The deputy medical examiner knew before knocking on the door. There was a grim scene waiting for Eric Tonsfeldt inside the single-story house set among the pine trees outside of Oregon City, Ore. — a tragedy that had played out there before.
It was around 8:45 on March 5, 2017, and the Clackamas County official was responding to a report of a dead newborn.
The child had not been delivered in a hospital. She wasn’t attended to by doctors and nurses. The baby died amid the murmured prayers of friends and family. But Tonsfeldt knew — as everyone else in the county and many beyond all the way up to the state legislature — that this was a familiar occurrence with members of the Followers of Christ Church, a faith-healing sect numbering around 1,000 members.
Tonsfeldt found the newborn’s mother, Sarah Elaine Mitchell, in the master bedroom cradling the dead child in a blanket. As the official later recounted in a probable cause affidavit obtained by KGW8, the child’s father, Travis Lee Mitchell, was also in the room, as was Sarah’s father, Walter White. Tonsfeldt would say that when he questioned the individuals in the room about the death, the answers were “stilted and forced.” No one would make eye contact. Eventually, he learned the baby — Ginnifer — had been born around 2:55 p.m. Hours later, the baby stopped breathing, dying around 7 p.m. As Tonsfeldt examined the child, he noted Ginnifer was 3 pounds, 6 ounces. The baby had been born prematurely at 32 weeks.
Only then did the family tell Tonsfeldt about the twin born alongside Ginnifer. When Tonsfeldt inspected Evelyn, he told the family the surviving child was “at medical risk” and must go to the hospital. He told the family twice.
“Thank you for your input,” Walter White replied both times, according to KGW8.
On Monday, Ginnifer’s parents Sarah and Travis Mitchell — 25 and 22, respectively — both pleaded guilty to criminal negligent homicide and criminal mistreatment, Clackamas County District Attorney John S. Foote announced in a statement.
The Mitchells are the fifth set of parents from the Followers of Christ Church to face criminal charges after failing to secure medical attention for their children in the past nine years, according to the prosecutor. In 2009, Sarah Mitchell’s sister Shannon Hickman delivered a premature baby boy in the same room where Ginnifer died, according to the Oregonian. The child passed away eight hours after his birth, and later both Hickman and her husband were convicted of second-degree manslaughter.
“For far too long, children in this church have been needlessly suffering and dying because their parents, as a condition of their religious beliefs, have refused to seek medical care for their children,” the district attorney’s office stated. “And for the past 17½ years, the Clackamas County District Attorney’s Office has been working diligently to hold criminally responsible any parents who fail to provide adequate medical care for their children which causes their death or serious physical injury.”
As a sign of the church’s willingness to finally stop the pattern of newborn deaths, the church agreed as part of the plea agreement to post the following statement inside its building: “Everyone in the church should always seek adequate medical care for our children.”
“We hope that this office is never again forced to prosecute parents in the Followers of Christ Church for neglecting the medical care of their children,” the prosecutor stated. “However, we continue to stand ready to do so if the members of that congregation do not heed the call of this family.”
Due to the couple’s religious beliefs, Sarah Mitchell received no prenatal care. Without the benefit of an ultrasound, the couple did not know they were having twins or that the children were at risk.
The church, which believes in a literal interpretation of the Bible and shuns modern medicine, is rooted in the 19th-century Pentecostal movement, the Associated Press reported. The branch in Oregon was founded by Sarah Mitchell’s grandfather.
“They believe that God heals, which all Christians believe, but they take it a step further, thinking that God always heals,” religion columnist Jonathan Merritt told The Washington Post in 2015. “Most Christians have not interpreted scripture as a sort of universal promise that faith will always lead to healing. But there are some popular movements in America that still hold those views. Even those movements, however, don’t believe you should withhold medicine; they believe medicine is used as a conduit to healing.”
But those practices in Oregon have led to a number of deaths — and drawn scrutiny.
“They have their own graveyard, and it’s just full of children,” Myrna Cunningham, a former Followers of Christ Church member told the Oregonian in 2017. “There shouldn’t have been that many children who died. It’s terrible.”
In 1998, the Oregonian reviewed the records of the 78 children buried in the Followers of Christ Church cemetery between 1955 to 1998. The newspaper’s analysis concluded 21 of the children could have been saved by modern medicine.
Oregon law initially protected church members from legal consequences related to the deaths, according to KGW8. But beginning in 2008, local prosecutors began filing criminal charges against parents. That year, Raylene and Carl Brent Worthington were charged after their 15-month-old died of pneumonia and a blood infection. The father was eventually convicted of misdemeanor criminal mistreatment, according to the prosecutor’s office.
The death of 16-year-old Neil Beagley from a urinary tract blockage in 2008 resulted in the conviction of his parents Jeff and Marci Beagley of criminally negligent homicide, according to authorities.
In 2011, Rebecca and Timothy Wyland were convicted of criminal mistreatment after their daughter suffered a serious growth on her eye that resulted in permanent damage to her vision.
In the statement released following the Mitchells’ sentencing, Foote acknowledged his office has pursued the criminal charges against these parents not only to get justice for the victims but also “to convince the Followers of Christ congregation that they must stop this misconduct.”
To that end, the Mitchells are the first church members to willingly plead guilty to criminal charges related to the death of their child.
On Monday, both parents were sentenced to six years in prison.
Their surviving child is in foster care.