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Posted by: steve benson ( )
Date: February 15, 2013 10:21PM

I recently received email correspondence from a family member of a Mormon missionary who was horribly and tragically killed by his companion while serving in the Louisville-Kentucky mission--which, at the time, was headed by my uncle, Reed Benson, as its president. (His assignment there ran from 1975 to 1978).

The family member of the slain missionary contacted me because she had read my previous account of that awful event on this site and reached out to express her appreciation, as well as to share her feelings--including her outrage--along with additional details surrounding the death of her Mormon missionary relative and how, in the aftermath, the killing has continued--all these years later--to impact her and her family.

She gave me permission to share the contents of her correspondence with me here, including her full identity.

She is an ex-Mormon who left the Mormon Church in her teenage years, and who has been a silent reader of this board.

Silent until now.

She is a 30-year-old single mother who lives and works in the Salt Lake City area. Her mother is a cousin of James E. Christensen, the Mormon missionary who was killed by his companion iwhile in my uncle’s mission.

By way of background regarding this appalling event, victim James E. Christensen had been disabled as a youth in, as I recall, some kind of accident. As I remember it, the situation involved a collision with a train. As a result of the accident, James was permanently brain damaged but was determined to serve a mission, nonetheless.

James entered the mission field and was assigned to a senior companion who eventually killed him, having apparently "snapped" from dealing with his impaired companion.

The circumstances of James’ death were shocking. His killer brutally abused and eventually scalded James to death in their apartment bathtub. The killer was ultimately remanded by the courts to the custody of his parents and served no prison time.

(Interestingly enough, a mission assistant to my uncle Reed Benson, named Reed Smith, has in the past posted about this terrible episode on the “Recovery from Mormoisn“ bulletin board. He knew both the murder victim, Elder James Christensen, and James’ killer, and has shared particulars about the case here. Perhaps, if Reed Smith sees this, he can again post and shed pertinent light on what occurred, as he saw and understood it from his unique vantage point. Not nearly so important and interesting is that, coincidentally enough, the killing of James E. Christensen by his companion occurred on my uncle Reed's birthday, January 2nd--he and I share the same birthday, which accounts for my middle name being "Reed").

I initially found out about the tragic death of James E. Christensen when I overheard members of my family privately criticizing this senselessly-slain missionary at a Benson family gathering (one that was held during LDS General Conference, as our wider family get-togethers often are). Benson family members were blaming James for going on a mission in the first place, against the advice of his local Mormon leaders. (Again, James had reportedly been brain-injured in his youth and his local ecclesiastical leaders therefore thought it inadvisable that he attempt to serve a mission).

I was astounded to hear members of my family essentially holding this dead missionary responsible for his own demise, caused--as they perversely saw it--by his failure to follow local LDS priesthood authority. In defense of their own, what members of the Benson family were doing was laying blame for Elder Christensen’s death at his own feet, saying that because he had failed to follow the counsel of his local Mormon Church leaders to forego a mission, he had paid with his own life. They singularly (and defensively, I might add) focused their energies among themselves on how, after James was injured in his pre-mission accident, his local Church leaders advised him not to go on a mission but that he ignored their advice and went anyway. Subsequently, he was killed by his companion--who had a difficult time dealing with the ill-fated missionary's mental impairment, which slowed James down and made him an unbearable challenge to work with, at least as far as his companion was concerned.

I did some research of my own on the killed Mormon missionary, James E. Christensen, and in the process came across a so-called reunion "found list" of missionaries who had served under my uncle Reed Benson in the Louisville KY mission. It contained the name of one "James Christensen" who, under the category of "Home phone," was simply listed as "deceased," with no other information provided.

However, another website, "Mahonri--Finding Light in the Darkness," offered a tribute to Mormon missionaries who have died while serving their Church:

"'In Memoria'

"We want to honor and recognize the work of all missionaries on the Parley P. Pratt Missionary Memorial, but unfortunately we do not have a complete list of those who have given their lives in the service of the Master.

"Nor do we have a complete roster of all missionaries who now face physical, emotional and intellectual challenges as a result of accident or illness suffered on their missions.

