Yahweh ben Yahweh, Leader of Separatist Sect, Dies at 71

New York Times/May 9, 2007
By Douglas Martin

Yahweh ben Yahweh, who, as the charismatic leader of a religious, black separatist sect in the Miami area was convicted of conspiring to murder white people as an initiation rite, died on Monday night or early yesterday in Miami. He was 71.

The cause was cancer, his lawyer, Jayne Weintraub, said.

Yahweh ben Yahweh, who wore a turban and flowing white robes and called himself the reincarnated Messiah, had started successful business enterprises and worked to rehabilitate neighborhoods in the Liberty City section of Miami and elsewhere. The mayor of Miami declared Oct. 7, 1990, Yahweh ben Yahweh Day.

But the next month, Yahweh ben Yahweh and 12 followers were indicted on three counts of federal racketeering and extortion charges. The indictment charged 18 specific instances of racketeering that included 14 killings, two attempted killings, extortion and arson.

Yahweh ben Yahweh, which in Hebrew means “the Lord son of the Lord,” and his followers were charged with killing former members who disagreed with the leader, in one instance by decapitation. The indictment also charged that new members were made to prove their devotion by killing a random white person, usually a vagrant. It said Yahweh ben Yahweh told members “to kill me a white devil and bring me an ear.”

In 1992, Yahweh ben Yahweh was convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, but not racketeering, and sentenced to 18 years in prison. He was released on parole in 2001, and this February was released from parole after his lawyer, Ms. Weintraub, asked the court to let him “die with dignity.”

Hulon Mitchell Jr. was born on Oct. 27, 1935, in Kingfisher, Okla., where his father was a granary worker and a Pentecostal minister. He was the first of 15 children and said he knew he was divine at age 3. All the Mitchell children sang in the church choir, and a sister, Leona Mitchell, went on to become a noted soprano who sang with the Metropolitan Opera.

Yahweh ben Yahweh adopted and shed several religious identities over four decades, Newsday reported in 1991. He was known as Hulah Shah, Father Michel and Brother Love. He attended segregated public schools, served in the Air Force and earned a psychology degree from Phillips College in Oklahoma, then an all-black institution. Some former teachers there considered him brilliant, The New York Times reported in 1986.

He worked with civil rights groups in organizing sit-ins in Oklahoma, but grew disillusioned and called the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “that dead dog preacher.”

According to The Times, he studied law at the University of Oklahoma, but did not get a degree. According to Newsday, he earned a master’s degree in economics from Atlanta University. He went to Chicago and became involved with the Nation of Islam, then continued his religious quest in a variety of ways. He moved to Miami in 1976, where he pronounced himself Yahweh ben Yahweh.

“I am an incarnation of myself,” he told Newsday. “In terms of accomplishing what I have I’m peerless.”

Soon the Yahwehs — as adherents, all of whom are given the last name Israel and most of whom wear white, are known — had a huge temple, a four-story apartment building, restaurants, stores, houses and a hotel in Miami and a hotel and restaurant in Atlanta as well as hundreds of white cars, vans, buses and 18-wheeler trucks. In 2001, The Miami Herald reported that the empire’s value at its peak may have been $100 million.

The organization, which had already been dogged by reports of child abuse, began to unravel in November 1986 when Robert Rozier, a follower of Yahweh ben Yahweh and a former professional football player, was arrested in connection with two killings. At Yahweh ben Yahweh’s trial four years later, Mr. Rozier’s testimony — given as part of a deal to reduce his own sentence — was crucial in convicting Yahweh ben Yahweh and some of those charged with him.

During this trial, supporters of the sect in 30 cities rallied to support him. Ms. Weintraub said that one of the terms of his parole was not to communicate with any of them. After these restrictions were lifted, he was too sick, devoting his last days to reading and writing.

Yahweh ben Yahweh is survived by three daughters, a son, at least six grandchildren and more than half of his 14 brothers and sisters, including Leona Mitchell, Ms. Weintraub said.

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