From idealists to 'death angels'?

 

Miami Herald Staff

They are disenchanted idealists and true believers. Most are sons of the working class who saved their middle-class dreams for the Black Messiah.

For him, they gave up money, jobs and family. They listened spellbound as he preached brotherhood and retribution. They believed with such loyalty that they allegedly killed for him.

These are the stories of the alleged "Death Angels" of Yahweh Ben Yahweh -- "total and maximum leader" of Miami's Temple of Love, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Scruggs called him.

"They were his group who would, without question, do whatever he told them to, including killing people, " Scruggs said.

Sixteen members of the Yahweh Nation, including its leader, are awaiting trial on charges that they conspired to murder 14 people and hurl firebombs at concrete-block houses in Delray Beach.

A 17th suspect, Chicago-born Ardmore Canton III, once known as Absalom Israel, is a fugitive. Federal agents said he defected from the group and took a bus out of Little Rock, Ark., two months ago. His family hasn't heard from him since.

Prosecutors said Canton, 38, boasted to Yahweh followers that he had killed a "white devil." Allegedly, he showed them the left ear of the victim, Clair Walters, a homeless carpenter.

Since a federal grand jury indicted Yahweh and his devotees last month, many of the accused "Death Angels" have kept their pasts secret -- sometimes even from their own lawyers.

Now a profile emerges from court testimony, police reports and interviews with relatives, friends and lawyers.

The suspects' biographies are a tale of broken dreams, shattered families, disillusionment and a search for pride. Often, their only real bond is with Yahweh Ben Yahweh, a man they believe is the Son of God.

'IT'S GOD WILL'

The oldest indicted follower is Richard Ingraham, 48. He changed his name to Job Israel. Seven times a day he faces east with outstretched hands and prays to Yahweh.

Once, when police accused Job of stealing, he told them he was born in Jerusalem. His real hometown is New York City.

For 11 years, Job ran the Yahweh beauty shop at the temple in Liberty City. He wore a jogging suit and a beeper. He marketed Yahweh baby shampoo and Yahweh cocoa butter body lotion, $5 each for 8 ounces. He told his court-appointed lawyer, Dennis Kainen, that he once barbered Muhammad Ali's hair.

In court, Job declared himself indigent after prosecutors charged that he crushed a Yahweh dissenter's head with a tire jack. "It's God's will, " Job said of his arrest last month.

The youngest suspect is Michael Mathis, 24, accused in the 1986 Delray Beach firebombing. Handsome and muscular, Mathis was an all-star linebacker at South Miami High. He wanted to go pro. Like many indicted followers, he grew up among the working-class poor, with parents struggling on modest wages to provide for nine kids.

He found lots of admirers on the football field but "little respect off of it, " said his lawyer, Ron Polk. In 1983, Mathis enrolled in Upward Bound, a federal program designed to boost his C average and make him college-recruitable.

In 1984, he dropped out of school. Influenced by a friend, Mathis stopped by the temple to ask about Bible scriptures. He "wanted something to believe in more than himself." He found the group's regimented life style a challenge, Polk said.

For Mathis and other indicted followers, the Yahweh sect seemed "to address many of the problems that so many black people in America feel, " said Wendell Graham, attorney for Ahinidab Israel.

Ahinidab, 39, born Ernest Lee James Jr., earned a decent wage at the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department. Still, he felt economically trapped and politically and socially disenfranchised, his lawyer said. "The organization provided some solace for him."

Ten accused disciples are high school graduates. Carl Douglas Perry, 34, graduated from Miami Jackson Senior, married, joined the Army and went to Korea.

His dad, Lonnie Perry, was a tire changer at Goodyear, sometimes working two jobs. His diabetic mother, Helen Perry, raised seven kids without seeing her husband much. Carl used to sit on her lap during Sunday services at a Methodist church.

After the Army, Perry grew dissatisfied with a religion that tended to view blacks as "rootless slaves, " said his lawyer, Charles White. Perry's wife turned to drugs. On Biscayne Boulevard, Perry turned rebellious.

"I got a gun, too, and will blow you away, " he warned a police officer who was trying to arrest a prostitute. Perry looked at another cop: "I will blow you away, too, white boy."

Eventually, Perry followed two older brothers, Morris and Alfred, into the Yahwehs. Alfred explained that the group built "moral and ethical teachings among people who may not hold such values." But not always.

While walking to the temple one day in 1984, Alfred went into a rage and stabbed two construction workers. Police called the attack racially motivated. He spent five years in prison. Now federal prosecutors accuse younger brother Carl of shooting two Yahweh dissenters, stabbing two "white devils" and slicing off ears for Yahweh.