"Further, we do not have a complete list of those missionaries whose lives were taken before being able to enter the mission field. Your help in compiling a more complete account of those we would honor will be greatly appreciated."

They did, however, have the following name and brief biographical information:

"James E. Christensen, 24, Kentucky Louisville, Moroni, UT 1977"

At least it was more than the pathetically meager reference offered up by the Louisville KY mission's reunion website--although the list of dead on the "Mahonri" memorial webpage was followed by a bizarre observation from Apostle M. Russell Ballard:

"Since the day of the Prophet Joseph Smith, we've had approximately 447,969 missionaries serve in the world,' Elder M. Russell Ballard said in 1989. 'Of those 447,969, (some) 525 have lost their lives while serving as full-time missionaries,' he added. 'When you contemplate that number, it appears that the safest place in the whole world is to be on a full-time mission,' concluded the member of the Twelve."


Tell that to mentally-disabled Elder James E. Christensen: dead at age 24, due--according to family members of Ezra Taft Benson defending their own--to his failure to obey priesthood authority.

(By the way, I was later informed that my uncle Reed Benson did not leave the mission field over which he was presiding at the time in order to attend James E. Christensen's Moroni, Utah, funeral. He stayed behind while his wife--my aunt May--went, instead).


At this point, I’d like to share--with her personal permission--her thoughts, expressed as a relative of James E. Christensen, the Mormon missionary who was slain at the hands of his own companion—and who, in death, was blamed for his death.

She began:


“My name is Angela Voss and I recently came across one of your contributing posts to It was the post about James Christensen, the mentally-disabled young man who was killed by his companion while on his mission.

“I'm a 30-year-old single mother and left the [Mormon] Church when I was 17. My parents are TBMs, as are my three brothers. I have not been active on the exmormon boards, but am an active reader.

“It hurts to see my family continually abused by the Church. I had never heard anyone else mention the story of what happened to James before (it seems to me it was kept very quiet, not in the news, etc., but I could be wrong).

“Memorial Day last year, I was with my parents in Moroni [Utah], at a Christensen family reunion (my paternal grandmother is a Christensen). My mother and I walked around numerous relatives’ graves at the Moroni cemetery. I would ask all about the person whose grave we were at and she would tell me stories of all the charming things she remembered or knew about our relatives.

“That is, until we came to one grave, wherein she got a heavy look on her face and refused to tell me about him, other than that they were close and he was her cousin. I noted that he was young when he died. I'm sure it's obvious by now that this grave was James Christensen's grave. My mom was acting so odd about it that I kept bringing it up until she was able to tell me what happened, which was not easy for her to do.

“From the moment I heard the story of what happened to her cousin, I was furious. Obviously, he probably shouldn't have been allowed to go in the first place. Secondly, with him going, he should have gone on a service mission. The whole situation makes me furious--and I sincerely blame the religious leaders for his death. I also blame the LDS religion on the importance they place on young men going on proselyting missions.

“I have seen the harm this creates directly with my younger brother, Brian, who was born with Mosaic Down Syndrome, and who prayed to God every night asking him to be able to go on a mission.

[Mosiac Down Syndrome is a rare condition that afflicts a small percentage of children with Down Syndrome. For information on this genetic disorder, see, “What Do We Know Bbout the Needs of Children with Mosaic Down Syndrome and Their Families?,” at:; and “What is Mosaic Down Syndrome?,” at;]

Angela continued:

“I am absolutely sure that every time my mother thought of James, she pictured her own son, also mentally disabled, going on a mission as he had often begged to do. I can't imagine how painful that was for her to continue to tell my brother no, he could not go on a ‘regular mission.’ Turns out she had very good reason for that--she needed to protect her son. He eventually did go on a mission but it was a local service mission. To this day, my younger brother feels guilty and less-worthy than others because he wasn't able to go on a ‘real’ mission.

“I am not really sure what my intention is by sending this e-mail, except to let you know I appreciate you making my mom's cousin James’ story known and to share my personal experience.

