Little Rock, Arkansas - A follower of the House of Yahweh sect in Texas taught classes at the Pulaski County jail for more than four years, giving inmates lessons designed by the ministry's embattled leader, officials told The Associated Press.
Sheriff Doc Holladay said the follower passed a background check and came with a letter of recommendation from House of Yahweh leader Yisrayl Hawkins. Hawkins faces charges in Texas that he performed polygamous weddings, practiced bigamy and forced about 40 children - some as young as 11 - to work.
Holladay said House of Yahweh follower David Knighten didn't proselytize during his classes at the jail, attended by at least 780 inmates over the past years. The sheriff even wrote Knighten a letter of recommendation before jailers realized Hawkins faced criminal charges.
The course, called Peaceful Solution Character Education Program, focused on "the importance of asking" for permission in life, as well as on ownership, respect and self-control.
Knighten, 51, said the class discussed "not stealing" from others, whether that be physical objects or the intangible, like time or emotions. He said he volunteered his courses not only at the Pulaski County jail, but also within state prisons in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas, while also working professionally as a business courier and bill auditor.
"It's a nonreligious curriculum," Knighten said. "There's no religion or no race that could disagree with what's taught in there."
Knighten said he gave out other writings by Hawkins when asked by inmates. He said he stopped the practice after jailers complained some inmates felt uncomfortable with it. Around 10 inmates finished the program and several have reached out to him after their release for further guidance, he said.
Jailers canceled Knighten's jail program in January, nearly a year after Hawkins had been charged in Texas courts. However, an Internet video features Knighten reading Holladay's letter, complete with a picture of the sheriff.
"I have a feeling that perhaps this organization is trying to use certain people in certain positions as some kind of character witness, so to speak," Holladay told the AP. "I think our acknowledgment of Mr. Knighten's abilities ... may be being stretched a little further than certainly my intent would be. I'm not a fan of the group."
A similar situation may have happened in Benton, a small city about 17 miles southwest of Little Rock, said Alderman Brad Moore. Moore said the mayor brought Knighten in for a class before the entire City Council in March 2008 and held a separate seminar for other city staffers.
"It was benign information, nothing inflammatory, just basic, common sense tips most people are taught by their parents," Moore said.
Knighten's Internet video includes a segment showing Benton Mayor Rick Holland praising the course from inside his office, with a city logo superimposed across the top.
"It was just amazing the difference in focus in our people in the direction they went from just one program," Holland said in the video. "It's a great program in a day where there are so many negative influences out there."
Holland did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Moore said that, after Holland received a reward from Knighten at a recent council meeting for his "moral excellence," he began looking up more information about him. That's when Moore said he discovered Knighten's link with the House of Yahweh, as well as another follower who warned the city council in July 2006 about a coming nuclear war that would "kill a third of man and a quarter of the earth" - a prophecy direct from Hawkins.
Aldermen plan to hold a special meeting May 28 to formally sever any connection between the city and the House of Yahweh, Moore said.
I told the mayor that "the public will perceive the city of Benton intertwined with this religious group," Moore said. "You can't link government to religion."
Hawkins, born Buffalo Bill Hawkins, founded the House of Yahweh in 1980 - three years after being fired from the Abilene, Texas, police department for having beer in his patrol car.
Hawkins began preaching polygamy in the early 1990s, saying women had to accept it or leave and forfeit heaven, several former members said. Hundreds of his followers, scattered across the world, have legally changed their last names to Hawkins. Many also have taken biblical first names that - like their leader's - include the letter "Y."
Some of Hawkins' teachings also made it on Benton's community cable channel. Knighten, who volunteers to tape City Council meetings, offered the tapes for the channel, said Johnny McMahan, president of the Benton Community Access Association.
Though a city councilman described the House of Yahweh as a cult, McMahan said the channel continues to air the videos along with recordings of other church services.
"We don't prescreen anything. We don't censor anything," he said. "We don't try to chill free speech."