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Star UC Player Now Star Witness in Sect Trial : Cult: Football standout Robert Rozier Jr. tells of random killings, Death Angels and blind devotion in the Florida case against Yahweh Ben Yahweh.

March 29, 1992|MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — As a star defensive end for UC Berkeley, he had a promising future. And sure enough, when Robert Rozier Jr. left school in 1979, he signed a contract with the National Football League's St. Louis Cardinals and later played pro football in Canada.

But in a crowded federal courtroom here, it is Rozier's past as Neariah Israel, a Death Angel for a charismatic sect leader called Yahweh Ben Yahweh, that has provided the high drama in a sensational racketeering trial.

"We did everything from driving a bus to killing someone if necessary," Rozier told the jury. "Beating, hanging, burning, stoning, decapitation. . . ."

Rozier, 36, is the star prosecution witness in the case against Yahweh, otherwise known as Hulon Mitchell Jr., who says he is the son of God, and 15 of his white-robed, turbaned followers. They are charged with at least 14 murders, including the attempted beheading of one former disciple, and the firebombing of a black neighborhood in Delray Beach.

Early this month, after the prosecution rested its case, the judge surprised both sides by throwing out a third of the charges against Yahweh, saying the government had failed to offer any evidence of extortion involving the eviction of some 100 residents of a sect-owned apartment complex. But Yahweh and his followers still face several counts of murder and conspiracy that could send them to prison for up to 40 years.

Yahweh himself previewed the defense case when he telephoned a Washington television talk show and described Rozier as a "serial killer" who led a small group of rogue murderers who acted on their own. Yahweh and most of the defendants are expected to testify.

Before his arrest in November, 1990, Yahweh, 56, presided over a multimillion dollar religious empire called the Temple of Love. It included schools, grocery stores and apartment houses, and hundreds of followers in several U.S. cities. As he enforced kosher dietary laws, and emphasized hard work and enterprise, Yahweh was hailed as a black role model and credited with driving drug dealers from some inner-city neighborhoods. He joined the Chamber of Commerce, and just a few weeks before his arrest, Miami Mayor Xavier Suarez honored him with Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day.

But according to prosecutors and former sect members, even as Yahweh's economic clout increased, so did his anger over perceived affronts. Teaching that blacks were the true Jews living in the land of the "white devils," Yahweh allegedly demanded retribution for insults or historical injustice in the form of murder, often insisting that his Death Angels bring back fingers, ears or the heads of victims as proof of their deeds.

Rozier, a muscular man whose long hair is pulled into a single thick braid that hangs from the left side of his head, said he often served as Yahweh's chief enforcer. And when Rozier took the stand, Assistant U.S. Atty. Trudy Novicki's first question was: "How many people have you killed or helped to kill?"

"Seven," he answered without a moment's hesitation. Six of those killings, he said, were carried out on orders of Yahweh, while the seventh was a panhandler who annoyed him by persisting to ask for money and cigarettes. "I ended up killing him and throwing him in the water," Rozier said.

The former University of California, Berkeley star is now serving a 22-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to four murders. He went on to recount the stabbing and shooting deaths of several other victims, both whites chosen at random and blacks who had insulted Yahweh.

The matter-of-fact tone of Rozier's bloody recollections, along with the colorful cast of characters in the courtroom, lend the proceedings a surreal air. Presiding over the case is U.S. District Judge Norman C. Roettger Jr., who has an oversized handlebar mustache and a baritone voice, and has been known to carry a handgun in an ankle holster.

Seated side by side on benches are the 16 defendants, all but two dressed in immaculate white robes and turbans. Yahweh, a former Air Force instructor and son of an Oklahoma Pentecostal minister, often seems bemused by the witnesses' testimony, and chats amiably with the only woman co-defendant, Judith Israel, described as the temple's second in command.

Arrayed behind the defendants is a rank of federal marshals, warily watching the accused and sternly shushing spectators who gasp too loudly at the details of dismemberment.

Each defendant has at least one lawyer. Representing Yahweh is former federal judge Alcee Hastings, a courtly man with a grandiloquent speaking style who was impeached by Congress in 1989 and removed from the bench after being implicated in a bribery scandal. The attorney for another defendant was mugged and pistol-whipped at a Miami gas station recently, and for a while sat at the defense table holding his heavily bandaged right hand in the air.

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