“I was not shocked at all when you mentioned the Benson family blamed him. That is a pretty standard defense for the Church when something goes wrong. No one ever seems to take accountability. I am tempted to use this information as ammunition to help my parents see that the Church is harmful, but know that would only fuel the hurt and cause more arguments. Their faith is absolutely unwavering so far. I'm likely as frustrated with them for not ‘seeing the truth’ as they are with me for ‘not seeing THEIR truth.’ It's a futile situation but I hope they are able to find a truth that doesn't harm them someday.

“Again, thank you again for mentioning James’ story.


“Angela Voss”

In a follow-up email to me, Angela said this about the “Recovery from Mormonism” site:

“A lot of eyes have been opened and a lot of healing has begun from posts on exmormon. I was so surprised when I found that post. I didn't think anyone else knew about it.”

Angela then proceeded to explain more about the killing of her mother’s cousin, James E. Christensen, and how her mother has not been forthcoming about the particulars of the court proceedings that ensued in the wake of his death:

“What I can't figure out, and what my mother will not tell me, are the details of the criminal proceedings. I don't understand how this missionary was not prosecuted at all. I am wondering who represented Jim's [the killed missionary] family and what exactly the ruling was. It's absolutely baffling that he got off with no jail time. He was clearly an adult at the time of his mission and it was clearly murder. I thought I might look into the court records but was not sure where to start. It seems it would have at least been in the news but I can't find any record of it. The only thing I found was his obituary, a picture of his grave and your post. It seems like the family just wanted to this all to go away quietly. They didn't want to give the Church a bad name, or at least that's my suspicion.

“. . . James was [my grandmother’s] nephew and my mom and grandmother were quite close to him. I only recently found out about all of this because for so many years, it was too painful for my mother to talk about.

“Thank you,


Angela wrote back again, this time to share disturbing details surrounding the death of James E. Christensen at the hands of his missionary companion:

“Steve, I didn't include this in the original e-mail, but before he was scalded/killed, he was indeed beat with a belt on a regular basis, along with other abuses of which weren't specified by mom. So, the abuse started long before the episode that killed him. :-(


Angela has stepped up to confront and face down the Mormon Church for the deep suffering it has brought to her and her family.

In determining to give personal voice to her story, she admitted the "frustration and anger" she has felt "in collecting my thoughts,"

But she did what she had to do, wrapping it up by firmly declaring, "Please feel free to use my whole name. Thank you,"

Thank you, Angela Voss, for courageously sharing your experience, your pain and your hopes.

Peace, strength and healing to you.

Edited 43 time(s). Last edit at 02/16/2013 09:44AM by steve benson.

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Posted by: ethan ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 12:58AM

Thank you for sharing this. It's too bad there isn't more readily available information surrounding the circustances of the whole thing. It would be another way for the world to learn the modus operandi of TSCC.

It burns me up hearing how callously others placed the blame for his death squarely on himself. That's deplorable!

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Posted by: biblebeltbetsy ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:14AM

Whatever happened to James' killer? How do you kill someone and NOT serve prison time??? WTF???

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Posted by: Fetal Deity ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:24AM

And a sad and perplexing story, Steve. I remember your sharing it a couple of years ago. Thanks for posting it again with the additional detail from the extended-family member.

I also have a relative with a mental disability--although mild--who is about to embark on an LDS mission. I'm not concerned about violence, but more convinced that there will be a lot of unnecessary suffering because of these unreasonable cultural expectations.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/16/2013 01:26AM by Fetal Deity.

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Posted by: DebbiePA ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:33AM

This is one of the more horrific things I have read on RfM. I cannot in my wildest dreams imagine that someone could beat another person and kill them and then be left free to live their life. How on earth did this happen???

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Posted by: steve benson ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:42AM

. . . uncover more details regarding the legal proceedings that resulted in James' killer not being imprisoned for what he did.

(I was provided contact information).

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 02/16/2013 02:46AM by steve benson.

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Posted by: Southern ExMo ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:44AM

This is the first I have heard of the murder/torture of Elder James Christensen.

So obviously, I don't have any inside information on what happened.

But it seems to me that about the only way that the senior companion could have gotten off scott free like he did was if TSCC used its might, muscle, and money to get him off.

