Yahweh members run afoul of Hamilton zoning

Atlantic City Press/February 16, 2005
By Andrew Johnson

Hamilton Township -- Weeks before three longtime members likely will be sentenced to prison, the local Yahweh religious sect is still facing scrutiny, this time from local officials.

A federal jury ruled in December that three members of the Restored Israel of Yahweh are guilty of conspiracy to defraud the government, tax evasion and failure to file taxes.

Kevin McKee, 47, Joseph Donato, 46, and his wife, Inge Donato, 44, are likely to be sentenced to more than two years in prison under federal sentencing guidelines by Judge Jerome B. Simandle on April 1, according to federal prosecutors.

Hamilton Township Zoning Officer Steven I. Maimon said Tuesday he sent a letter to Third Avenue resident Virginia Tamuts this month, alerting her about an illegally converted garage behind her home. Tamuts, a Yahweh member, is the next-door neighbor of McKee.

According to Maimon, the converted garage, which looks like a house from the street, violates a township ordinance expressly prohibiting converting a garage into a dwelling.

Maimon said McKee entered his office recently and admitted he was responsible for the conversion, which he knew violated a local ordinance, and said he would rectify the problem.

Maimon said he would work with the Yahweh group to resolve the matter.

The zoning officer said it was his understanding that the group would move the home to another lot in the Weymouth section of the township, where they own several parcels of land.

The official said two people signed anonymous complaints at his office, tipping him off about the violation.

McKee said he was sure it was ex-members of the group who wanted to hurt the Yahweh group.

McKee said he felt bad about the situation and was responsible for it because he had been trying to build a home for his sick mother-in-law, at the converted garage in question.

"It's to take care of an 83-year-old woman," he said.

"We're handling it as professionally as we can," McKee said.

The 47-year-old knows something about building homes. McKee is co-owner of McKee Donato Construction Co., which he owns with his partner, Joseph Donato.

The construction company was recently at the center of a tax-evasion case in U.S. District Court in Camden.

Tipped off by ex-members of the group, the government built a case against the Yahweh group, ultimately proving to a jury that Joseph Donato and his wife owed the government $88,000 in taxes from 1997 to 2000; McKee owed $68,000; and McKee and Joseph Donato owed $106,000 for not withholding taxes for their employees.

The group has said it is does not pay federal taxes because it does not support the spending of the money on war.

Members of the sect believe God will destroy Earth and then set up a new holy kingdom of resurrected souls, believers of the Restored Israel of Yahweh.

The Hamilton Township group believes the group's founder, Leo Volpe, born of Atlantic City immigrants in 1916, was the prophet Jeremiah, who would live forever and lead those souls.

It is the second time in the last 22 years that a member of the Restored Israel of Yahweh has been convicted of tax evasion. Volpe served four months in prison after his 1983 federal trial in Newark.

At the most recent trial, McKee said he had hoped it would be a "shining example," and that jurors would understand his group's benevolent intentions.

McKee said he hoped he could still get that point across at sentencing.

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