Yahweh empire invisible as leader awaits ruling

Miami Herald/August 9, 2001
By Meg Laughlin

If Yahweh Ben Yahweh is allowed to rejoin his Miami followers when he walks out of federal prison on Aug. 17, he will return to a Nation of Yahweh empire that is still in business, but deliberately invisible.

Once, a high-profile force in Miami, the Nation of Yahweh owned numerous white buildings and white vehicles until 14 murders were connected to the group and the teachings of its founder. It was these teachings that landed Yahweh Ben Yahweh (which means God, Son of God, in Hebrew) in prison for conspiring to commit murder as part of a racketeering enterprise.

Before their leader's conviction in 1992, the Yahwehs owned a huge temple on Northwest 27th Avenue, a four-story apartment building near Northwest 62nd Street, and hotels on Biscayne Boulevard and the ocean, not to mention restaurants, supermarkets, retail stores and houses. They also owned a hotel and restaurant in Atlanta, as well as hundreds of white cars, vans, buses and 18-wheeler trucks. But the visible assets of the empire, once estimated at $100 million, are now gone.

The temple was given back to the bank in the 1990s, as were the apartment buildings, hotels and other structures. The hotel and restaurant in Atlanta went into foreclosure five years ago. And undisclosed amounts of money went to settle wrongful death lawsuits against Yahweh Ben Yahweh and some of his followers for the 14 people killed.

The last known Yahweh structure, a four-bedroom house in Homestead, went into foreclosure in March, when a family of Yahwehs (two adults and five children) moved out, after their Yahweh-products store in Cauley Square folded.

"They used an old white van to move their stuff,'' said a neighbor. Other monies seem to have disappeared in a manner as mysteriously as the Yahweh people, now rarely seen on Miami streets in their characteristic white robes and turbans. In fact, only two known Yahweh organizations still exist: a small home school for Yahweh children run out of an apartment in North Miami and a foundation dedicated to raising funds for Yahweh Ben Yahweh's legal battles. The Yahwehs sell videos and books on a website.

Where are Members?

"The Yahwehs are still believed to have members, but, except for a few, nobody knows where. We have reason to believe, however, that he is still in control of them because of the phone calls, visitors and mail he received in prison,'' says Richard Scruggs, former assistant U.S. Attorney who was the leading prosecutor against Yahweh.

According to FBI reports, the Yahweh followers are waiting for their leader to get out on parole and take over again. But take over what is unclear. "The Yahweh people will absolutely not talk to anyone about what they are doing,'' said their lawyer, Jon May of Fort Lauderdale.

But Yahweh member and attorney Wendellyn Rush shed some light on Yahweh activity when she spoke in federal court last week at the hearing to decide whether Yahweh Ben Yahweh can return to The Nation of Yahweh upon his release from prison next week. (Federal Judge K. Michael Moore should rule before Aug. 17.) Rush said the Yahwehs had a religious celebration at a Montreal hotel recently, with about 1,000 people attending.

Indeed, the Yahwehs had two conferences and religious celebrations in Montreal in the spring -- one in early April and one in late May. The first was at the Montreal Holiday Inn midtown, the second at The Hilton Bonaventure in Montreal. Each conference had about the same number of people according to hotel executives -- about 700 people, with over 300 of them staying in the host hotels.

A Hilton manager described them as "unbelievably pacifistic and polite people.'' "We have never had a group that large who was so well-mannered. There were lots of children and teenagers who were terrific,'' said the manager, who asked not to be named.

Holiday Inn banquet director Robert Stephens said: "The people in the white turbans were so quiet they were barely visible.'' They registered from all over the United States, with some from Canada, and they paid up front with a check from The Nation of Yahweh, which went through without a hitch.

$200,000 Per Booking

How much?

"About $200,000 for each booking,'' the Hilton manager said.

They have also booked The Hilton in the fall and have paid another $200,000. No one in the government, though, seems to know where the money is coming from. "There are rumors,'' said Scruggs, "but nothing solid.''

Lloyd Clark, a former Yahweh member who defected and is now in hiding, says Yahweh finances were always a mystery: "All of that money didn't come from selling Yahweh literature on the streets or Yahweh shampoo. I was close to the top of the organization and I never knew where the money came from,'' he said.

But all of the mysterious money does not erase the fact that if Yahweh Ben Yahweh does not prevail in federal court and loses the right to once again lead his fold, he will have to go to a halfway house and get a job next week.

"We try to find suitable work, but often it's dish-washing or busing dishes or construction work,'' said Leslie Castro who supervises prisoners in Miami halfway houses. "It's an interesting concept: God has to go to work,'' said former prosecutor Scruggs.

Community activist Georgia Ayers, who runs a school in one of the old Yahweh buildings, says she thinks Yahweh Ben Yahweh ought to be able to return to his followers, despite the murders. And despite the fact that a Yahweh member threatened her life after the leader went to prison.

"He did his time. He paid his debt. He shouldn't be punished anymore,'' she said. Scruggs disagrees: "Will he use his power to help people and not to harm them? Based on what he did before, I say no.''

Otis Lumpkin, the building supervisor for Ayers' school, had Yahwehs in his family and was also threatened by a Yahweh. "I know they did good things and bad things,'' said Lumpkin.

"If Yahweh Ben Yahweh walked in here in his white robes, I'd have a few words for him,'' he said. "I'd look him straight in the eye and say, `Good morning, sir.' ''

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