Who was this murderer missionary? (How much you want to bet that he at least holds the rank of Stake President in TSCC? Or maybe he's a Mission President somewhere?) Why is his identity such a secret?

Was he some kind of relative of the LDS royalty?

Or did TSCC defend him mainly to keep everything "under control," and keep this situation quiet?

It is absolutely deplorable to blame this mentally challenged young man with his own torture and death!

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Posted by: steve benson ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:47AM

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Posted by: Fetal Deity ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:55AM

One has to wonder if the killer didn't have some sort of psychiatric disorder. I suppose such a condition could conceivably mitigate criminal charges. But, if that were the case, you would think he would have been required to undergo psychiatric treatment and/or commitment, rather than simply given over to his parents.

So many questions ...

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Posted by: steve benson ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:56AM

Edited 3 time(s). Last edit at 02/16/2013 03:30AM by steve benson.

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Posted by: catnip ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 04:19AM

In the REAL world, killers don't generally get off, scot-free.

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Posted by: MexMom ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 02:12AM

This is so disturbing on so many levels. Damn cult!

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Posted by: forbiddencokedrinker ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 02:15AM

I don't mean to make this about me, but what disturbs me about it is all the violent thoughts I used to have towards some of my companions. Most of them I got along fine with, but there were some I really hated, and I felt like I was trapped with them with no way out. In one case in particular, I used to think about seriously hurting the other guy, but didn't because I was holding out for transfer day. If I had not been trapped in a cult, I would have simply moved away, or at least moved my bed and other stuff into the other room of the apartment.

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Posted by: steve benson ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 02:18AM

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Posted by: forbiddencokedrinker ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 02:19AM

True, and when you throw people together, with little or nor regard to how well they can get along, then tell them they can't leave each other's presence, bad things happen.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/16/2013 02:19AM by forbiddencokedrinker.

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Posted by: Raptor Jesus ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 09:49AM

Stories like these show how dangerous that kind of situation can be.

You have no idea who the person your forced to be with really is.

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Posted by: Mormon Observer ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 03:38AM

WHY did the local leaders send in Brother Christensens papers in the first place????
What was brought to bear upon the LOCAL leaders?

How did this wonderful, but challenged young man get off the farm?????

But this was the 70s when he went wasn't it?
I had a friend whose companion (they served in San Francisco in the mid 70s) who kept insisting his companion must "Stop the car Elder, we're dragging a body" and other odd things. He went on a mission. I guess in their stupid zeal and smug confidence they'd never be sued or held accountable, the TSCC sent anyone who put in their papers ......

I am truly horrified at what can go wrong on missions. I attended the funeral of one of my townsmen who was murdered for his backpack on his mission. He was so funny and bright and he was one of the children of my village when I raised the first half of my family.

I'm so glad we all left the church. And my four sons will never go on a Moron mission.

I hope we can come to know why that murderer was let free.

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Posted by: Exmo Dad ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 09:25AM

Gives me a sick feeling inside. The disabled are abused at a much higher proportion than the general population.

The sicker feeling I have is that the Mormon hierarchy probably makes decisions such as "no more missionaries with mental illness" not because of kindness but because of trying to avoid bad publicity

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Posted by: Merovea ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 07:40AM

Thank you Steve for all of your hard work at bringing light to the many little known perversities of Mormonism. I did know your aunt May well. She was a warm, considerate woman, taking mostly after her parents whom I adored. She must have been horrified at that situation... but probably submitted to her husband's Mormon law of silence for all things unpleasant and potentially harmfull to the cult.

You need to know that you are very inspirational to people interested in knowing and understanding the hidden "gospel principles" that are so harmful to the spiritual and physical lives of people and make this religion a veritable C U L T!

Thank you and best wishes to you.

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Posted by: Greyfort ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 09:38AM

I don't even know what to say to that. It sounds like much of poor James' life was tragic. No one deserves that. And people talk about a loving god? A middle finger goes to that god from me.

Anyway, what leaves me pretty much speechless is that the guy served no time for this. I'm just shaking my head. I don't even know what to say to that. Nothing should surprise me anymore.

