U.S. investigates financial deals by Yahweh cult

 

aviglucci@miamiherald.com

The Yahweh religious sect, whose leaders are under indictment on charges of murder and racketeering, is also under federal investigation for alleged financial crimes.

Federal agents have been probing the Temple of Love's financial affairs for months, looking for evidence of misuse of welfare payments by members and tax evasion by the sect's leader, Hulon Mitchell Jr., known as Yahweh Ben Yahweh.

Sources say the investigation also encompasses allegations by a former Yahweh member who said he saw drug dealers deliver bags of cash to Mitchell at the sect's Liberty City headquarters.

The sworn allegations by Robert Rozier, a star witness in the murder indictments, first came to light during a related civil trial last year. Rozier, who is serving a prison sentence for murder, testified that the temple itself didn't traffic in drugs.

But he said individual Yahweh members whom he described as "very well-known drug dealers" were involved in the trade with Mitchell's blessing. Mitchell offered the traffickers protection in return for large "donations, " Rozier said.

"He understood the type of business that they were in. . . . He also encouraged them to give tithes and donations in order to protect them from arrest, " Rozier said.

Mitchell's attorney, Alcee Hastings, angrily denied Rozier's drug allegations. He called Rozier "the government's principal liar."

"I know nothing of that, and there are no formal charges filed, " Hastings said. "My client is prepared to face any charges if formally filed. I believe Robert Rozier is, as usual, out in la-la land."

"It doesn't seem to me it has a hill of beans of truth to it, " Hastings said, referring to Rozier's testimony. "If the government knew about it and didn't include it in the indictments, they have acted thoroughly irresponsibly. It isn't charged because it isn't true.

"There is no evidence along the lines of overt drug dealings. And what do drug people need to pay religious people for protection for?"

Hastings said he would consider filing a libel lawsuit against The Miami Herald if it published an article mentioning Rozier's allegations.

"It's unfair. I don't think it ought to be a story, " Hastings said. "You're being had. It is a foolish story. If the government is your source, they are poisoning the well."

Rozier, who pleaded guilty to four murders committed while he was a Yahweh, has been cooperating with authorities under the federal witness-protection program. His statements to investigators, corroborated by other witnesses, helped lead to the indictments last month of Mitchell and 16 of his followers. They are accused of 14 murders.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen declined to discuss the investigation into the sect's financial affairs.

"We will not comment on any aspect of the investigation that is continuing, " said spokeswoman Diane Cossin. "Further, we will not comment on any witnesses."

Rozier's allegations could harm the sect's carefully crafted anti-drug image.

The Yahwehs, who built a real estate empire by buying and renovating rundown apartment buildings and hotels, mostly in poor neighborhoods, earned plaudits from community and government leaders for running off drug dealers who operated near their properties.

The sources say investigators are trying to figure out where the Yahwehs got the money to finance their real-estate purchases and other operations.

The sect, though heavily in debt, owns 26 properties in Dade County worth about $7 million. Monthly mortgage payments run into the tens of thousands of dollars.

The temple's leaders have said only that the money comes from contributions and profits from grocery stores, rents and other Yahweh businesses.

In a sworn statement last year, temple treasurer Judith Israel said that contributions alone amounted to more than $1 million a year. A report prepared by an accountant showed the group had received $1.3 million in contributions during the first seven months of 1989.

The temple has not disclosed the sources of the contributions. Israel said the temple does not pay federal taxes.

Before his arrest, Mitchell refused to say whether he pays personal federal taxes. His attorney at the time, Ellis Rubin, acknowledged that Mitchell's personal finances were under government investigation.

Rozier contended that at least part of the contributions came from drug dealers.

He testified during the trial of a lawsuit filed by tenants of an Opa-locka building forcibly evacuated by the Yahwehs in 1986. Rozier has admitted taking part in the murders of two tenants who resisted the evictions.

The 27 tenants won a judgment of nearly $1 million in the case after U.S. District Judge James Kehoe ruled that the Temple of Love had waged a campaign of extortion against them.

