Yahweh Ben Yahweh Trial: 1992

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Yahweh Ben Yahweh Trial: 1992

Defendants: Yahweh Ben Yahweh (Hulon Mitchell); Codefendants (15 in all): Mikael, Absalom, Jesee Obed, Abiri, Isaiah Solomon, Hezion, Hoseah Isaac, Enoch, Aher, Job, Amri, Dan, Ahinadab, Sister Judith (who was Yahweh's second in command), Ahaz (all codefendants had "Israel" as their surname)
Crimes Charged: Conspiracy to commit murder, racketeering
Chief Defense Lawyer: Alcee Hastings
Chief Prosecutor: Richard Scruggs
Judge: Norman Roettger
Place: Miami, Florida
Date of Trial: January 2-May 28, 1992
Verdicts: Yahweh and Job, Amri, Dan, Ahinadab, Sister Judith, and Ahaz guilty of conspiracy; other defendants acquitted
Sentences: Yahweh: 18 years in prison; Job, Amri, Dan, Ahinadab, Sister Judith, and Ahaz: 15-16.5 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: This conviction for conspiracy imprisoned the leader of a black messianic cult, Yahweh Ben Yahweh (born Hulon Mitchell), and exposed a series of crimes committed by members of the cult at his direction. When the state of Florida refused to prosecute, federal prosecutors brought charges against the cult leader and members under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, the first time the law was employed against a religious organization. Although at least 15 gruesome murders were charged, the complex case resulted in relatively light sentences against the leader and six of his followers, with the others being acquitted.

Hulon Mitchell was born in 1935 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, the son of a Holiness Pentecostal preacher. He served in the air force after graduating high school and earned a B.A. in psychology from Phillips University in Enid, Oklahoma. In 1965 he earned an MA degree in economics from Atlanta University. In 1967, he became a leader in the branch of the Nation of Islam in Atlanta, Georgia, but Elijah Muhammad soon removed him from his post due to complaints of sexual misconduct and misuse of funds. Mitchell established his own cult in Miami, Florida, in the early 1980s, and over a period of years, acquired a devoted following of several hundred members. His followers lived in a building owned by the religion that they named Liberty City, and turned over their paychecks and welfare checks to the organization. Yahweh Ben Yahweh (Godson of God) as Mitchell called himself, appeared to seek absolute power over his followers, often with considerable success.

A Criminal or a Role Model?

Later allegations by members who dropped out included widespread sharing of sexual partners among cult members, intimidation by the cult leader and severe punishments for disloyalty, and a luxurious lifestyle of Yahweh Ben Yahweh himself. An inner circle of bodyguards protected him, standing watch over the entrance and during meetings. Friction with the outside community mounted and in May 1986, a group of Yahwehs, as the members became known, were attacked in a neighborhood of Delray Beach, south of West Palm Beach. In apparent revenge, a group of eight to 15 black men returned in the middle of the night on May 19, 1986, and firebombed four homes in the neighborhood where the cult members had been accosted. Later Yahweh Ben Yahweh denied that any of his members had participated in the firebombing, and he sent checks of several thousand dollars to the victims of the firebombing attack.

Through such gestures, and through the thriving businesses he established, he won widespread support in the Miami political community. His program of investments in real estate and the fact that he recruited and apparently rehabilitated homeless and destitute members of the black community in the period 1988-1990 began to win local and even national recognition. Mayor Xavier Suarez of Miami praised Yahweh for the economic ventures that included a grocery store, motels, and other businesses.

Meanwhile, a series of unsolved crimes in the Miami area had police puzzled. Several murder victims were found in outlying wasteland, some mutilated by having their ears cut off. One murder victim, Aston Green, was decapitated. Another victim, Leonard Dupree, was reputedly beaten to death by a mob at the cult headquarters, on suspicion that he was a police or Black Muslim informant. Rumors spread that the cult leader had sex with many of the female members, some as young as 10 or 11 years old. Murder victim Raymond Kelley, a 61-year-old white mechanic, had one ear partially severed and the other entirely cut off. Later, the police attributed the ear-mutilations to the cult, after defectors from the cult claimed that Yahweh Ben Yahweh urged them to "smite their enemies" and to bring him proof of their action.

A confrontation between the Yahwehs and apartment residents in Opalocka, a suburb of Miami, brought the cult into the news in 1986.The cult attempted to evict tenants forcibly from an apartment complex on 131st Street, leading to an exchange of gun fire and two deaths.

Arrest and Indictment

Bobby Rozier, a former football player with the University of California Golden Bears and with the St. Louis Cardinals, had joined the cult and changed his name to Neariah Israel. He later dropped out and agreed to help the FBIwork on building a case against Yahweh. Yahweh excommunicated Rozier from the cult. Rozier became the chief prosecution witness as the federal government built a conspiracy and murder case against the cult, its leader, and several of its members. After developing testimony, the FBI conducted a raid on the head-quarters, November 7, 1990, in "Operation Jericho." The FBI coordinated raids on a travelling Yahweh group staying in a hotel in New Orleans, where Yahweh Ben Yahweh himself was arrested. Following the arrest and raid on Liberty City, the FBI questioned former and current cult members, gathered depositions, and sought physical evidence. The indictment included the firebombing in Delray Beach, the extortion and threats against the tenants in Opa-locka, two attempted homicides, and 14 specific murders. A later grand jury finding added an additional murder charge.

Although many witnesses were afraid to testify, several defectors from the cult appeared as witnesses. The trial was complicated by the fact that in addition to Yahweh himself, 15 other members of the cult were charged with conspiracy, extortion, and murder. The mass of evidence, the multiple charges, the lengthy proceedings, conflicting testimony, outbursts during the trial, and intense local media coverage exhausted and confused the jury. Among other defenses offered by Yahweh's attorney was the claim that he had not intended his sermons (protected as religious speech) regarding "smiting the enemy" to be taken literally, and that if followers had done so, he had no knowledge of their actions. Testimony by Rozier and others, however, indicated that he had specifically urged his followers to kill defectors and random whites.

Jury Deadlocks on Several Charges

In May 1992, the jury reported being deadlocked several times, but federal judge Norman Roettger ordered them to continue searching for a verdict. The extortion charge against Yahweh was thrown out, and the racketeering charge against him resulted in a hung jury. He was convicted of conspiracy. Seven of the charged disciples were acquitted: Mikael, Absalom, Jesee Obed, Abiri, Isaiah Solomon, Hezion, and Hoseah Isaac (all followers took the surname "Israel"). The jury deadlocked on two others, Enoch and Aher. Six others were convicted of conspiracy: Job, Amri, Dan, Ahinadab, Sister Judith (who was Yahweh's second in command), and Ahaz. The six convicted disciples each received sentences for 15-16 years, 6 months.

When handing down the sentence to Yahweh, Judge Roettger stunned prosecution attorneys, jury members, and the press by complimenting Yahweh on attempting to be a good community influence. He then reduced Yahweh's sentence to 18 years, with possibility of parole in 9 years. Janet Reno, state attorney general in Florida at the time, dropped state murder charges against Yahweh on the total of 18 or 19 murders attributed to the cult by local authorities. No charges against any of the cult members for sexual abuse of children was ever brought, nor were the financial dealings of the cult ever subject to a comprehensive scrutiny.

Rodney Carlisle

Suggestions for Further Readings

Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. "The Yahwehs: Violence and Anti-Semitism in a 'Black Hebrew' Sect." 1991

Freedberg, Sydney P. Brother Love: Murder, Money, and a Messiah. New York: Pantheon, 1994.