Latest News

Yahweh sect leader, 16 followers indicted, grand jury links group to 14 deaths

Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the politically influential preacher who commands a white-robed religious sect and a multimillion-dollar real-estate empire, was charged Wednesday with masterminding 14 murders and terrorizing his disciples into silence.

In a 25-page indictment, a federal grand jury in Miami also accused Yahweh, whose real name is Hulon Mitchell Jr., of other crimes: He directed the firebombing of a block of Delray Beach houses. He ordered the beatings of devotees who failed to make collection quotas. And he made "both adult and minor female followers" have sex with him.

Indicted with Mitchell, 55, were 15 so-called "Death Angels." Allegedly, they committed the 14 homicides.

Also charged was Judith Israel, 43, born Linda Gaines, his companion. She is the "financial brains" of the sect, which owns $8 million in property in Dade.

The grand jury charged Yahweh and the co-defendants with operating a racketeering enterprise while masquerading as religious people in white robes and turbans.

In a 5 a.m. raid Wednesday, more than 50 FBI and Metro-Dade SWAT units, some wearing flak jackets and helmets and carrying riot shotguns and M-16s, swept down on the sect's Liberty City- based Temple of Love headquarters at 2766 NW 62nd St.

Lawmen took into custody seven defendants in Miami. They arrested five others in predawn raids in Atlanta; Durham, N.C.; and Lafayette, La. Four defendants are still at large.

Yahweh, who says he realized he was divine at age 3 and whose name means "God, the son of God" in Hebrew, was arrested at 4:45 a.m. at the Monteleone Hotel in New Orleans, a block from Bourbon Street.

Approximately 35 FBI agents, some of whom had tailed the sect leader since Monday, swarmed the hotel lobby.

One agent called upstairs and asked the sect leader, in New Orleans on a speaking tour, to surrender. He complied, without resistance. With his bodyguards, Yahweh came downstairs in a white robe and a gold clasp pinned to his turban. He left in handcuffs.

In announcing the indictment, U.S. Attorney Dexter Lehtinen called the Yahwehs "a cult." The charges, he said, "brought to an end an era of extreme violence" and a "reign of terror" in South Florida.

"The defendants engaged in violence as a mechanism for keeping discipline and violence as a mechanism for making money, " Lehtinen said. He said the violence was directed at everyone in the community, not one ethnic group.

"Yahweh Ben Yahweh trusted no one, " Lehtinen said, noting that the sect leader refused to accept a killer's word. "He made them bring back parts of the body."

The Yahwehs, who found a niche in Miami after the Liberty City riots of 1980, once boasted of 12,000 members. Their dogma: Yahwehs are "true Jews" dwelling in the land of the "white devil."

In recent years, though, with press disclosure about murders and child abuse, the sect toned down its harsh rhetoric and promoted its economic improvements in poor neighborhoods and joined the Chamber of Commerce.

At a press conference two hours before the government formally announced the indictment, Ellis Rubin, Yahweh's attorney, said his innocent clients couldn't get a fair trial in Dade because of bad publicity.

Rubin denounced the FBI for "swooping down on" the Yahwehs, as if they were "common criminals." Previously, Yahweh had informed the U.S. Attorney that he would surrender peacefully if indicted, Rubin said.

He called the massive law-enforcement action at the temple a post-election "grandstand play."

"I guess he was waiting for the excitement of his wife's re-election to be over, " Rubin said of Lehtinen. Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, a Dade Republican, won re-election Tuesday to the House of Representatives.

Wednesday's indictment documents 14 homicides in Dade, some dating back to 1981. Most of the victims were poor. Although Dade and Miami homicide detectives long believed Yahwehs responsible, most of the murders remained unprosecuted for years.

According to the indictment, Yahweh established an ultra- secret group called the brotherhood. And in order to join, "an individual had to murder a white devil and bring a severed body part to Mitchell as proof of the killing."

Yahweh also ordered murders to retaliate against defectors and dissidents, prosecutors charged.

"All hypocrites must die, " he once told his followers.

Yahweh death squads sometimes shot and stabbed neighborhood people who opposed efforts to collect donations, sell books and soft drinks and buy property.

In one case, Yahweh, the blue-eyed son of a Pentacostal minister from Oklahoma, displayed the ear of Cecil Branch, a sanitation worker.

Perhaps the most bizarre homicide was the public execution at the Temple of Love of Leonard Dupree, a wiry, 22- year-old former national karate champion from New Orleans.

In September 1983, Yahweh ordered Amri Israel, born Walter Lightburn, to fight Dupree. Yahwehs all take the last name Israel.

When Dupree, the karate champ, won the fight, Yahweh Ben Yahweh allegedly cried, "Get him!" Thirty to 50 frenzied disciples, assembled in the sewing room, beat Dupree.

