Cult or religion? Community saviors or criminals?
Yahweh Ben Yahweh and his followers dominated the Miami criminal justice system in the early 1990s. After a years-long investigation, the self-proclaimed architect of the universe, faced a jury and judge.
Through the Miami Herald archives, here’s a look at the trials of 1992, as well as the impact the cases had on the South Florida sect.
May 28, 1992
Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the self-proclaimed architect of the universe, was found guilty Wednesday of conspiring to build a religious empire on a foundation of murder.
The verdict was only a partial victory for the government, whose six-year investigation of the Yahweh sect led to the indictment of the religious leader and 15 followers.
The jury convicted Yahweh and six followers of conspiring to commit murders to maintain their religious empire. It acquitted seven other followers of the same charge, and deadlocked on the fates of two others.
The jury also acquitted on a count of racketeering against most of the defendants. The charge was based in large part on the testimony of the government’s star witness, Robert Rozier. An admitted seven-time killer, Rozier implicated sect disciples in 11 murders.
“They didn’t believe the bum,” said defense attorney Thomas Buscaglia, who won acquittal for his client, Anthony Murphy.
Asked whether the jury found Rozier to be credible, forewoman Elissa Miller told The Herald Wednesday night: “I wouldn’t go as far as saying that.”
But she declined to talk specifically about the witnesses. She said jurors at first were split over acquitting or convicting the defendants, but they weighed the evidence and gradually agreed on most of the federal racketeering counts.
“It was hard,” Miller said. “It was because the law was so broad. It was hard for a layman to interpret. Although some of us knew what it meant, there were others that were confused and really wanted confirmation from the judge.”
The judge’s clarification over the legal language on Wednesday paved the way for a verdict, she said.
“Obviously, we are pleased with some of the verdicts and disappointed with others,” said prosecutor Richard Scruggs. “However, the jury has spoken and we have the utmost respect for their decisions. We do not feel that it is appropriate to say anything further at this time due to the fact that the defendants who have been convicted have not been sentenced.”
“I think the prosecution has suffered a major blow,” said Yahweh’s attorney, Alcee Hastings.
He said his client accepted the verdict calmly and was hopeful of his eventual release.
“I think we can win on appeal,” Hastings said.
Yahweh and the six convicted disciples, among them second- in-command Judith Israel, face up to 20 years in prison. U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger Jr. said he would sentence them in two months. They were returned to prison. Roettger declared mistrials for former members John Foster and Carl Douglas Perry, after the jury failed to reach a verdict in their cases. He ordered them released, but they never got out of the courthouse.
State prosecutors had them arrested on first- degree murder charges. Both men are expected to appear today in Dade Circuit Court for bond hearings. Two other defendants who were acquitted of racketeering, James Louis Mack and Dexter Leon Grant, were also arrested on state murder charges Wednesday.
After the verdicts were read, all the disciples walked by and kissed Yahweh or shook his hand. The judge thanked all the attorneys.
“It’s been a horrendous trial,” Roettger said. “I would not wish this trial on any other judge or attorney, or jury or defendant for that matter.”
He wished luck to the seven acquitted disciples.
Wednesday’s verdict came after more than four months of testimony from more than 150 witnesses. Yahweh and 15 followers were charged in a two-count racketeering indictment that accused them of plotting 14 murders, two attempted assassinations and the 1986 firebombing of a Delray Beach neighborhood. ‘
A dozen former followers — including Yahweh’s own sister and nephew — testified against Yahweh, the man they once believed was the son of God. They accused Yahweh of preaching racial hatred and violence. Defense attorney Kathy Hamilton, whose client, Ardmore Canton III, was acquitted, said the jury apparently believed only the early followers, such as Yahweh’s family members, who testified that Yahweh preached that dissidents deserved death.
The jurors apparently did not believe the testimony of former follower Rozier, who, among other things, testified about how eight white vagrants were targeted for death as “white devils.”
He said ears were sliced off some of them as proof of the kills.
The government allowed Rozier to plead guilty to murder in return for leniency, in exchange for his testimony against Yahweh.
“It’s a message that they’re sending to the government,” Hamilton said. “They can’t make deals like this. They can’t trade the electric chair for the witness chair.”
