Clyde, Texas - It doesn't look like a safe haven from nuclear apocalypse.
A country road lined with barbed-wire fences, mesquite trees and ramshackle mobile homes leads to a dusty lane where "Do not enter" notices surround a sign for The House of Yahweh, a hellfire and Armageddon church whose members have rejected the ways of the world while awaiting the end of times prophesied time and again by leader Yisrayl Hawkins.
Guards cruise up and down County Road 254 south of Clyde, a tiny town about 10 miles east of Abilene. Watchtowers that look like deer stands with windows are built atop houses along the road and inside the 44-acre compound where Hawkins, 74, delivers fiery but folksy sermons.
The sect's holdings include about 600 acres, a mammoth meeting hall, a meatpacking facility, a cannery, underground bunkers and trailers stocked with supplies for the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown forecast by Hawkins, observers say.
Beyond the sect's spooky compound and unusual beliefs are more serious concerns.
Allegations of polygamy have dogged the group for years. Last year, an elder was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Last month, Hawkins was convicted of four misdemeanor child labor violations for requiring children to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the sect's fields, cannery and butter operation.
The church, which according to its lawyer has 550 area members but reaches thousands of followers worldwide through satellite broadcasts, is funded by stiff tithes that are collected in advance of Old Testament-style feasts, former members say.
The feasts, which can last up to eight days and draw 1,000 people, include sermons, entertainment and drinking around campfires, said Margo Hawkins, the 36-year-old daughter of Yisrayl Hawkins. She fled the flock in 1996 after her husband was pushed to take a second wife.
"It's eight days of brainwashing," she said. "They think they have found heaven on earth, but it's the worst cult in the world."
Or are they, as the church's attorney John Young maintains, a misunderstood group whose unorthodox beliefs have led to "legal witch hunts"?
"Being strange or being odd does not a crime make," Young said.
A test case
Yisrayl Hawkins, whose birth name is Buffalo Bill Hawkins, has been roiling the religious waters in the conservative Abilene area almost since he started the House of Yahweh nearly three decades ago.
Whispers of polygamy began to draw attention in the early 1990s. The sect sparked more curiosity when hundreds of members changed their names to Hawkins, Callahan County Attorney Shane Deel said.
Things took a darker turn in December 2008 when one of the renamed members, Yedidiyah Hawkins, 41, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for molesting his 11-year-old stepdaughter. Deel said the sect elder, "who has four wives," was "playing doctor" by giving the girl a cervical examination.
Also drawing questions was the death of a 7-year-old girl in 2003, after her mother and another woman performed surgery on her infected leg. The mother became a witness for the state, and Rebekah Hawkins was convicted of injury to a child and received three years' probation, Deel said.
In February 2008, Deel charged Yisrayl Hawkins with four counts of bigamy and child labor violations. His trial was supposed to be a test case for Texas' toughened laws against polygamy, which the Legislature made a felony in 2005.
But the case turned into a test of a small county's ability to prosecute a high-profile defendant when 42nd District Judge John Weeks moved the trial 100 miles to Parker County.
The change of venue was granted after the defense commissioned a poll that showed 84 percent of 150 people surveyed in Callahan County, population 13,000, had an unfavorable opinion of Hawkins.
Young says his client was singled out from the beginning.
"When they first put Yisrayl in jail, they got a justice of the peace to set a $10 million bond on a nonviolent gig. I've had capital murder cases that don't have that. It was clearly calculated to punish and harass," the Sweetwater attorney said, noting that Weeks quickly reduced the bond.
Then, despite what Deel called a "mountain of evidence" that Yisrayl Hawkins has dozens of wives and promoted bigamy to sect members, the county attorney decided he couldn't afford to spend $30,000 on a case where "the outcome was uncertain."
On Oct. 29, the four counts of promoting bigamy were dismissed, and Yisrayl Hawkins pleaded no contest to four counts of child labor violations. He agreed to pay $8,000 in fines and received 15 months of probation for each violation.
"We're just glad it's over," said Young, who denies that Hawkins, who declined to be interviewed, practices or encourages polygamy. "It's our hope that we can all move forward and live and let live."
Deel, 37, acknowledges that dropping the felony charges was a setback but says he has no regrets about pursuing the case. "When you look at what [the sect] is doing to the people in there, you have to try and address it some way," he said.
"I think he has done a lot of bad things to people, and not all of them are criminal," he said. "The way he treats people and takes their money and kind of intimidates them and ruins their lives is horrible. It's evil but we can't prosecute somebody for just being a bad person. I thought this was the way to hold him accountable."
Some say he should have figured that out first.
