MIAMI — He called himself Yahweh Ben Yahweh, Hebrew for "God, son of God," and preached that American blacks were the true Jews, living in the land of the "white devil." But the man born Hulon Mitchell Jr., the son of an Oklahoma minister, was no street-corner crackpot.
Despite a theology that many blacks and non-blacks alike found racist, Yahweh in the last decade built a multimillion-dollar economic empire that brought him both political power and respect. Espousing self-pride and economic determinism, Yahweh attracted hundreds of white-robed, turbaned followers, who took the last name Israel, kept kosher diets and through solicitations and hard work enabled the Yahweh Nation to take over motels and apartments, run groceries and schools, even operate a convention center.
Yahweh himself joined the Chamber of Commerce, and last October was honored with a proclamation from Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez which celebrated "Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day."
But now Yahweh and 15 of his followers are in jail, facing charges that, if proven, could confirm the rumors of violence and intimidation that haunted the sect even as it grew into one of Miami's largest black-owned corporations. In a 25-page indictment, a federal grand jury has accused Yahweh and several disciples of at least 14 murders, including the beheading of one former member, the firebombing of a Delray Beach neighborhood and with running a racketeering enterprise conducted by terror.
In announcing the indictments in November, U.S. Atty. Dexter Lehtinen said the arrests "brought to an end an era of extreme violence" and a "reign of terror" that began as far back as 1981.
Many of the details of what went on in Yahweh's secretive Temple of Love come from former sect member Robert Rozier, a onetime standout defensive end for UC Berkeley who went on to have a brief professional football career with the St. Louis Cardinals, the Oakland Raiders and in Canada.
Arrested as Neariah Israel in 1986 in connection with the shooting deaths of two men at a Yahweh-owned apartment building, Rozier gave his age as 404 and to every question responded "Praise Yahweh."
But eventually he cut a deal with police. In exchange for a 22-year prison sentence, he confessed to four murders, including the random stabbing of a "white devil" and a retaliation killing. In two of those murders, he said, he sliced off ears to provide Yahweh with proof of his deeds.
Rozier is expected to be the chief, but not the only, prosecution witness when the case comes to trial later this year.
Assistant U.S. Atty. Richard Scruggs describes Yahweh as a megalomaniac who teaches "hatred and violence" and controlled his flock through fear and intimidation.
Those who strayed often met violent ends, Scruggs said. In 1983, Yahweh allegedly "stood on the podium, looking on approvingly" in his inner-city Temple of Love as up to 60 followers beat to death a karate expert named Leonard Dupree. His face was crushed with a tire jack, Scruggs said at a bond hearing.
The 1986 firebombing, in which two children were injured, was ordered by Yahweh in retaliation for residents having turned away disciples soliciting donations, Scruggs said.
Despite his being in jail for almost two months, Yahweh, 55, still commands hundreds of followers who continue to run the sect's schools and businesses. He has defenders outside Yahweh Nation as well. "He's a fascinating man, he's easy to talk to, he's just a great guy," attorney David Lazarus testified at the bond hearing.
Defense attorney Alcee L. Hastings dismisses the case against Yahweh as "nothing but a bald-faced allegation and no proof." There is "one witness," he added. "It's a hearsay case."
Hastings, a former federal judge who last year was impeached by the U.S. Senate, further charged that Yahweh was improperly denied bond and was being deprived of his right to practice his religion.