"I'd wished they'd never gotten into" the group, the father said. "You can work to death to make things right for your kids, but when they're on their own, they go their own way. They're my sons, right or wrong."

The decision to become "true Jews" often shook church- going, Christian families like the Perrys.

"None of the family liked it, " said Linda Wilcox Baugh, a Southern Bell employee and aunt of Dexter Leon Grant, 25. In high school, Grant was extremely curious. But he had trouble making friends. Promised a decent education and a chance for good deeds, he joined the Yahwehs at 16. He took the name Abiri, my hero.

"I guess he couldn't find what he was looking for on the street, " his puzzled aunt said.

Grant and seven other "Death Angel" suspects have rap sheets. Some list rebellious acts, such as rioting and disorderly conduct. Others list violent acts, such as assault and resisting arrest.

On May 11, 1979, Metro police patrolling a Northwest Dade neighborhood heard screams inside a house. "Help, he's beating me, " a woman cried. "Somebody help, my arm's broken. He's killing me."

Police said James Louis Mack, then 32, Job Corps graduate, disabled Marine and father of six, battered his wife, Abril. When he resisted arrest, he ended up in the jail ward at Jackson Memorial Hospital, according to police. Paramedics treated her for a broken left arm.

Eventually, the couple reconciled. Domestic-violence charges were dropped. Yahweh Ben Yahweh introduced himself to Mack one day in front of a downtown movie theater. Mack was angry, said Ellen Leesfield, his lawyer. He had seen black men stopped by Miami police for no apparent reason. "Ben Yahweh preached forgiveness, " she said. "He gave him something to love."

Leesfield traced Mack's anger to Vietnam. He left home as an idealistic recruit in 1968. During an ambush, he took enemy rounds in his right leg and right arm. He got shipped back to the States without a hero's welcome. He spent six months in the hospital and walked with a limp when he got out. He went on permanent disability.

"He had lived and almost died for his country, and all he could see was how badly the black man was treated in America, " the lawyer said.

Two indicted followers abandoned professional careers for the Yahwehs. Brian Lewis, 27, was one. An alto saxophonist in high school band and student-government leader in college, he had a goal to improve race relations in Miami. But in his senior year at St. Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C., he had an identity crisis.

"He wasn't quite sure where he was going or what he wanted to do with his life, " said Allan Cooper, his political science adviser. "He began asking, 'Who am I?' And he started getting a lot less active with student government. He kind of dropped out in a way. . . . I guess he gave everything to this group as part of his acceptance." In 1982, Lewis became Hezion Israel.

Two "Death Angel" suspects never really made an educated choice to join the Yahwehs. Maurice Woodside, 31, and brother Ricardo, 29, followed their mom, Johnnie Simmons, into the group. Hebrew teachings made the mother feel better, she once said. "Some people might say I even look better." But Yahweh's special herbs couldn't cure her cancer. She died.

Ricardo grew disenchanted, friends said. He left the group with a younger brother. Maurice, known as Mikael, stayed with a younger sister.

CUT TIES TO RELATIVES

"We are white people's property as long as we keep their name, " the messiah taught them, so the indicted disciples took uplifting names: James Mack became Jesse Obed, a wealthy servant. Ardmore Canton IIIbecame Absalom, father of peace.

They wore white, color of the saints of God. "He that overcometh the white man, the same shall be clothed in white raiment, " Yahweh told them. "You shall not shave the hair of your face, " he said, so they grew beards and kept their hair in tiny braids.

As their loyalty to Yahweh grew, many "Death Angel" suspects effectively cut ties to outside relatives. Brian Lewis lost contact with high school friends. When Isaiah Solomon, the former James Littlejohn, telephoned home to South Carolina, he called collect.

Rufus Pace, once a heavy-equipment hauler who told police his name was Danny Thomas, didn't mention his wife before Yahweh. He didn't talk about his disenchanted Yahweh son. Pace's widowed mother, Ruth, told police she had no idea where her son was, what he did or where he lived.

"I really haven't heard from Carl for five years, " said Lonnie Perry, the suspect's father. "He'd drop by every so often, but he didn't discuss where he was living or what he was doing."

They became their own "human family on Earth, " as Yahweh called it, building the "nation" together. Lewis waxed cars. Littlejohn went from pharmacy expert on the herpes virus to Western Electric plant worker to "general cleanup" man at temple-owned properties. Sometimes he slept on a temple-owned bus.

Dexter Grant learned construction skills, giving rundown hotels a new coat of white paint. "He was totally consumed by his religion, " his aunt said. "He just followed orders."

Yahweh had them believing in a new world order without possessions, savings and personal bank deposits.

Maurice Woodside drew cartoons in a book titled The Mighty Black Man. The sketches depicted black warriors poised to thrust swords into "Uncle Tom and black preacher enemies."