Jurors agonized over their verdicts for five days, several times declaring themselves “hopelessly hung.” Wednesday morning, Miller, the forewoman, sent out a message: “The jury is hung on so many issues that only through time will any decision (if any) be reached on all counts.
“I never expected this and I am scared,” added Miller, who was scheduled to enter law school on Wednesday.
But a few hours later, the jury returned with a verdict. Miller said Wednesday night that jurors argued and shouted, but remained friends.
“We’re so thick-skinned. We respected each other as people. “Religion remained not an issue whatsoever,” she added. “Nor was race.”
Steve Kassner, defense attorney for convicted follower Walter Lightburn, said the jurors “horse-traded” for a verdict. None of the other jurors could be reached for comment.
Yahweh preached from Oklahoma to Illinois to Georgia to Florida, first as a Black Muslim, then as Brother Love. For two decades, he preached his black nationalistic message in obscurity — until he hit Miami’s inner city, seething over the beating death of black insurance executive Arthur McDuffie at the hands of police officers in 1979.
Within two years, Yahweh attracted thousands of Miami followers with a message that God is black and blacks are God’s chosen people.
Yahweh proclaimed himself the son of God and legally changed his name from Hulon Mitchell Jr. He and his followers boasted of building a $100 million real estate portfolio and transforming blighted neighborhoods in Liberty City into landscaped oases.
By the late 1980s, local politicos were flocking to the sect’s Temple of Love for support and contributions. Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez proclaimed a Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day in 1990.
But rumors of violence haunted the sect. In 1981, Metro-Dade police suspected that the Yahwehs had beheaded dissident Aston Green and shot to death his friend, accountant Carleton Carey. Carey’s girlfriend, Mildred Banks, survived gunshots and machete blows to her neck.
In 1986, Delray Beach police suspected the Yahwehs of firebombing a Delray Beach neighborhood. Five months later, two tenants were gunned down during a Yahweh takeover of an apartment complex in Opa-locka.
Opa-locka police found a man hiding near the murder scene: Rozier, a former pro football player who claimed to be more than 400 years old. His story cracked the case for investigators. But defense attorneys were able to portray Rozier as a liar and psychopath who was ratting on the Yahwehs to get a 22-year prison sentence rather than the electric chair.
Hastings, Yahweh’s attorney, predicted the sect would flourish despite the leader’s conviction.
“What kind of message did it send when Jesus Christ was convicted?” Hastings said. Yahweh’s “followers will continue to believe him and even grow in greater numbers.”
Published Dec. 18, 1992
Yahweh Ben Yahweh and three members of his sect were acquitted Thursday night of murder in the 1986 stabbing slaying of a Northwest Dade man.
The 12-member, multi-ethnic jury found the men innocent after hearing four days of testimony and contentious arguments. Yahweh was accused by the state of sending a squad of “death angels” to kill Cecil Branch in an act of religious retribution.
Branch had knocked down a white-robed woman as she carried the Yahweh group’s religious message from its Temple of Love in Liberty City to the Coconut Grove home of Branch’s mother. The jury spent about two hours in its deliberations.
The prosecution’s case hung squarely on the broad, powerful shoulders of an imposing star witness, Robert Rozier. He is a former NFL linebacker, an ex-member of the Yahweh religious group and the admitted killer of seven men.
He has admitted being among Branch’s killers. “He has no place in this court system at all,” Jayne Weintraub, one of Yahweh’s co-counsels, said of Rozier.
Yahweh, who has been convicted of murder conspiracy and been sentenced to 16 1/2 years in a federal racketeering case, still has a pending state murder trial in the deaths of two Opa- locka men.
Rozier looms as a key prosecution witness in that case.
“I would hope they would dismiss the charges once and for all and put an end to Robert Rozier’s lies,” Weintraub said.
In closing arguments, she portrayed Rozier as a ruthless deceiver.
“He is a violent, cold, calculating man,” Weintraub said.
Facing the possibility of the electric chair for his own crimes, Rozier turned against Yahweh and other members of the group in exchange for a light sentence, Weintraub said. And Yahweh gave Rozier a valuable bargaining chip.
“What better than a new, controversial, successful black leader in Miami?” Weintraub asked the jury.
