KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- They found her, one leg curled under the other, in the back seat of a van at Longview Lake, a white plastic bag over her head, a purple pillow beside her, an empty pill bottle nearby.
Everyone assumed it was a suicide -- the note found in the van seemed to indicate as much: "I did it because I wouldn't be a real person and what is the point of living if it is too late for that?" it said, and, "Maybe Jesus will still forgive me."
But in the weeks since the body of Bethany Deaton, a registered nurse who had ties to a charismatic Christian sect here that practices round-the-clock worship, was found, the circumstances of her death have become far less clear.
Three days after Ms. Deaton's funeral, a 23-year-old man, Micah Moore, walked into the Grandview, Mo., Police Department and confessed to suffocating her.
"I killed her," he told officers, according to court documents, adding that he had placed the bag over her head and "held it there until her body shook."
Now, the authorities are investigating allegations that Ms. Deaton, 27, was drugged, sexually assaulted and killed on the orders of her husband, Tyler Deaton, 26, a man described by witnesses as a Pied Piper-like leader who gathered a band of young people around him and pressured them to engage in sexual practices under the guise of religious devotion. Mr. Moore has been charged with first-degree murder. Mr. Deaton and others are still under investigation.
"Each case is a puzzle," said Sheriff Mike Sharp of Jackson County, whose department is leading the investigation. "And this one's got hundreds of pieces."
Mr. Deaton and his followers, including Ms. Deaton, moved here from Texas three years ago to be close to the International House of Prayer, which draws tens of thousands of people from around the world to its 24-hour prayer hall in a former strip mall and to its university in nearby Grandview, a Kansas City suburb. Mr. Deaton and Mr. Moore had both been students at the International House of Prayer University.
The International House of Prayer -- widely referred to as IHOP -- has distanced itself from the case, saying that it was it was unaware of Mr. Deaton's splinter group, which church leaders said operated independently and "under a veil of secrecy."
"IHOP did not know what Deaton was doing," said Ed Novak, a lawyer who is representing the church, adding, "That group that he organized and was working with, IHOP has no knowledge of, no oversight over and no participation in."
But in the surrounding community, the killing has renewed debate about the church -- which has acquired an increasing number of properties in Grandview and neighboring areas -- and discussion about the line between religion and cult. Some critics have expressed concern that the church's teachings, which emphasize charismatic beliefs like the power of prophecy, miracles and preparation for the end times, may create an atmosphere that allows the emergence of practices like those attributed to Mr. Deaton and his followers.
Keith Gibson, an evangelical pastor and author of "Wandering Stars," a book that is critical of the church's doctrines, said that he does not regard the International House of Prayer or its leaders as sinister. "But it would seem that the structures to correct abuses are not strongly in place," he said, and that the emphasis on prophecy "leaves their followers without a grid to judge other people claiming to be prophets who might be more sinister in their methods."
For Ms. Deaton, religion formed a central core of her life. She and others followed Mr. Deaton to Kansas City after graduating from Southwestern University, a small Methodist liberal arts college in Georgetown, Tex., in 2009. The couple married in August.
Kate Farlow, Ms. Deaton's supervisor at Menorah Medical Center in Overland Park, Kan., where she worked with cardiology patients, described her as "a gifted young woman," whose "beautiful big blue eyes" would light up when she talked about her faith or about her goal of becoming a missionary overseas.
"She was very spiritual and very inspiring in the way she loved talking to patients," Ms. Farlow said.
On Nov. 6, a week after Ms. Deaton died, 100 people, including her husband and her parents, crowded into a funeral home overlooking Longview Lake to mourn her passing.
But according to Mr. Novak, the lawyer, members of Mr. Deaton's group made statements at the service that alarmed officials from the International House of Prayer who attended. The next day, Mr. Deaton was informed that he was no longer welcome on any church property or at the university, Mr. Novak said.
On Nov. 9, Mr. Moore, escorted by senior church leaders, walked into the Grandview Police Department and told officers that Ms. Deaton's death was no suicide.
Mr. Moore, the court document said, told the investigators that Mr. Deaton had instructed him to kill his wife, saying that "he knew Micah had it in him to do it."
Over the course of months, Mr. Moore said, he and several other men had sexually assaulted Ms. Deaton at the house on East 122nd Street where she lived with her husband and other group members. The assaults had been recorded on an iPad and written about in poems, the documents said Mr. Moore had told one of the International House of Prayer leaders. Ms. Deaton had also been given Seroquel, an antipsychotic drug, during the assaults and in a water bottle before she was killed.
Mr. Moore told investigators that Ms. Deaton was killed because of fears that she would tell a therapist she was seeing about the sexual assaults.
In interviews with detectives, several men who lived in the house said they had been involved in "secret" sexual relationships with Mr. Deaton. After Ms. Deaton's death, one witness said, Mr. Deaton mentioned having dreamed that "he had killed his wife by suffocating her."
Jean Peters Baker, the Jackson County prosecutor, said the International House of Prayer was not a focus of the investigation. She views Mr. Moore, she said, as "a coldblooded killer."
But after a court hearing last week, Melanie Morgan, one of two lawyers representing Mr. Moore, said there was no proof that a crime had taken place. Her client's statements to the police, she said, were those of "a distraught and confused young man under extreme psychological pressure" and his confession was "fictional."
"The facts suggest Bethany Deaton's death was an unfortunate suicide and Micah Moore had nothing to do with that suicide," Ms. Morgan said.
Ms. Baker, the prosecutor, said that her office was still awaiting a final report from the medical examiner's office. A preliminary hearing has been postponed until January. In the meantime, a grand jury will take up the case.
Sheriff Sharp said that Mr. Deaton -- who on his Facebook page lists Harry Potter, learning Greek and Hebrew, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer's book "Life Together" as "likes" -- had since returned to Texas. (Messages left on his voice mail and on Facebook and his e-mail received no response.)
Meanwhile, in online forums and in neighborhoods where students and worshipers from the International House of Prayer live, often crowded together in houses and apartments, arguments continue about whether the church's influence had any role in Ms. Deaton's death.
Mike Bickle, the pastor of the International House of Prayer, recently gave a sermon warning church members about the danger of cults. But in online forums, disaffected former church members have claimed that the church itself engages in cultlike practices, like telling members to stop communicating with their families (the International House of Prayer has denied this).
Several active church members, asked about the Deaton case, declined to discuss it. A reporter who approached customers at the Higher Grounds coffee shop, part of the prayer hall complex, was politely asked to leave by one of the church's security guards, many of whom are armed, and referred to the church's public relations specialist.
But Anna Alvarez, a baker who lives down the street from the now-deserted house where Mr. Deaton gathered his flock, said, "IHOP has always kind of given me the creeps."
"They tend to attract people who are already naïve," said Ms. Alvarez, noting that the cars of people visiting the Deaton house often filled the street. "They think that everybody in the organization is just like them, but it's really easy if a wolf is there to just pull it apart."nation
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.