Callahan County, Texas - In his first sermon after leaving jail, Yisrayl (Buffalo Bill) Hawkins was folksy, paternal and apocalyptic.
"No, we're not getting ready to kill ourselves," said the man who calls himself the prophet of the House of Yahweh, a barbed-wire kingdom of brimstone prophecies and abject poverty 15 miles southeast of Abilene, Texas.
"We're getting ready to live through the greatest tribulation that ever will be."
The troubles facing Hawkins may soon provide Texas' first major test of strengthened anti-polygamy laws, just 150 miles from the spotlight on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Eldorado.
The 73-year-old Hawkins was arrested and indicted in February -- less than two months before raids on the Eldorado compound -- and charged with promoting bigamy, which was made a felony in 2005 after the unrelated FLDS group arrived from Utah.
"This will probably be the first case of its kind," said Callahan County Attorney Shane Deel, who began investigating the House of Yahweh after taking office in 2005.
Hawkins also faces a misdemeanor charge of breaking child labor laws. He's accused of having up to 40 children working weekdays in the fields, in a canning operation and in a cafeteria.
Another member, elder Yedidiyah Hawkins, is expected to stand trial this summer on charges of the sexual assault of his now 14-year-old stepdaughter, who authorities allege he was planning to make his wife.
He faces additional charges, as well, including bigamy and engaging in organized crime. Prosecutors say he has at least four wives.
Both men deny all the accusations. Their attorney, John Young, said the criminal charges stem largely from accusations by disgruntled former members and from misconceptions about the group.
"I think anytime there is a lack of understanding or knowledge about a group of people or a club or a religion, I think there's a natural tendency on the part of society to be suspect," Young said.
Young denied that polygamy occurs in the church and said the charges are for acts alleged to have occurred before the new law went into effect.
"He teaches against multiple marriages," he said of Hawkins. The group and its prophesies
Yisrayl (pronounced Israel) Hawkins, a former rockabilly band leader and Abilene policeman, founded his group in the 1980s, moving in 1991 near the small town of Eula.
The mesquite-studded grassland, with hundreds of acres owned by Hawkins and the sect, includes a gated sanctuary with mobile homes and old tractor-trailers in which food is said to be stockpiled.
The criminal charges come after years of suspicion surrounding the sect, which gained attention in the 1990s because of its eclectic, sometimes vitriolic, Old Testament teachings and prophecies. The group believes in strict adherence to the 613 laws of Yahweh, a Hebrew name for God.
In 2006, Hawkins forecast that a "nuclear baby" would be unleashed on the world, bringing nuclear war to the Middle East on Sept. 12 of that year.
After doomsday failed to materialize, the prophet said the 2006 date was the day of conception, and that the metaphorical baby -- depicted as a horror-movie-evil infant holding a baby bottle and missile -- would be born in 2007. That, too, failed to come to pass. Beyond the Bible
Shaul Hawkins, an elder who joined the group in 1988, attributes the allegations to unhappy former members and discrimination from locals. The sect doesn't observe holidays such as Christmas and Easter, and holds its Sabbath services on Saturdays -- traditions that the elder said have led to discrimination in the Bible Belt.
He said the group attracts those who wish to live in simple accord with biblical teachings, removed from a corrupt world saturated with sexuality. Anyone is free to leave, he said.
Through the years, the House of Yahweh has attracted thousands of members from around the world, using satellite broadcasts, radio and the Internet to spread a message that often weaves news reports of famine, pestilence and violence with biblical prophecies. Sermons are posted online.
Ruby Wilkins, who was a sect member in the early 1980s and whose children also were members, said Yisrayl Hawkins helped her escape from a bad marriage. But she came to see him as controlling, exploiting those who had nothing.
"Out on the street, they were just nobody, and they didn't have enough smarts to be anybody. Bill took them in, would give them a black suit and called them elders. As long as they were there, they were somebody," Wilkins said.
Many members change their last name to their teacher's. A bigger picture
Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, said the Callahan County case will be the first prosecution of a polygamy suspect under the strengthened bigamy statutes.
"They can be very difficult cases to prove because there is no CSI-type evidence," Edmonds said. And for groups like the House of Yahweh, there are typically no marriage certificates filed in the courthouse.
The bigamy case against Yisrayl Hawkins could go to trial in the fall.
"They didn't get Al Capone because of all the people he murdered and all the organized crime. They got him for tax evasion," Deel said.
"If we thought the worst thing" Hawkins "had done is to have however many wives he's got, it might not be such a terribly big deal. But he's destroyed the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and so that makes the criminal conduct we can prove a bit more serious."