Yahweh’s co-defendants were Dexter Leon Grant, also known as Abiri Israel; James Louis Mack, known as Jesse Obed; and Ernest Lee James, known as Ahinidad Israel. Assistant State Attorney Trudy Novicki denied there were political aspects in the decision to prosecute, saying any such intimations were “absolutely ridiculous.”
“I feel we put on the best case we had. I don’t agree with the jury’s verdict, but I accept it,” Novicki said.
She declined to comment about future prosecutions involving Rozier. In her closing arguments, Novicki argued that Yahweh masterminded Branch’s stabbing death as an act of religious revenge.
“He could fulfill his own prophecy that Yahweh was slaying his enemies,” Novicki said.
The prosecution said Yahweh ordered the slaying of Branch about a week after his confrontation with the Yahweh woman. Branch was killed in the living room of his rented home. He suffered more than two dozen stab wounds in his chest and abdomen. Also, one of his ears was sliced off and removed from the murder scene.
The prosecution alleged that the killers took the ear back to Yahweh as proof that the death mission had been completed. If convicted of first-degree murder, the four defendants face would have faced either the death penalty or a minimum of 25 years in prison.
With his plea bargain, Rozier has a potential release date in 1997, possibly earlier. The prosecution did not have physical evidence such as fingerprints or an eyewitness identification other than Rozier’s to place any of the defendants at Branch’s home.
“We don’t base the prosecution on whether or not there is physical evidence,” Novicki said after the verdict.
Published Dec. 19, 1992
Dade prosecutors are abandoning their efforts to press murder charges against religious leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh, who already faces 18 years in prison on a federal racketeering conviction.
The Dade State Attorney’s Office dropped two pending murder charges against Yahweh on Friday, a day after he was acquitted by a state court jury in a separate murder case.
“I’m absolutely elated,” Yahweh, 57, said during a jailhouse press conference.
Despite his lengthy federal sentence, Yahweh said he considers the events of the past two days a vindication.
“Praise Yahweh for victory,” he said, dressed in the sect’s traditional white garb with his ankles cuffed together. “Sometimes the truth comes out in court, and sometimes you have to be very patient and wait on the appellate process.”
Kevin DiGregory, a prosecutor who helped handle the failed case, declined to say why the pending charges were dropped against Yahweh and a co-defendant, Carl Perry. The men were charged with the murders of tenants Anthony Brown and Rudolph Broussard during the sect’s takeover of an Opa-locka apartment complex in 1986. But Jayne Weintraub, Yahweh’s attorney, said prosecutors had no choice: They would again be dependent on the testimony of Yahweh’s main accuser, former follower Robert Rozier, whose credibility was rejected by jurors in the just-completed trial for the murder of Cecil Branch.
Rozier has confessed to killing seven men in seven months, allegedly at Yahweh’s behest. “Robert Rozier is a murderer,” Weintraub said, echoing the theme she hammered into jurors’ minds. Weintraub rejected the notion that Yahweh was responsible for the actions of his flock, although he and six followers were convicted in federal court of building a religious empire on a foundation of murder. “If a Catholic person goes and kills someone, do you think the Pope is responsible?” she asked.
Yahweh told reporters America should “applaud me for the good work I’ve done,” and he called his imprisonment a “learning experience” that he hopes will end soon with a successful federal appeal. “I take this entire experience as an opportunity of correction, that I might be perfect in everything I do,” he said. Yahweh added: “I have a message for all of you. I love you.”
Published May 28, 1992
The Yahweh religion is far from finished, despite the conspiracy conviction of its leader Wednesday and the abandonment by the sect of its Temple of Love headquarters in Miami. Yahweh Ben Yahweh still claims thousands of followers in the United States, from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C.
There are thousands of others, he recently testified, in Africa and the Caribbean.
“The smallest number I’ve seen at feasts is 10,000,” said one of Yahweh’s defense attorneys, Wende Rush, who is a Yahweh follower.
The 1990 indictment of Yahweh and 15 disciples actually helped the predominantly black sect to spread its teachings, Rush said.
“Never before had Yahweh Ben Yahweh been on national television and radio,” she said.
Now the media, from The London Observer to a Los Angeles radio station owned by Stevie Wonder, ask for interviews with Yahweh.
Alcee Hastings, Yahweh’s court-appointed attorney, said the sect had attracted new members because of publicity from the trial.
