bellew hoped prayer would heal son's burst appendix.

ByABC News
September 19, 2012, 3:38 PM

Sept. 19, 2012— -- The "faith healer" parents of an Oregon teenager who died due to a lack of medical care will be required to contact a doctor when any of their other six children are sick for more than one day, according to the terms of their probation.

Russel and Brandi Bellew were sentenced to five years of probation on Tuesday after they pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in the death of Brandi's biological son, Austin Sprout, 16. An autopsy found Austin died of an infection caused by a burst appendix.

The couple, along with their six surviving children, belongs to the General Assembly and Church of the First Born, which eschews modern medicine. The group takes its belief from a New Testament passage in the Gospel of James that says the sick should be prayed over and anointed with oil, according to Rick Ross, an expert on cults.

"They take this verse out of context and take it to mean this is the only thing you can do while sick," Ross said. "In their mind they see it as a choice not between the church and saving the life of their child, they see it as a choice between God and me."

Bob Schrank, an attorney for Brandi Bellew, said despite the couple's beliefs, they are "committed to complying with their conditions of probation."

In December, Sprout became ill with cold and flu-like symptoms. Instead of getting him medical attention, the couple chose to pray. Sprout died five days before Christmas.

"According to the group and its leaders, if someone goes to the doctor for medical care, they have gone against God," said Ross.

After an autopsy, the Bellews were arrested in February and were barred from speaking to each other since they were co-defendants in the case, Schrank said.

"[Russel] was allowed to come to the home to visit the kids but [Brandi] couldn't be there. The rule was they couldn't have contact," Schrank said.

Schrank said the Bellews, who did not offer a statement in court, are "great parents" and "at least 20" people sent letters vouching for them.

In August, prosecutors met with members of the Bellews' church to discuss state child neglect laws and to let them know choosing not to seek medical care for a child would not be tolerated, the Eugene Register Guard reported.

Prosecutor Erik Hasselman told the newspaper congregants seemed to be receptive.

"This is not a denomination that feels that its faith is at odds with the laws of the community," he said.

The case is one of many in which parents have been held criminally responsible for neglecting to seek medical attention for their children.

Earlier this year, an Oklahoma woman was found guilty of second degree manslaughter and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Prosecutors said Susan Grady, who belongs to the Church of the First Born, chose to treat her 9-year-old son's diabetes complications with prayer. He died days later.

Last year, Dale and Shannon Hickman, an Oregon couple who belonged to the church, were sentenced to 75 months in prison after they failed to seek medical care following the birth of their premature son at home. The baby died nine hours later.