Updated: March 1, 2011 at 12:00 am
A mother and her missing 6-year-old son may be members of a religious group being investigated by Durham, N.C., police after a former member reported seeing “horrific” abuse of children, a Teller County investigator said Tuesday.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Nick Olmsted said Vania Sisk is believed to have moved to Teller County recently from Durham along with five other adults and nine children who belong to a home-based church known as Black Hebrews.
The other adults were living in a home at 205 Ridge Drive, which was visited by Teller County sheriff’s deputies several times last week in an attempt to find Sisk and her son Judan.
Neither Sisk nor Judan was found at the home, but the nine children were taken into custody by Teller County social services at the request of authorities in North Carolina, Olmsted said.
Olmsted declined to explain why North Carolina social services wanted the children removed from the home.
Kammie Michael, Durham police spokeswoman, said in an e-mail that its officers are conducting an investigation with the assistance of authorities in Colorado, but declined to comment further.
Sisk has since contacted El Paso County sheriff’s deputies and is no longer considered missing, spokeswoman Lt. Lari Sevene said. Judan, who has been missing since October, has not been found, but Sevene said the Sheriff’s Office had no information about warrants for Sisk’s arrest and could not legally detain her.
“She came in and said she was OK and that was relayed to Teller County,” Sevene said. “She is not in custody.”
Olmsted said at least five of the nine children taken into custody have the same father, but different mothers among the women in the group. The relationships, he said, led him to believe initially that the group was a cult, but he later learned they belonged to a church known as Black Hebrews and that they had ties to Colorado.
“That they were a cult crossed my mind,” he said. “I would describe it now as more of an extended family that shares religious beliefs.”
Olmsted said no one has been arrested, declining to elaborate on the accusations against the group.
“Durham police contacted Colorado Springs police who contacted us after a female member who had left the group told them about things going on that they had witnessed — horrific things — being done to children,” he said.
“It is an active investigation in Durham and I can’t say what they are.”
According to several websites, Black Hebrews, also known as Black Hebrew Israelites, believe they are descendants of the ancient Israelites. They adhere to some of the beliefs and religious practices of Judaism, but are generally not recognized by Jews as being members of the religion.
Many Black Hebrews, according to the websites, don’t consider themselves Jewish, either, and consider themselves, not Jews, to be the authentic descendants of the tribes of Israel.
Black Hebrews groups were founded in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the late 1980s, the various churches that identify as Black Hebrews had an estimated membership of between 25,000 and 40,000.
The Southern Poverty Law Center in 2008 described extremists associated with the Hebrew Israelite movement as black supremacists, while cautioning that the majority of the members are neither racist nor advocates of violence.