“I don’t think they have suffered any drop in the numbers,” he said. “I know for a fact that in Los Angeles they have increased their numbers.”
But the sect has suffered financial setbacks. Perhaps fearing that the government would seize the assets of the Nation of Yahweh, some followers have stopped contributing to the sect, Rush said, while others have been reluctant to buy its books, shampoo and other products.
The cash-flow problems caused the Yahwehs to lose nearly all of their Miami real estate, including the Temple of Love, to foreclosures. But the Yahwehs have held onto Yahweh University in Liberty City and a downtown hotel in Atlanta.
They recently started a school in an Atlanta storefront and a religious book distribution center in Seguin, Texas. They have been passing the word through a cable television program, From Poverty to Riches, and weekly ads in predominantly black newspapers around the country.
Followers and other sympathizers formed an organization, The People For Truth, to lobby national leaders. In newspaper ads, the group has accused the federal government of religious persecution.
“The government is telling us we have no constitutional rights,” complained the group’s chairman, Charles Drayden. Two months ago, hundreds of Yahwehs celebrated Passover in Atlanta and traveled to Fort Lauderdale to observe the trial for a day. Last month, during Yahweh’s four days of testimony, his followers packed the federal courtroom.
Rush, a former law professor and prosecutor, donated her time to help defend a man who she says she is convinced is innocent. Several other disciples have defended Yahweh on the stand. Testified Virginia internist Dr. William Young: “I’ve never been in a situation where people were so open.”
Broderick McKinney, a former bank vice president, testified that the sect had earned praise in Atlanta for helping to renovate the former Playboy Club into The Barclay, a middle- class hotel in downtown Atlanta. The Atlanta Constitution’s dining critic recently praised The Barclay’s Celebrity Cafe. “Each of the three visits was a pleasure and I plan to return whenever I can,” wrote critic Elliott Mackle
Published May 30, 1992
Yahweh Ben Yahweh’s followers vowed Friday that the religious sect he founded will thrive as never before. In a sweltering basement of a school on the edge of Little Haiti called Yahweh University, Uriah David Israel, the sect’s “national ambassador,” told reporters that the federal murder-conspiracy verdict against Yahweh was unfair and the American judicial system favors whites.
But Yahweh, he said, will prevail in spite of it all, and his $8 million empire of stores and hotels will be rebuilt.
“We’re going to do this again,” he said, evoking applause from more than 35 white-robed followers. “There’s nothing to stop us.”
Earlier this week, a federal jury in Fort Lauderdale convicted Yahweh, 56, and six followers of conspiring to commit murder to preserve his empire in the 1980s. Seven followers were acquitted. The panel, which consisted of nine whites and three blacks, failed to reach a verdict for two other followers. The jury did not convict any of the 16 defendants on a racketeering count.
After the trial, the state charged followers James Louis Mack, Dexter Leon Grant, John Foster and Carl Douglas Perry with first-degree murder. They remain in jail without bail. Israel called the new charges “an outrage.”
Lawyers who flanked him at a press conference called them a sham.
Miami attorney Penny Burke, who successfully defended Mack in federal court, said attorneys would try to secure bond for their clients on the state charges, and failing that, demand a speedy trial. “We will fight to get these men out on bond and get them home where they belong,” she said.
One possible setback: If judges appoint new attorneys for the defendants, their legal fight will drag on for many more months. Israel warned of possible retribution from the African- American community if a “duplicitous” justice system continues to produce negative results for criminal defendants who are black.
“We know that Yahweh Ben Yahweh, our brothers and sister are not guilty,” Israel said. “But can you say the same of the American justice system?” He did not elaborate.
In an interview, Israel said it was ironic that Yahweh is in prison, since he won acclaim from Miami city leaders for building businesses that created jobs and helped rid seedy neighborhoods of crime. He acknowledged that the Yahwehs suffered a severe economic setback and lost members after a federal grand jury indicted the religious leader.
Although the school and a nearby grocery store and apartment complex remain intact, bad publicity surrounding the trial cost the sect several hotels it refurbished.
“I think it frightened a lot of people away,” Israel said. “Some of things I read about us were shocking to me.”
Israel said he plans to tour 25 U.S. cities to tell other faithful followers that the sect can rebuild itself even though its leader faces a 20-year prison sentence.