More arrests for House of Yahweh members and additional charges against its purported founder, Yisrayl Bill Hawkins, could be forthcoming as a three-year-old investigation into the religious sect moves forward.
Hawkins, 73, was arrested Tuesday evening and is charged with four counts of bigamy, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison and possibly a fine per charge. His bail is set at $10 million, an amount that Hawkins' lawyers contested by filing on Wednesday a writ of habeas corpus, which requests a person be brought before the court and that authorities justify his detention.
"I've been practicing for almost 20 years, and I have never seen a bond that is set this high in a case that did not involve significant violence or death," said John Young, one of two lawyers defending Hawkins. "Frankly, very serious murder cases do not have bond set this high."
Authorities say Hawkins is a flight risk.
Warrants for Hawkins' arrest were issued Nov. 5, but Tuesday was the first opportunity law enforcement agencies had to arrest him, said Shane Deel, Callahan County district attorney.
"He's not very easy to find," said Deel. The office was also concerned about safety, said Tee Barton, an investigator in Deel's office.
"Our main concern was that it was done somewhere away from their headquarters or compounds to prevent anything from getting out of hand," Barton said.
The district attorney's office coordinated the effort to arrest Hawkins by alerting the Taylor County Sheriff's Office. Taylor County detectives in unmarked cars followed Hawkins from a residence near Lake Fort Phantom Hill until a deputy could arrest him, said the sheriff's office public information officer Sgt. John Cummins. According to the Callahan County District Attorney's Office, Hawkins was leaving the Angels Breath Road residence listed in his name.
He was arrested peacefully at 7:55 p.m. on FM 603, near the House of Yahweh compound in Callahan County. Hawkins was first taken to the Callahan County Jail in Baird but was later transferred to the Taylor County Jail because the Callahan County Jail was full. Such transfers are common, according to the jail.
Bigamy is legally marrying someone while already legally married. Living with one person under the appearance of being married while married to another is also bigamy, Deel said. The charges against Hawkins are second-degree felonies because the alleged "wives" are all over 16, Deel said. Had they had been under 16, the charges would have been first-degree felonies.
Bigamy is not a common crime in Callahan County, said Deel, who has been the district and county attorney since 2005.
"To my knowledge, there has never been a case like this prosecuted here," he said.
Barton's affidavits, the sworn statements that are the basis for Hawkins' warrants, allege that Hawkins "encouraged and approved of" multiple marriages among House of Yahweh members and had "given his blessings to such arrangements as leader of the sect." The office questioned many former members of the sect before an affidavit was filed, Deel said. A John Doe No. 73 is listed in the affidavit.
Among the examples of alleged bigamy listed in the affidavits are a marriage between Kepha Arcemont Hawkins and Karena Metcalf, now known as Karena Arcemont Hawkins. In the affidavit, Barton claims Kepha Arcemont Hawkins was still married to Shandra Arcemont Hawkins at the time and that all three now live together on a compound owned or controlled by the House of Yahweh.
"The County Attorney's Office has verified the living situation and conditions of Kepha Arcemont Hawkins and Karena Arcemont Hawkins through documents obtained from the Callahan County Clerk, Taylor County Clerk, Taylor County Registrar, Texas Department of Public Safety and the city of Abilene vital statistics office," according to the affidavit.
The office has stopped short of accusing Hawkins of practicing bigamy himself.
"The warrants say he's encouraging members to engage in it, but it doesn't mean that he himself is participating," Deel said. "As far as him practicing it, we field the cases we can most easily prove. Even if we think he's doing it, it may not be as easy to prove."
There could be more charges in the future for Hawkins or other Yahweh members, Deel said.
Deel's office has been examining complaints related to Yisrayl Hawkins' conduct and "the goings-on" of the group. An investigation into Yisrayl Bill Hawkins has been ongoing for about three years. Deel said he expects a grand jury to return an indictment "fairly soon" for the bigamy charges. Grand juries in Callahan County return indictments only once a month; indictments are next scheduled to be returned in March, but it is possible that an indictment would be returned before that, Deel said.
If a grand jury indicts him, the case will be tried in the 42nd District Court. If the grand jurors don't think there is enough evidence, they will "no bill" the case, meaning that no criminal case results from that particular jury.
Deel said his office moved forward with the bigamy charges because "we felt like this was a solid case to go on." Each charge carries a $2.5 million bond, totaling $10 million .
But Hawkins' legal team said the bail, which was requested by Deel's office and set by a Callahan County Justice of the Peace, is ridiculously high and has filed a writ of habeas corpus because they believe the agency is using the $10 million bail as a tool of oppression.
"It's wrong when a law enforcement agent makes an allegation like that solely for the purpose of holding a citizen in jail without any findings. That's why we have the 'great writ,'" Young said.
According to the affidavits, Hawkins, who has "a great deal of control and influence over his followers," could be a flight risk and a danger to his followers if he is placed in a "desperate situation, such as facing a possible prison sentence."
"Mr. Hawkins is extremely devoted and a committed individual with long-time connections -- strong connections -- to the Callahan County community," Young said. "I don't know what the law enforcement is basing that flight risk on, but we'll let them explain that to the judge."
Young said he hopes that a time will be set soon to review the Hawkins case. In most cases, a writ of habeas corpus is seen as promptly as possible because of the nature of the writ, but Deel has declined to agree to a bond reduction hearing in Taylor County, meaning that next Thursday might be soonest it can be scheduled, Young said.
There are multiple factors that go into setting bail, including the severity of the crime and criminal history, Young said. But an additional factor is that it cannot be used as a tool of oppression by law enforcement, he said.
"That's what we're asking the district judge to review," he said. "There's no rational relationship here between any of the accused crimes and his bail."
Although the affidavit says Hawkins could be a danger to his followers if he is placed in a desperate situation, local law enforcement agencies don't expect any trouble from the House of Yahweh members.
"The majority of the members are decent, peaceful individuals," Deel said. Deel said that he has not asked for any special conditions or increased patrols. Agencies in Taylor County have not felt the need to increase patrols either. Yisrayl Hawkins is listed as the owner of at least 50 properties in Taylor County, including property within city limits, according to the Taylor County Central Appraisal District's Web site.
The Taylor County Sheriff's Office has not taken any extra precautionary measures, the spokesman said. . And Abilene police are not taking any extra measures, said police Lt. Tracy Weems.
"There is not credible information about any threats," he said. "...As far as we're concerned, this is a routine set of arrest warrants, and we're treating it as we would any other case that has been filed."
Loretta Fulton contributed to this story.