Yahweh Ben Yahweh, who had a following of thousands as the leader of a violent black supremacist sect in Miami and who later spent years in prison for conspiracy to commit murder, died May 7 of prostate cancer at his home in Opa-locka, Fla. He was 71.
Yahweh, a charismatic speaker known for his flowing white robes and jeweled turbans, explored various religious fringe groups before forming his sect in Miami in 1979. He controlled a multimillion-dollar business empire that included schools, grocery stores and real estate and once claimed to have 20,000 followers in 45 cities.
Calling himself the "Original Jew," Yahweh adopted a name that means "God, the son of God" in Hebrew. He said he and his disciples were the true descendants of a long-lost tribe of Israel.
From the beginning, however, Yahweh's group was associated with an intimidating style that often crossed into violence and murder. He railed against "white devils" and proclaimed himself the messiah: "All who receive me shall be saved from immorality and death."
Still, he managed to cultivate an image as a well-meaning, if eccentric, community builder. Yahweh helped clean up blighted neighborhoods and, at least among his followers, restored a sense of order to a crumbling social structure. Children studied Hebrew and recited the names of chemical elements.
He spoke to crowds of thousands around the country and received the blessings of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. In 1987, the Miami Urban League gave Yahweh its highest humanitarian award, and its president pronounced him "an inspiration to the entire community."
In October 1990, Miami Mayor Xavier L. Suarez declared a Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day. A month later, Yahweh was indicted on federal racketeering and conspiracy charges. He was linked to 14 killings, two attempted slayings and the terrorist-style bombing of an entire block in Delray Beach, Fla., where residents had roughed up some of his white-robed supporters.
When Yahweh went to trial in 1992, lurid details of life in the sect emerged.
Among other things, Yahweh controlled the clothing, food and sex lives of the people in his group. Twice married and divorced earlier in life, he took many of his young female followers to his bed.
"We may be rabbis and nuns here," he told the New York Times with a wide smile, "but we don't believe in celibacy."
Yahweh was surrounded by bodyguards called the Circle of 10, each armed with a 6-foot wooden staff.
Onetime professional football player Robert Rozier, a close associate who confessed to killing seven people, testified for the prosecution.
Yahweh was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and acquitted of racketeering charges. He was sentenced to 18 years in federal prison and was released on parole in 2001 after serving nine years. By court order, he could have no communication with any of his onetime disciples.