My heart truly goes out to that family. I can't imagine anyone staying in the Church after such an event.

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Posted by: summer ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 09:50AM

It sounds like James had no capacity to communicate his abuse to church authorities and no capacity to defend himself against such abuse. As such, he was helpless.

In a public school, he would be given an aide to assist him all day. At home, he would have family members to help him. But the Mormon church in its wisdom paired him up with a mean, abusive, untrained and unvetted missionary companion. Without excusing his behavior, this companion was expected to not only do missionary work but to look after James. The church therefore made no appropriate plans to accommodate James's disability, and is therefore culpable.

Parents of missionaries need to quit the habit of blindly putting their trust in the church to look after the welfare of their family members. No one will ever do that as well as someone who is close to you and who loves you. Common sense must prevail.

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Posted by: CL2 ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 09:51AM

Thank you for bringing it to light once again.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/16/2013 10:56AM by cl2.

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Posted by: Twinker ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 11:07AM

A lie by ommission?

And the killer's name and present location can be easily found by doing a google search. And it appears there was a trial for Christensen's murder.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 02/16/2013 11:36AM by Twinker.

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Posted by: twojedis ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 11:22AM

How sick to blame the disabled missionary. Many people along the way are to blame, only the dead missionary lies blameless in this situation. This poor woman and her family, but the church is true, right?

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Posted by: shannon ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 11:50AM

I have a disabled son. It breaks my heart to think of the cruelty that poor young missionary suffered.

Get the story, Steve. The full, ugly details of that murder need to be brought into the bright light of day.

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Posted by: Reed Smith ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 11:58AM

As Steve noted, I was the senior assistant to Reed Benson when Elder Christensen and Elder Belde were put together. This, of course, was years ago. In hindsight it was a stupid mistake, and I deeply regret that I was not more thoughtful and sensitive, as well as outspoken, about the potential dynamics of this combination.

Elder Christensen was severely challenged. Mentally, he was O.K. He could communicate and express himself. It appeared that his limitations were mostly physical. He could not walk without a severe limp, and he slurred his speech such that you had to be very attentive to understand him. But he was a kindly soul, with a "good spirit about him," if you will pardon use of such language in this context. He clearly understood what he was doing on a mission, and wanted to be there. He seemed capable of communicating any desire to leave, or any abuse he was suffering, which to my knowledge he never did. But there is no question that as a companion, Elder Christensen would be, and was, a huge challenge, requiring great patience.

Elder Belde, by all appearances, was a model missionary. He was particularly well known for his hard work and aggressive missionary attitude. But rather than being what you would call "spiritual," he was driven. He was the kind of missionary that Reed Benson particularly appreciated. He just did the work, without worrying too much about the basis for his motivation. There is no question that these two should never have been put together. Moreover, again in hindsight, this should have been obvious. It simply was a bad match. I will hasten to add, common sense should have been enough, but surely an inspired mission president should have seen this immediately. This is not to criticize Reed Benson, but only to question the "inspiration" component in this context. The problem is compounded when Mormon leaders come to believe that if they pray hard and live the commandments, both of which Reed Benson did, whatever they might do, or think, can be confidently viewed as inspired; and that the "Lord" will validate such decisions. It is a dangerous illusion, as this case demonstrates.

I was not in Kentucky when Elder Christensen died, so I cannot speak to the specific events or aftermath. Knowing Reed Benson as I came to--I was his missionary assistant for 8 months, and one of his closest advisors--I have no doubt that he was genuinely tramatized by this episode. He was (and presumably still is) a good man, with a good heart. (Notwithstanding his outrageous and delusional political views, which is another story) He would not have taken this lightly. I was very surprized by the account of the Benson family blaming Elder Christensen, but perhaps this is a defensive mechanism that became useful over time. As I said, Elder Christensen was competent, and wanted to be there. No doubt he got some bad advise in going on a mission, but I also understand that within the Mormon culture, missionary pressures, from prospective missionaries, their families, local ward members and leaders, etc. is complicated and at times intense. There is probably a lot of personal blame to go around, including some in my own direction. But to my mind, the most blame goes to Mormonism itself, the false, cultish, system that propagates these pressures, while falsely claiming that they come from and are validated by God. In this context, human beings and human reasoning always take a back seat, and there is always the opportunity to finally place blame on the victim, while escaping responsibility further by invoking "God's will."

