Check case may trip up former cult killer

Sacramento Bee/May 15, 2000
By Peter Hecht

He has spent more than 15 months waiting in jail -- ever since the strange web of his many lives unraveled for all to know.

Robert Rozier, 44, who was arrested in his wooded Cameron Park neighborhood Feb. 5, 1999, on what was then just a misdemeanor bounced-check case, idles away in a South Lake Tahoe jail awaiting a trial that could keep him behind bars for the rest of his years.

His trial has been delayed repeatedly, now pushed back to the end of June. He's gone through four defense attorneys in a month. He says he fears for his safety because of contacts between an El Dorado County prosecutor and an attorney for a religious sect that he claims wants him dead. He charges that his prosecution violates a plea bargain he made long ago to become a star witness for the U.S. government.

If nothing else, Rozier -- a former Cordova High and University of California, Berkeley, football player who went on to become a multiple killer for a Miami cult, then a protected federal witness and ultimately a homeowner living freely in the suburban foothills east of Sacramento -- is giving quiet El Dorado County one of its longest, strangest legal epics.

At first, his case seemed unremarkable: A man named Robert Rameses was picked up after a manager of a Cameron Park auto parks store complained about a bounced $66 check for brake shoes. As far as anyone knew, Rameses was someone who owned a Sacramento auto detailing business, worked construction jobs and stopped in for drinks at the Coloma Club, a roadside tavern on rural Highway 49.

Then he volunteered to detectives that Rameses was the name he took under the secretive federal Witness Protection Program. Before that, he was Bobby Rozier, a football player whose brief National Football League career with the former St. Louis Cardinals flamed out amid allegations of drug use. In between, he was a cult executioner named Neariah Israel, or "Child of God."

In Florida, Rozier pleaded guilty to four murders and confessed to three other killings to win a reduced prison term in exchange for testimony against Miami sect leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh and members of a religious order that federal prosecutors blamed for at least 23 murders and a series of firebombings in the 1980s. He served 10 years of a 22-year sentence, then was released with a new name and identity.

"I took them (El Dorado detectives) into confidence and let them know who I was," Rozier said in a recent interview. "I was a guy who had cooperated with several police agencies and the United States government. I figured they'd think, 'Let's not blow his cover with a check charge.'"

Instead, El Dorado authorities upgraded his misdemeanor case to felony check fraud and tracked a total of 29 bounced checks totaling more than $2,000 for such things as video rentals, groceries, tires and his bar tab. Rozier claims there was a bank error. Authorities say he knowingly wrote checks on a closed account.

Prosecutor Paul Sutherland -- now seeking a conviction to put him away for 25 years to life -- says Rozier's violent past offers perhaps the most searing argument for California's "three strikes" law, which allows a life sentence even if the third offense isn't a serious or violent felony.

After the check case blew Rozier's cover -- and revealed a heinous past -- the presense of the high-profile defendant in El Dorado County and aggressive tactics by defense attorneys over months of pretrial motions drew an uncomfortable spotlight to the mostly rural county.

During pretrial hearings, Rozier's original attorney, William T. Yankey, put a procession of Placerville county jail commanders and correctional officers on the witness stand to establish that jailers had opened several pieces of Rozier's legal mail in violation of jail policy. He protested practices that kept Rozier shackled at the legs, waist and hands as he was moved about the facility. And he subpoenaed officers to testify about a shooting drill in which volleys of birdshot were fired directly outside inmate cells,

including Rozier's. Sutherland put himself on the witness stand and denied receiving any information on confidential defense strategies from opened inmate mail. El Dorado County Sheriff Hal Barker criticized the shooting drill and said it shouldn't have been conducted while inmates were present. But El Dorado County Judge Eddie T. Keller ruled that the defense issues didn't merit dismissing the case.

Soon afterward, Sutherland disclosed he'd had phone conversations with an attorney for the Yahweh Ben Yahweh sect. This infuriated the defense, which contends Rozier is under a death threat from Yahweh followers who condemn him as a Judas who betrayed their leader to the U.S. government.

Sutherland said he'd had "five or six phone conversations," with Texas attorney Wendy Rush, who appears on a Yahweh Nation videotape calling Rozier a "pathological liar." Sutherland said he had accepted Rush's offer to provide him with transcripts of Rozier's Florida testimony, but notified the court when the lawyer said a Yahweh representative might want to visit the trial.

"Oh, my goodness. There's a huge contract out on my life," said Rozier, reacting to the cult's contact with the prosecution.

Disavowing his Florida past, Rozier insists he was brainwashed and ordered to kill by cult leader Yahweh, who claimed to be "God on planet Earth."

Rozier says that while in federal custody -- spirited between detention facilities and housed among the likes of Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder Rivas and Mafia killer "Sammy the Bull" Gravano -- he earned a college degree, mastered five languages and spiritually rebuilt his life.

Rozier was set loose in 1996 after testifying against Yahweh Ben Yahweh -- a cult leader born as Hulon Mitchell Jr. -- and other members of the Yahweh sect. Yahweh was sentenced to 18 years in prison after a jury convicted him of conspiracy but deadlocked on more serious charges of masterminding cult murders.

Yankey, Rozier's first attorney, argued that his client had served his country in the same manner as "Sammy the Bull," the multiple killer who won lenient treatment for testimony that convicted Mafia boss John Gotti of racketeering and murder.

After Rozier's trial was moved from Cameron Park to South Lake Tahoe because of news coverage in western El Dorado County, Yankey -- citing a stress-related medical condition -- requested a delay just as jury selection was to begin in March. El Dorado Judge Suzanne N. Kingsbury removed him as defense counsel and ordered a hearing on possible sanctions against him.

Two other defense lawyers briefly took the case, including Sacramento lawyer Angelo Vitale, who immediately launched an attempt to subpoena U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, who was the Florida state attorney in Miami when Rozier's plea bargain agreement was signed. But Kingsbury later appointed a local lawyer, El Dorado County attorney Lori London, to represent Rozier. London declined comment on the case.

After his arrest in Cameron Park, Rozier was indicted by New Jersey authorities in the 1984 stabbing death of a 52-year-old Newark man, whose killing was allegedly committed as a religious sacrifice for the Yahweh cult. His New Jersey attorney, Herb Waldman, said Rozier -- then an elder for a Yahweh temple in Newark -- witnessed the killing and identified two assailants to authorities but didn't participate.

El Dorado County District Attorney Gary Lacy said he fears New Jersey authorities may have a hard time winning a 16-year-old murder case and declares that the best chance to put Rozier away is the bad check case in his county. He vows to finish it before turning Rozier over to New Jersey for prosecution.

"I look at it as my responsibility to do my job without relying on other people to do their job," Lacy said.

Rozier remains in jail in the bad check case in lieu of $10 million bail -- 10 times the bail amount in the New Jersey homicide. He said he's sick of the wait in El Dorado County and would rather be shipped east to take his chances.

"The United States government says this man has a whole new identity," Rozier said, referring to himself. "And El Dorado County says, 'No, he doesn't.' ... If you have a man with a homicide charge, why spend this much on a check case? It should have been taken care of a long time ago."

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