Politics, religion slowed probe of sect

Eric Burke, disenchanted Yahweh, hothead dissenter, reported a crime in 1981: Two men cut his phone line and picked at his door lock.

11/16/1990 4:25 PM

08/12/2014 2:50 PM

Eric Burke, disenchanted Yahweh, hothead dissenter, reported a crime in 1981: Two men cut his phone line and picked at his door lock.

Burke, 44, a welder, scared them off. They dropped knives on the stairwell. Burke told police that Hulon Mitchell Jr., then known as Moses Israel, was out to get him.

Police logged the offense routinely: Attempted burglary. Just another complaint in Liberty City.

Nine years later, it's not so trivial. It was the first act of violence that federal prosecutors now cite in a sprawling racketeering indictment against Mitchell and 16 disciples of his Yahweh religious sect.

The indictment against Eric Burke's would-be killers took almost a decade in coming. It also alleges 14 homicides between 1981 and 1986.

Defense attorneys are wondering: How come? What took so long? If Hulon Mitchell ordered his "Death Angels" to kill "hypocrites, " why isn't anyone charged with murder?

The answers are fuzzy and complicated. The entire Yahweh case got caught in a web of obstacles: slim resources, agency wrangling, witness-management problems, disagreements over case strategy, personality clashes, religious, racial and political concerns, and distrust.

The case saw four federal prosecutors, four state prosecutors, two federal grand juries, two FBI case agents, and two lead homicide detectives.

Out of fear, two prosecutors and a defense lawyer packed weapons. Federal authorities joked nervously about blustery language in sect-published leaflets, fliers and books.

Mitchell's teachings once suggested "suicide" and a "race riot" should anything ever happen to the flock.

Some defectors were more scared of Yahweh than the armed lawyers. And often they didn't trust investigators, seeing them as part of the same outside world that treated society's poor with indifference and neglect.

One defector, interviewed a thousand miles from Miami, said the law enforcement community simply couldn't understand the sect experience.

"It takes someone who's been there. They should have had people saying, 'I done the same thing and I'm living.' And people would have poured out their hearts over certain things."

Barbara Malone, a Miami Legal Services lawyer who represented victims of sect-connected violence, said politics and institutional racism inadvertently stalled the investigation.

The victims, mostly black or poor, lacked the clout of a savvy black man who catapulted himself into a Black Economic Messiah.

"Black victims don't go around contributing to election campaigns, " Malone said. "They don't have a fantastic voting record, and what percentage is in it for a prosecutor who goes to the mat for all those black victims?"

Privately, some law-enforcement officials acknowledged racial, religious and political undertones during the investigation. They wanted to make sure they had a solid case because they feared any charge would be denounced as persecution. Publicly, though, they won't say anything about why the prosecution took so long.

What is clear is that within a week of Eric Burke's 1981 complaint, the police suspected Hulon Mitchell of ordering murder.

The day after Burke's report, a killer beheaded another Yahweh drop-out, Aston Green. His roommates, both defectors -- Carlton Carey, an accountant, and Mildred Banks, a postal worker -- went to the police. Carey told them he thought Mitchell ordered it.

Returning from the police station, they were ambushed. Carey was shot to death; Banks survived machete wounds.

Metro-Dade detectives John King and Steve Roadruck went to the Temple of Love. They noticed green carpet; they'd found a piece of the same kind at the decapitation crime scene. They tried to interview sect members.

Mitchell and his companion, Linda Gaines, wouldn't cooperate, said Roadruck, now a private investigator. "Everyone was closed mouthed."

Police looked for other defectors. Carey, Banks, Burke and Green had belonged to a dissident group of a dozen or so.

"The day Carlton Carey was killed, the defectors blasted out of Miami like a shotgun, " said one detective. So did Eric Burke, the man who started it all.

Detectives had another obstacle. A 1981 newspaper story spelled it out: The state was reluctant to "go after" a black religious leader.

"We always felt somewhere along the line, someone would trip up, and they'd start talking, " said Roadruck.

Nothing surfaced publicly for four years. Then, in late 1985, police acknowledged that they had physical evidence linking the sect to the decapitation.

By that time the law-enforcement community -- including the FBI and the Metro-Dade Organized Crime Bureau -- had a massive "intelligence" file on the Yahwehs, mostly hearsay.

Dade authorities had also heard about sexual child abuse.

They collected sect-published literature reminiscent of the People's Temple of the Rev. Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana. "We have come to the point where we must find Justice for ourselves or commit suicide, " one Yahweh book declared.

The Yahweh case lay all but dormant until May 20, 1986. Two police officers in Delray spotted a white van parked on a lonely farm road. The people inside were making Molotov cocktails. The officers smelled gasoline, but didn't want to cause trouble. They jotted down the license tag.

A couple of hours later, just three blocks away, the firebombs exploded on a dead-end street. Two children were badly burned. Neighborhood residents suspected Yahwehs.

The next day, Delray Sgt. Robert Brand went to the place where the van stopped and from the sandy grass collected samples of a gasoline-kerosene mixture. The samples matched the homemade bombs.