One final comment. Although there is, of course, no excuse for Elder Belde's actions, and there is a real temptation (for me too) to feel that he "got away with it," we should remember that he was placed in a position that was impossible for him. Yes, he should have spoke up. He should have said, "I can't do this." But does Mormonism allow that? And what if he had; would he have been separated from Elder Christensen; or just encouraged to "pray for patience," and show more love. I really don't know whether short of actual known abuse, any change would have been made in time to prevent this tragedy. In this respect Elder Belde was a victim of Mormonism too. In my mind, much more accountability rests with the Church which was entirely responsible for creating the circumstances of this death, including the false and dangerous mental and emotional states of the missionaries, church leaders, and others involved--including Reed Benson and myself.

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Posted by: Glo ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 12:27PM

Your last paragraph is excellent and insightful.

Putting the 24/7 burden of care for a handicapped person on a young inexperienced missionary, while also expecting him to proselyte, is the height of insanity.
No wonder the kid snapped.

Christenson should have been kept in the mission offices or sent home.

Too bad Church HQ did not listen to the local leaders who,after all, knew Christensen best.

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Posted by: noaccountyet ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 12:56PM

Elder Christensen only had a few months to go on his mission? That means he had companions that were able to work with him. Elder Belde was not put in an impossible position, other companions served with Elder Christensen without abusing him. (Beating him and scalding him in the awful)

Elder Belde should be in prison right now. Surely parenthood has been just as challenging as serving with a disabled companion (I am assuming he has experienced parenthood).

Tragic story. My sympathies to everyone that loved Elder Christensen and to the family that is still affected by his loss and the circumstances surrounding it.

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Posted by: Glo ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:36PM

Oh brother.
A schizophrenic was expected to take over the care of a handicapped missionary companion.

Both were made worse by their missions.

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Posted by: Greyfort ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 12:28PM

I just can't get behind Elder Belde not serving any time whatsoever the loss of a life. If he can snap and kill one person, then he can do it to another.

It sounds like Elder Christensen only had a few months to go on his mission and that's just tragic.

Whenever someone is in a challenging situation, it always helps to know that it will only be for a short duration and then will end. Then you can pat yourself on the back for getting through it.

If a situation has become unbearable, lock yourself in the bathroom for a while and soak in a hot tub. He could have thought of ways to help himself cope for the short time he'd be with this elder. He could have talked to someone.

I just can't see him as a victim. To allow him to simply go on with her life is unbelievable to me.

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Posted by: Twinker ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 12:30PM

Does anyone know the details of the trial? Was he acquitted? Hung jury?

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Posted by: summer ( )
Date: February 16, 2013 01:23PM

According to the Stevens Point Daily Journal (July 1, 1977,) Bjelde had a bench trial (one where the verdict is decided by a judge,) and the verdict was a swift one.

Bjelde had been charged with three counts of murder and one of aggravated assault. He was convicted of one count of voluntary manslaughter and one of aggravated assault.

One thing that probably worked in Bjelde's favor was that the official cause of death was a burst cerebral aneurysm that Christensen had suffered in the crash a decade before. But the beatings and burns that he suffered at Christensen's hands were horrific.

From the article:

"Bjelde, who took Christensen to the hospital, reportedly told
police he had held Christensen down in a tub of scalding water
and had beaten him several times because of his 'sloth.'

Testimony in the three-day bench trial revealed that Bjelde
felt that Christensen, who suffered several physical disabilities because of his accident, was lacking in appropriate
missionary zeal."


One witness for the defense, a psychiatrist, called Bjelde a "chronic schizophrenic."

That August, according to the Salt Lake Tribune (8-13-77,) Bjelde was sentenced to five years probation and fined $3,500.

As far as I can tell, Bjelde is now 56 years old, and still lives in his native Wisconsin.

Edited 4 time(s). Last edit at 02/16/2013 01:30PM by summer.

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