Benjamin Reinert was just 9, the eldest of seven, when his mother died in August from an infection about a week after she miscarried.
The once-happy little blond boy who loved to play ball, roller- skate and help care for his siblings sank into a deep, dark depression.
"He was just devastated. He didn't talk to anyone, even his dad. Everyone saw a change in him. He was so close to her," his aunt, Lorraine Troutman, said yesterday from the Reinerts' Northeast Philadelphia home.
"All he wanted in life was his mom."
Now, police are investigating Benjamin's mysterious death. He was found dead at his home on New Year's Eve, one day after a city social worker visited him. The medical examiner has still not determined how or why he died.
The Reinerts are devout members of Faith Tabernacle Congregation, an international sect based in Philadelphia that believes that only prayer, not medicine, can heal. Paul Reinert, Benjamin's father, is the nephew of the late Rev. Charles A. Reinert, who was the church's leader.
As Benjamin's mother, Joyce Reinert, grew sicker and weaker last summer after she miscarried in her third month, relatives, friends and church members prayed at her bedside.
"In God's word in Jeremiah, 'Cursed be the man who trusts in man,' " Troutman said.
To seek medical help, she said, is to "turn your heart against God...Who are you going to serve - God or Satan? You serve Satan if you go to a doctor."
Joyce Reinert died Aug. 31 at her father's home on Frankford Avenue from natural causes, the medical examiner's office ruled. She was 39.
Her son, Benjamin, died four months later at his home on Bingham Street, in Crescentville. In that case, the medical examiner is awaiting lab reports and other tests to determine the cause of death, said Jeff Moran, Philadelphia Health Department spokesman.
There was no evidence of any injury, wound or bruise to his body, according to a law enforcement source. Nor was there a sign of an embolism.
The Daily News was unsuccessful yesterday in reaching Benjamin's father, who works in construction.
Neighbors described Joyce and Paul Reinert as doting, loving, religious parents.
"The house was spotless. The children were always dressed nice and very polite," said former neighbor Florence Hollup. "They were very happy children, a very happy, close-knit, family. I wish more people were like that."
Neighbors said that when Joyce was alive, she often was outside on the porch with the children, watching them play.
Since her death, relatives have taken turns caring for them.
"The kids were never neglected as far as we know," said neighbor Jack Burkhardt. "They were always dressed neat and were courteous. That's why this is so hard to believe."
Just days before his death, city social workers had visited Benjamin twice.
The city Department of Human Services stepped in after receiving an anonymous call on Dec. 27 that Benjamin's health was being neglected, said DHS spokeswoman Liza Rodriguez.
A worker who visited Benjamin the next day reported that he complained of discomfort in his foot and had trouble walking on it, but there were no visible signs of swelling or bruising, Rodriguez said.
Benjamin's father told the worker that his religious beliefs prohibited him from taking his son to a doctor. The worker informed him that if the child's condition deteriorated, the agency would seek a court order for medical treatment. State law allows court intervention if it appears a child's long-term health is threatened.
"He said, 'You do what you need to do,' " Rodriguez said.
When another worker visited Benjamin on Dec. 30, he seemed to be about the same. The worker told Reinert she would closely monitor the case. "We were going to go out there in a couple of days. If he still wasn't better, we would have asked for a court order," Rodriguez said.
The next day, Reinert found his son dead.
"It's devastating. It has hit the department very hard," Rodri- guez said. "You take all the right steps, and then there's a tragic death."
Troutman, Joyce's older sister, said she saw Benjamin many times in December. "He didn't look like he was sick," she said. "I didn't know if he hurt his ankle. No one mentioned that.
"He was laying around. He was talking. He was responsive. He couldn't walk, but he was talking and eating."
She last saw him the day before he died. "He was up in his dad's bed. He said he didn't feel like talking. He was tired," she said.
Explaining her faith, she said: "We are completely dependent on God for everything we need, financially, spiritually and physically. We trust God to heal us and he does...Nine times out of 10 he does."
When someone dies: "God wants that person. He takes life. He gives life."
She didn't want to discuss her relatives' health problems. "It's nobody's business why they died. That part of our life is over."
Benjamin was particularly close to his mom, said Eileen Herron who, until recently, lived a few doors from the Reinerts.
Herron said she'll never forget Benjamin's wake. "He was dressed in a suit he'd wear to church. He looked like a little angel," she said. He was buried next to his mother at North Cedar Hill Cemetery in the Northeast.
"His mom used to say, 'I don't know what I'd do without Benjamin.' He helped her so much with the kids," she said.
"Now he's back with her."