"One, you don't bring a case unless you can prove it. And two, unless you can fund it," said Bill Mateja, a former federal prosecutor in Lubbock now in private practice with Fish & Richardson in Dallas.
"On the other hand, DA's offices in small counties face all sorts of practical impediments," he said. "And money is one of those things. But those decisions need to be made early on, not after somebody has been charged."
Mateja said Deel should have reached out to the Texas attorney general's office.
Deel says he hasn't had much luck with the AG's office.
"We had requested an investigator on Yedidiyah Hawkins' case in the Spring of '08," he wrote in an e-mail. "We were told they would assign someone, and never heard another word. ... I don't have much faith in them."
Jerry Strickland, spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the agency stands by its record.
"All criminal cases take a financial toll, and in this case particularly, the district attorney decided he didn't want to dedicate the time and money," Strickland said. "District attorneys have the authority and discretion to prosecute or not prosecute a case. Our involvement in cases around the state speaks for itself, and our record of assisting local prosecutors speaks for itself."
For now, Deel is offering church members help if they want to change their names back from Hawkins.
"We've got some other stuff coming," he said. "There are some other defendants besides him."
'He was a cowboy'
Yisrayl Hawkins has been many things: Laundromat owner, landlord, policeman, preacher, self-proclaimed prophet and multimillionaire.
Young describes him as "a country sort of fellow. When you visit with him, you sense a very open and very genuine person."
His ex-wife and daughter are less charitable.
Both allege that he was abusive to his family. Both allege that he's psychotic. Both say they are writing a book about him.
Hawkins started the church in 1980 while he was an Abilene policeman who also owned a mobile home park. Many of his first members were in arrears to him at his "ratty" park, said Kay Hawkins, who was "a freshly divorced mother of three" living there when she met him in 1972.
"He was a cowboy with a turned-up hat and a beak nose, cowboy boots and denims," she says. "He was a redneck, hillbilly hick."
Nonetheless, Kay Hawkins married him in 1977 and worked with him at the growing church before discovering in 1993 "that he had been practicing polygamy with his secretary. He wanted to be like King Solomon."
"He's nothing but a polygamist," said Kay Hawkins, 61.
Margo Hawkins says her father started advocating polygamy in the early 1990s.
"Not only was it acceptable, but it was a law that you had to have multiple wives," she said. "All the men were supposed to have them. Not only that, but they didn't have to tell their wife. ... Women were like cattle."
Vincent Allen Dawson, a 30-year-old musician from South Carolina who joined the church when he was 16 and stayed until he was 24, says it's a "definite yes on plural wives. Men had multiple wives. That's the truth."
While denying the polygamy allegations, Young says "men do seem to have a place of priority within the church."
'The fine print'
The sect exerts tight control over members' finances, Dawson and Margo Hawkins said.
Elders expect members to pay three tithes totaling 30 percent of their income: "one to God, one to the poor and one to attend the feasts," Dawson said. When he resisted the tithes, Dawson said, elders told him to pay or "go back out in the world."
Inside the sect, Yisrayl Hawkins is treated like "a rock star," Dawson said. The sect leader is a mesmerizing speaker with "almost hypnotic" speech patterns, "which is typical of a cult," he said.
When his prophecies didn't materialize, members would leave, Dawson said. "But then there would be a sermon that was like the fine print about what it really meant."
While many members live "a miserable" impoverished existence, their leader is "worth millions and millions" and has at least three palatial homes, Margo Hawkins said.
Deel believes that tithes are the church's main tenet.
"Maybe he really believes he's the prophet, but from the outside it looks like it's all about the money. He's very accomplished at it," said Deel, who also noted that Yisrayl Hawkins has more than $2 million in property. "There are intelligent people out there, and you wonder what has gone wrong that they would follow this guy."
Young says members are "a very self-sufficient and independent-minded group of people but very devoted to their church."
The church's doctrine, he said, is that "they are Hebrew or Jewish but believe in the Savior, that Christ is God's son who came to show the world that perfection is possible through God."
Margo Hawkins counters that her father has ginned up doctrine from many faiths.
"He's a cafeteria Christian. That's his term for people who pick and choose what they want to believe. But that's what he is," she said.
Amid the decrepit trailers along County Road 254 sits a tidy farmhouse with rocking chairs on the front porch. The owners came back to Texas in 1995 to retire at the home they bought in 1981.
"The House of Yahweh surrounded me," said the man, who asked not to be identified. "They are not good neighbors. They see everyone else as their enemy."
"We call them Yahoos," his wife said with a chuckle. But she said it's not really a laughing matter. "They are strange. People out here are scared of them."