Sect history: Good deeds, ugly rumors

 

"Egypt has the pyramids, " Yahweh Ben Yahweh told a downtown business luncheon last May. "India has the Taj Mahal. France has the Eiffel Tower. Rome has the pope. Orlando has Disney. Miami has the son of Yahweh.

"Egypt has the pyramids, " Yahweh Ben Yahweh told a downtown business luncheon last May. "India has the Taj Mahal. France has the Eiffel Tower. Rome has the pope. Orlando has Disney. Miami has the son of Yahweh.

"The world's greatest attraction, " he said, "is in your midst. I'm here."

Now suddenly, he's gone.

Wednesday morning's arrest of Yahweh in New Orleans and 12 of his followers in Liberty City and elsewhere in the country on racketeering charges may have spelled the death knell of the church he started in 1978. But it was just one more click in the roller-coaster ride of good press-bad press that has come to symbolize the Yahweh story:

Applauded by business leaders in the spring. Handcuffed by FBI agents in the fall. Celebrated in the Miami Arena in October. Jailed in November, his followers now leaderless.

The history of the Temple of Love, the Yahwehs' Miami-based mother church, is the history of its founder. It's the story of his dream of peace and black pride, and of that dream unraveling, peeled away over the years, from insinuation to allegation to investigation to indictment.

Through the 1980s, there were the good deeds -- the infectious self-esteem among white-robed Yahwehs as they set up schools and restaurants, opened motels and renovated apartment houses, each rising like a phoenix from the ash and burned-out crack dens of the inner-city.

But there was also a sense of evil -- always just below the surface, rising first with rumors of Yahweh preaching a vicious hatred of whites, later with dark tales from former members of firebombings, beatings and murder.

As the good-and-bad legend of its leader grew, so did the church's real-estate empire, finally reaching $8 million this year. It was that very expansion that brought about a turning point in the sect's history -- their violent takeover of an apartment complex on Oct. 30, 1986, and the murders of two men who tried to stop them.

It was the beginning of the end.

If Wednesday's arrests actually lead to a core of evil, then its roots may run back to 1938, when the man who would become known as Yahweh Ben Yahweh says he first realized he was divine. Born Oct. 27, 1935, Hulon Mitchell Jr. grew up in segregated Enid, Okla., son of a strict Pentecostal minister and oldest in a family of 15.

Through the years, the blue-eyed Mitchell would shed one religious identity after another -- from "Hulon Shah" to "Father Michel" to "Brother Love." In Atlanta, Mitchell embraced Islam, borrowing Muslim techniques he would soon use to gather disciples to his new religion in a new home: Miami.

Arriving in South Florida in 1978, Mitchell took a new name, becoming Moses Israel, Yeshua Messiah, Yahweh al Messiah and Yahweh Ben Yahweh, "God, the son of God." From his fortress- like headquarters on Northwest 62nd Street, Yahweh began to print, tape-record and film his caustically racist preachings for national distribution.

Yahweh cut a colorful figure from the beginning. Turbaned and bejeweled, guarded by men armed with six-foot wooden staffs, Yahweh and his message that American blacks are the true Jews dwelling in the land of the "white devil" attracted professionals and cops, teachers and street people.

But trouble was never far behind: A grisly 1981 beheading of a former member was linked by police to the temple.

Its description of white Jews as the biblical "synagogue of Satan" alarmed Jewish groups. Families of temple followers feared their relatives were victims of mind control.

"They are a hate group, " said Willie Simms of Dade's Community Relations Board in 1986. "These people are brainwashed. I fear for the city."

Yet it was hard to deny the successes of the Temple of Love. Their economic achievements impressed black leaders such as former Miami Commissioner Athalie Range, who once called the Yahwehs' self-help philosophy "progressive."

Then came Opa-locka.

Just before noon on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 1986, six buses, two limousines, a van and several cars pulled up to a slum apartment complex in Opa-locka.

About 75 white-robed, turbaned Yahwehs got out. Some started to clean the apartments that the sect had recently purchased. Soon, Yahweh "guards, " carrying six-foot hardwood sticks called "staffs of life, " were kicking tenants out of their homes.

Early Thursday morning, when residents Rudolph Broussard and Anthony Brown resisted, they were shot execution-style.

Robert Ernest Rozier, a former football pro who went by his Yahweh name of Neariah Israel, was charged and later pleaded guilty in the two murders, as well as two others. Although the church eventually excommunicated Rozier, the damage was done.

In a move that would become one of his trademarks, Mitchell tried to sop up the bad press with a public-relations blitz.

He invited local reporters to tour his fortress-like temple, downplaying any suggested analogies between the sect and Jonestown in Guyana. And he hired someone many considered the perfect front man: Ellis Rubin, a white, Jewish and press-savvy lawyer from Miami.

But the PR could only work so much magic. In 1988, Rozier pleaded guilty to four murders -- Broussard and Brown from the Opa-locka takeover, and two drifters slain in late 1986.

Again, Yahweh and Rubin worked damage control, this time offering the sect's help in patrolling South Florida synagogues to deter increasing anti-Semitic violence.

But by now, Rozier was talking up a storm, linking Yahweh and other sect members to a number of ritualistic slayings in Florida and other states. Yahweh testified in federal court last year, denying any role in the murders.

"All we have, " Yahweh told U.S. District Judge James Kehoe, "is a record of peace."

Finally, with the empire worth an estimated $8 million, the dominoes began to tumble.

In mid-1989, Kehoe ruled the sect had waged a campaign of extortion and terror against residents of the Opa-locka apartments.

The sect was forced to give up one of their properties to pay off a court judgment. And city of Miami inspectors began cracking down on code violations at a Yahweh-run school.

Last May, the U.S. Attorney's office in Miami confirmed it was investigating the Temple of Love. Sources said prosecutors suspected Yahweh and his lieutenants of running a criminal enterprise from 1981 to 1986, dealing in extortion, fire bombing and murder.

But the roller-coaster ride was not yet quite over for Mitchell. One Sunday last month, about 2,000 followers of the self-proclaimed messiah came to hear a speech by their leader.

Yahweh told the group that following his religious laws will help lead to prosperity. He called his speech How to Move from Poverty to Riches.

During the show, a representative from the city of Miami stepped forward to hand over a proclamation signed by Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez.

It was presented 31 days before Mitchell would be arrested in New Orleans, his church thrown into disarray.

The proclamation designated Sunday, Oct. 7, 1990, as "Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day."

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