For the outside world, they smiled broadly and spoke softly: They said they read the Bible, learned Hebrew, sang happy songs and studied marketing and computers. They said Yahweh preached the "moral law": no drugs, no alcohol, no smoking.

But even after they joined the group, some followers found trouble. Police once arrested Carl Perry for cocaine possession. The charges were dropped. In Jacksonville, sheriff's deputies picked up Rufus Pace, on probation for burglary, after residents complained he was panhandling. James Mack was in a group of Yahweh disciples who pummeled a man caught stealing roofing paper from the temple.

At 4:20 one morning, Metro police accused Job Israel and three other disciples of theft. They were in a Yahweh pickup truck loaded with 64 milk crates and 52 housewares cartons from Winn-Dixie. "All they would do was stand on the side of the road and pray, " said officer Luis Romero Jr.

Two months later, Job signed an affidavit stating that he thought the items were "awaiting pickup by the Sanitation Department." The Yahwehs' brotherhood, he professed, had a mission to collect trash and turn it into "useful products" for the elderly.

Prosecutors said Yahweh Ben Yahweh instilled fear in disciples and squelched dissent through public humiliation and beatings. He controlled everything, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scruggs said -- from the food people ate, to the place they lived, to the money they made, to the hours they worked, to the amount of sleep they got.

For a few of the indicted disciples, the spell wore off. Carl Perry "disassociated himself" in 1987, his lawyer said. Michael Mathis defected in 1988 "at some personal risk."

After leaving the temple, Mathis got a job as a maintenance man and started paying $300 a month for support of two daughters, ages 4 and 2. He cooperated with federal agents, but the grand jury indicted him anyway. His arrest last month wrecked his search for a real family.

Mathis' common-law wife, Patricia Albert, pleaded with a magistrate: "Give him back to his children." Albert, who grew up in Yahweh, said Michael wasn't like other Yahweh men who fathered children then simply denied the kids' existence. "These are not my kids, " the disciples would swear. "Michael does claim his kids; Michael does take care of me and the kids, " she said.

IN COURT

Dexter Grant, accused in the murder of a Dade garbage collector, smiled in court. He cracked his knuckles and stroked his thin beard. Job Israel lifted his arms and prayed. Rufus Pace looked blankly as the prosecutor identified him as the driver of a Yahweh "hit team" dispatched to kill two traitors.

Pace sat with his scarred hands folded serenely in his lap, broke and alone. Like other suspects, he had no money to hire a lawyer and no family to support him in court.

Most of the indicted followers couldn't give federal magistrates a confirmed address, a record of employment or evidence of property or assets. Some declined to give their "slave" names. All entered not-guilty pleas or stood mute to the charges.

"Don't be bashful, " Magistrate Peter Palermo told one short, slender follower. "Give your name and age."

"Anthony Murphy. 34, " the suspect replied. After high school, he got into bar brawls and fights with police. Once, "he was attacked by a group of Hispanics on the streets of Miami, " his lawyer, Thomas Buscaglia, told the magistrate.

In Yahweh, Murphy became Josiah, fire of the Lord. But Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Gertrude Novicki called him a coward hungering for acceptance.

His mother, Katrina Murphy, listened in shock. Novicki told how the Black Messiah began to push Murphy away because he had never proven himself.

Murphy told Yahweh followers he "was going to find a child and kill a child because that would be easier than dealing with a grown white male, " the prosecutor said. Then, one day, he "returned to the temple with what appeared to be an adult ear belonging to a white person. He put the ear in a bottle of alcohol, and he was blessed."

"I know my son, and he couldn't have done that, " said the mother. She offered to put up her $48,000 mortgaged house for bail. "He wasn't that brainwashed."

Novicki asked Yahvin Israel, born Douglas Howard, whether he'd ever heard Yahweh Ben Yahweh preach about the "Death Angels."

"I heard it mentioned, " said Howard, testifying as a character witness for Carl Perry. He had read about the angels, he added, in the Encyclopedia Britannica or the Bible.

Abril Israel, James Mack's wife of 22 years, described the Yahwehs as peaceful and her husband as a caring father. She got upset when prosecutor Scruggs suggested that Mack led a double life as a "Death Angel."

"I have a good husband, " she said angrily. "I don't know what you're trying to do. . . . You're trying to twist my mind."

Read more Special Reports - News stories from the Miami Herald

  • The Cuba puzzle

    For Cubans in exile and on the island, what seemed like certain change now looks like more of the same.

  • Fields of death

    For sugar-mill workers in Nicaragua, a fatal disease defies understanding.

  • Fidel Castro

    A look back at the man and his country.

Miami Herald

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category