Mikael Israel, born Maurice Woodside, struck him with a stick. Job Israel, born Richard Ingraham, struck him with an automobile tire jack, the indictment said.

Then, Lightburn and Ahinidad Israel, born Ernest Lee James Jr., and a third individual "disposed of the body of Leonard Dupree by loading the body in a truck and burying it at an unknown location, " the indictment said.

A defector told The Herald last summer that the grave was a long, shallow trench 18 inches deep in the Everglades.

But by the time police searched for the body, much of the once-swampy terrain had been paved over by concrete. Dupree's corpse was never found.

It wasn't until The Herald spoke to Dupree's parents that they learned details of what happened to their son -- seven years after the crime.

The father, Lartius, 64, died two weeks ago, unaware of the forthcoming indictment.

His widow, Mary, said Wednesday that it's hard to accept the fact that Leonard is dead. "I assume it happened like what they're saying, but until they find a body, I'll never be sure."

The FBI entered the Yahweh case after the May 1986 firebombings on Southwest 14th Avenue in Delray Beach. Neighbors thought the Yahwehs were retaliating because a resident had been in a fight with sect members soliciting contributions.

Another highly publicized episode occurred in October 1986, when the sect attempted to evict tenants from a rundown Opa- locka apartment complex.

Anthony Brown and Rudy Broussard resisted fiercely and were filmed on TV. Ten hours later they were shot to death. Metro detective Rex Remley arrested Neariah Israel, born Robert Rozier, a onetime pro football player.

The detective went to work on all the unsolved murders, along with the FBI. Rozier confessed to four murders, including the two at Opa-locka.

In exchange for his cooperation, Rozier got 22 years.

Wednesday, some Opa-locka tenants were jubilant. "Mom, they got him! They finally got him!" the 11-year-old daughter of Brenda Daniels cried.

The indictment noted the harsh life of children in the sect. Yahweh "exercised control by separating families of followers within the enterprise, by regulating the personal and sexual lives of married followers and by having sexual relations with both adult and minor female followers."

One female follower survived a violent attack, according to the indictment. She was Mildred Banks, a onetime postal worker and Yahweh defector. She was shot and slashed with a machete.

But another defector wasn't so lucky. Several Yahwehs allegedly beat Aston Green, hauled him off to West Dade and decapitated him.

Enoch Israel, born John Foster, one of the sect members who allegedly beat Green, has disappeared. Police also suspect that Yahwehs committed two other murders, but they are not mentioned in the indictment.

In the years since 1986, the sect sought to transform its violent image, hiring a publicity-conscious attorney and finding economic clout and political friends.

Just a month ago, on Oct. 7, Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez proclaimed a "Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day."

Barbara Malone, a Legal Services attorney who represented the 120 Opa-locka tenants, said Wednesday, "I've been wondering whether the mayor is going to take back the keys to the city now."

At his first appearance before U.S. Magistrate Ivan Lemelle in New Orleans, Yahweh said softly, "On the advice of counsel, I stand mute."

Yahweh told the magistrate he is represented by Miami lawyers Ellis Rubin and Alcee Hastings, the impeached federal judge.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Scruggs, the chief prosecutor, will fly to New Orleans for a removal hearing Friday.

Yahweh is expected to waive extradition for a trial in Miami. If convicted, Yahweh faces 60 years in prison.

The murders in the federal indictment were listed as "racketeering activities." There is no federal homicide charge.

Dade State Attorney Janet Reno said Wednesday, however, that the federal charges do not preclude Florida murder prosecutions.

Wednesday's arrests, coordinated for weeks in secrecy, came off largely without incident.

Federal agents had conducted a psychological background profile on the sect leader and concluded that there was high potential for violence.

What's more, defectors had given statements about a stash of guns and knives buried somewhere near the Yahwehs' fortress- like white compound, where stoic-looking sentries patrol around a fleet of white buses, trucks and limousines. No weapons were found.

FBI agents rammed the door of the temple, shattering the glass. Metro-Dade police cordoned off a 12-block area, blocking the streets with police cars and yellow crime-scene tape.

A glass repairman fixed the damage within a few hours.

Seven defendants appeared before Miami Magistrate Peter Palermo, wearing T-shirts, shorts and sweat suits. In the sect, street clothes are known as "Dead Jacob" clothes.

One believer, Job Israel, runs a beauty parlor at the Temple of Love. He refused to be sworn or answer to his "slave name."

"I am a Hebrew Israelite, " he said. "I don't swear."

Herald staff writers Kimberly Crockett, Christine Evans, Carlos Harrison, David Lyons and Patrick May contributed to this report.

Related stories from Miami Herald