Parents' religious group disdains medical care
By AMY HERDY and RICHARD DANIELSON
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 1, 1998
ALM BAY -- In October 1996, police in this small riverfront town wanted to know if an obscure religious sect let a 1-month-old girl die needlessly. A detective asked of one of the group's leaders what would he do if it was his child in trouble.
"I don't know," Johnson said in a taped statement, "and the reason I say I don't know . . . is I guess you have to try and put yourself in that position and say what you would do."
Just after midnight Tuesday, Johnson found out. Seven hours earlier, a swarm of yellow jackets had stung his 2-year-old son, Harrison, 432 times. Wylie and Kelly Johnson, who live in Melbourne near Palm Bay but were visiting friends near Town 'N Country, first put the boy to bed. They didn't call 911 until after he stopped breathing.
Now Hillsborough County sheriff's detectives are investigating the toddler's death and, like their counterparts in Palm Bay, find themselves delving into a religious group that interprets scripture to equate medicine with sorcery.
For their part, Wylie Johnson, 36, and Kelly Johnson, 35, have hired a lawyer and invoked their "constitutional rights" not to speak to investigators about what they did to save their son's life.
"They're not talking to us, so we don't know," Hillsborough County sheriff's Lt. Greg Brown said Wednesday. The couple's attorney, Andre Fouche of Merritt Island, did not return several calls.
The Johnsons belong to a small group known as the Bible Readers Fellowship, which split off from a larger church in Brevard County. Earlier this year the couple was acquitted of charges that they intentionally did not tell authorities about the death of 1-month-old Alexus Aitcheson. The girl, the daughter of fellowship members Robert and Rachael Aitcheson, is said to have choked on her own vomit, according to a flier that the family produced about her death. But the Aitchesons neither called 911 as they gave the baby CPR for up to seven hours, nor did they report her death to authorities afterward.
Instead, they notified a small circle of like-minded friends, including the Johnsons, and are alleged to have cremated the girl in a private ceremony.
Police, alerted by someone who saw a copy of the flier, interviewed the Aitchesons, the Johnsons and others. According to investigative records, they found a group that, to various degrees, wanted little to do with civil government and held that belief in God was more powerful than modern medicine.
"Jesus Christ always, when people came to him, he healed them," Wylie Johnson told Palm Bay police. "He never sent them to anyone, let alone a doctor. . . . My experience has been that when I go to God first, I don't end up needing a doctor."
Other members went further. Robert Aitcheson showed detectives a religious dictionary that traced a reference to "sorcery" in the book of Revelation to the same Greek root word as "pharmacy." Aitcheson told police that he and his wife did "not believe in using doctors because they feel medical doctors are sorcerers."
But when police tried to find out what happened to Alexus' body, no one would tell them.
The Johnsons were not home Wednesday night. But neighbors placed flowers, candles and toys on their driveway as an impromptu memorial to Harrison. "He used to play in the front yard," neighbor Bonnie Charles said. "He had beautiful eyes and beautiful eyelashes."
At the Johnson's former church, the Tabernacle Church of Melbourne, members of a Wednesday night study group described the couple as accomplished musicians and nice people, but said their beliefs weren't in line with the rest of the Christian, non-denominational congregation.
"We believe in divine healing, but we believe in doctors, too," Chip Currie, 45, said. Wylie Johnson was a good piano player, he said, but he was also a "flake."
The Aitchesons are scheduled to go on trial next week on charges of child abuse, abusing a dead body and failing to report a death.
What brought the Johnsons to Tampa was unclear Wednesday. Their host, Nicole Van De Veere, would not talk to a reporter as she unloaded groceries into her home, and neighbors said they knew the Van De Veeres only vaguely.
The home, however, sits at the end of Red Run Drive in the Countryside Village Mobile Home Park. With old trees and winding roads, the complex has yards that are generally well-kept and some lots big enough to have circular driveways.
The Van De Veere home is bordered by Rocky Creek, and it was behind the home that Harrison encountered the yellow jackets.
While sheriff's officials say it was at least seven hours before the Johnsons called 911, experts on venomous insect stings could not say Wednesday whether that delay cost Harrison his life.
Different people react differently to stings from bees and yellow jackets, but two experts agreed that a toddler stung hundreds of times faced a grave risk of death -- with or without medical treatment.
"If a young child (were) stung more than 400 times, death, in spite of treatment, could very easily occur," said Dr. Michael Schumacher, an expert on bee stings and a professor in pediatrics at the University of Arizona.
With honeybee venom, which is slightly more toxic than yellow jacket venom, 1,200 to 1,400 stings would constitute a lethal dose in a 160-pound man, according to Miles W. Guralnick, a Pennsylvania entomologist. There are cases where adults have died from as few as 200 stings, but one man got stung at least 2,000 times and survived.
"It's quite reasonable that the number of stings we're talking about could be a lethal dose," said Guralnick, who runs a lab that works with wasp and yellow jacket venom for pharmaceutical purposes. "The range is broad, but this child is right in there."
Assistant medical examiner Scott Kornman, who did the autopsy, said it could take six weeks to get lab results that could shed more light on the exact cause of death, but he said there did not appear to be the kind of swelling associated with an allergic reaction.
Although Wylie Johnson said in a calm 911 call that his son had been thirsty earlier in the evening and "seemed to be all right" when put to bed, Schumacher said the pain from a mass stinging would typically produce agony and shock.
"Usually they become sicker much faster than this," Schumacher said. "For him to be behaving perfectly normally after this occurred is surprising."
Ounce for ounce, Guralnick said, wasp, bee and yellow jacket venom is some of the most pain-causing stuff on the planet. Don McLallen, 72, a neighbor of the Van De Veeres, said he knows that first-hand from being stung while mowing his yard.
"I can't imagine, as many as that baby had, what he must have felt," he said. "It really hurts. It's got a hell of a pain to it."