Under questioning by Tom Equels, an attorney for the tenants, Rozier said Mitchell promised drug dealers "prosperity" in exchange for donations.

Rozier said he first learned of the connections with drug dealers one day when a trafficker named Tim, whom he described as a temple member and a frequent visitor to the sect's headquarters, arrived with another member named Mikael Israel.

Israel, who was born Maurice Woodside, was among the sect members indicted, linked to one murder and an attempted murder. His attorney, Richard Gagliano, did not return phone calls to his office last week.

"Mikael got out of the car with a bag -- a pillow case it looked like, " Rozier told the court. "And he stopped and showed it to me, opened it up for me. And from what I could see there was several thousand dollars in cash. And he said this is from Tim and his lieutenants, a donation for Yahweh Ben Yahweh.

"I escorted him inside with the money. At that time (Yahweh Ben Yahweh) was having a meeting with some of the elders. And he presented the money to Yahweh Ben Yahweh, and he showed the money to the other elders and made comments on it . . . like, I understand what these brothers have to do in order to earn a living. But if they give donations and tithes to Yahweh, Yahweh will protect them and make sure they don't get arrested. And they will be continuously prosperous."

Rozier did not say what kind of protection the sect provided or what happened to the money after it was given to the Yahwehs.

Investing in real estate is a common way of hiding, or "laundering, " illicit profits. If the government can prove that buildings were purchased with dirty money, it could confiscate them.

U.S. Attorney Lehtinen, at a news conference announcing the charges last month, said his office did not plan to seize any Yahweh property under the current indictment.

"That question is something we address at a later date, " Lehtinen said.

Attorney Equels said he is convinced Rozier was telling the truth about the money because Rozier had nothing to gain from testifying.

"I had to force him to testify with a court order. He got no compensation, no reduction in sentence at the time because he had already been sentenced, " Equels said. "He seemed sincere and truly remorseful."

Barbara Goolsby, a lawyer who also represented the Opa- locka tenants, said she found that Rozier's allegation fit the Yahwehs' history.

"It sounded perfectly plausible to me because of the lawless nature of the things people told me under oath that they did and Yahweh Ben Yahweh did, " Goolsby said.

"They have always spoken out of both sides of their mouths. Clearly, they've never been law-and-order people."

Goolsby said she turned over transcripts of the trial and other documents to FBI agents in August. The agents also took records that showed misuse of welfare payments by a temple member, she said.

Equels said the Yahwehs' finances are difficult to trace because many of their transactions, including some real-estate purchases, were made in cash and not always recorded.

Temple bank records subpoenaed by the tenants' lawyers show that the temple spent $200,000 to $250,000 a month. But there was little accounting of where the money came from.

"They were running a cash economy there, " Equels said.

An accountant's report shows that, besides the contributions, the temple had an income of several hundred thousand dollars a year from its rental properties.

The Yahwehs have boasted that temple members controlled more than 25 businesses.

But it's not clear how many of those businesses actually existed or how much the Yahwehs earned from them.

A temple publication lists enterprises ranging from cabinet makers to landscaping services operated by temple followers -- all with addresses and phone numbers belonging to temple properties. None of the businesses are listed in state corporate records.

Grocery stores the group manages in Overtown and Little Haiti are almost empty of shoppers.

The temple's account balance was usually low at the end of the month, bank records show. The highest it ever reached was $131,000 in April 1989. A year ago, the balance stood at just $27,292.

Rozier testified that Judith Israel had given him cash to buy one of the guns used in the Opa-locka murders. Rozier said he got the gun from a drug dealer who was a former Yahweh.

But when lawyers pored through temple financial records to get the $1 million for the Opa-locka tenants' settlement, Goolsby said, they found no evidence of large amounts of cash. They weren't expecting to.

"Let me put it this way, " Goolsby said. "I didn't expect Yahweh Ben Yahweh to have an account at Southeast Bank."

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