Police traced the license tag. It belonged to Miami Yahweh. Sgt. Brand visited the temple in Miami. In a display case, he noticed an unusual-looking wine bottle -- the same kind used to bomb the homes.

Is it for sale? he asked a Yahweh woman. No, she said. But everything else in the display case was.

Not long afterward, investigators got a break. A Yahweh elder, Lloyd Clark, walked into Miami FBI headquarters. He felt guilty about the infant girl burned in the bombing. He talked about the bombing, murder, child abuse and welfare fraud -- all Yahweh connected, he said. He named names.

Clark admitted taking part in Yahweh beatings. "Like Col. North, I was following orders, " he said later. "I'm kind of ashamed now." The FBI told the Metro-Dade detectives about Clark.

A lot Clark knew third hand. To investigators, his testimony was intriguing, but not solid. Detective King and two FBI agents began tracking down leads.

Some defectors said they knew about a public execution in the Temple of Love of a karate expert from New Orleans. They even saw it.

Still, there was no corpse, and Dade prosecutors felt there was not enough evidence to charge anyone with a crime.

Another highly public episode occurred in October 1986: Two limousines, six buses, a van and several cars pulled up to a rat-infested Opa-locka apartment complex. Seventy-five Yahwehs piled out and surrounded the building, clenching six-foot sticks called staffs of life. The Yahwehs ordered the tenants out.

Furious residents called Opa-locka police to no avail. Two residents denounced the Yahwehs on TV.

Ten hours later, they were shot dead.

Metro-Dade detective Rex Remley arrested Yahweh follower Robert Rozier, who gave his name as Neariah Israel, his age as 404. When the cops asked him questions, he responded: "Praise Yahweh!"

Both prosecutors and the defense subpoenaed more than 100 sect members. Hardly any showed up. A few said they could not remember their given names, birthdays or how many children they had.

One sect member answered each question by giving his name, "Yoel." He said his biological parent was Yahweh.

"Are you talking about the God Yahweh or Yahweh Ben Yahweh, " lawyer Jeffrey Weinkle said, trying to clarify.

"Yahweh."

The conversation got no further.

There were other witness problems. Sect members routinely abandoned their "slave names" and adopted the last name of Israel. Faced with a long list of witnesses -- all named Israel -- prosecutors were stumped.

Assistant state attorneys Don Horn and Michael Band learned about Yahweh Ben Yahweh's Lamb's Book of Life. It matched Yahweh names to birth names. Prosecutors asked the sect leader about it. He said it was traveling on the road "with five sisters, " all named Israel.

One man, however, provided names -- and first-hand information. Rozier. He confessed to four murders -- the Opa- locka slayings, a random "white devil" stabbing, and a retaliation killing. He sliced off ears.

Originally, police had suspected a deranged Vietnam vet in the "ear cases."

Rozier made a deal with the state and the feds. For his cooperation, he got 22 years. The plea agreement took a long time.

"When I have almost every law enforcement agency of the United States and local governments asking me to continue the case, I continue it, " Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Morphonios explained.

Rozier said he flipped, in part, because he was angry at himself and angry at "authorities" who didn't do anything and let the sect "ruin as many lives as they have."

Investigators debated how to proceed.

Eventually, in early 1988, the Dade State Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office worked out an arrangement. Federal prosecutors would take over the investigation. The state attorney's office would help out -- if needed.

The case dragged, sitting for awhile in the narcotics section of the U.S. Attorney's Office. Some courtroom prosecutors called the case "an albatross" and "a dog, " saying that if it was any good, the state would have filed murder charges.

Even defectors wondered what was taking so long. After giving statement, a few rejoined the sect.

The Opa-locka tenants won a victory, but it wasn't in a criminal court. U.S. District Judge James Kehoe, presiding in a civil case, ruled that the Temple of Love Inc. had "engaged in a pattern of criminal activity."

Two feds, FBI agent Herb Cousins and assistant U.S. Attorney Dave DeMaio, sat as observers in the back of the courtroom, frustrated, taking notes.

An important new witness started talking in autumn 1989. He told how he helped get rid of the murdered body of a one-time karate champion from New Orleans.

Some FBI agents wanted to indict, but federal prosecutors hedged, afraid of "rushing head-long into charges of racial and religious persecution."

A new prosecution team took over last January. Dade assistant state attorney Trudy Novicki, prosecutor of the notorious Miami River Cops, teamed up with Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Scruggs, a respected and influential prosecutor.

IRS agents were assigned to the case. Detective Remley got a desk in the U.S. Attorney's Office. The FBI devoted more resources as federal prosecutors began serving more subpoenaes.

In July, The Miami Herald published a list of 14 murders, mostly unprosecuted, and set out the facts of the public execution of the karate champ in the Temple of Love -- unreported for seven years.

At 4:45 a.m. Nov. 7, FBI agent Cousins made a call from the lobby of the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans.

Hulon Mitchell answered. Surrender peacefully, the agent told him. They knew each other from all those years of investigation.

"Yes, Mr. Cousins. Whatever you say."

Eric Burke, the man who started it all, will not be a witness. He died in Atlanta, a victim of an unrelated shooting.

The knives police found on his staircase are now gone, too. Nine years was just too long to keep evidence around from just another attempted break-in in Liberty City.

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