Sect leader nears freedom, balks at parole rules

Yahweh Ben Yahweh would be banned from meeting with spiritual followers

Daily Business Review/July 6, 2001
By Dan Christensen

Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the Miami cult leader and black supremacist convicted in 1992 of running a cold-blooded murder and arson conspiracy, is scheduled to be paroled from federal prison on Aug. 17 after serving about 10 years of an 18-year sentence.

Before the prison gate swings open, however, an attorney for Yahweh has gone to federal court in Miami, challenging the constitutionality of parole conditions that would prohibit Yahweh from having "any contact" with his spiritual followers in "the Black Hebrew group," the Nation of Yahweh.

"The conditions imposed by the [U.S.] Parole Commission are not related to any legitimate government interest, much less a compelling interest. They seek to deny Yahweh Ben Yahweh any means of involvement in legitimate religious life," wrote Yahweh's Fort Lauderdale attorney, Jon May.

Yahweh Ben Yahweh, whose name means "God, Son of God," plans to return to Miami upon his release and wants to rejoin his followers, May said in an interview.

Yahweh will be on parole for the balance of his sentence. May said the Yahweh group still has a following in Miami, but its church, the Temple of Love, no longer exists.

The conditions of Yahweh's release forbid him from attending religious services, communicating with fellow Yahweh sect members or engaging "in any form of speech by telephone, computer, radio or television if such medium could place him in contact with a member of the Hebrew Israelite religion," May said. The sect maintains a Web site - www.yahwehbenyahweh - and followers produce a public access channel television show, "The Universe of Yahweh."

May has asked the court to order the Parole Commission to rescind those conditions and seeks an injunction that would bar the commission from revoking Yahweh's parole for "the legitimate exercise of his First Amendment right to freedom of religion and association." No hearing date has been scheduled.

While the federal system has abolished parole in recent years, Yahweh's crime occurred before that happened so he is still subject to the law in effect at that time. If he'd been convicted under the new rules, Yahweh would have had to serve at least 85 percent of his sentence before being eligible for release.

The government's move to cut Yahweh off from his flock - distinguished by their white robes and turbans - is in keeping with its prosecution of the case. In the indictment, prosecutors named the Nation of Yahweh as the criminal enterprise Yahweh used when he was charged with violating the federal racketeering, or RICO, statute.

Assistant U.S. attorney Ed Nucci, who will be handling the litigation involving Yahweh, could not be reached before deadline.

Assistant Miami-Dade state attorney Trudi Novicki, who helped prosecute Yahweh, said it is appropriate for the government to keep Yahweh apart from the group that was his "tool" to murder.

"I still think he's dangerous," says Novicki. "Religious freedom and safety of the community is always a balancing test. In this particular case, I think the safety of the community overrides."

Objections to Oklahoma

Court records disclose that the 65-year-old Yahweh, whose birth name was Hulon Mitchell Jr., initially asked to relocate to Enid, Okla., where his father lived, not far from his birthplace in the town of Kingfisher. The request was denied by a federal probation officer when local police and FBI agents "vehemently" opposed the idea.

"His notoriety and beliefs would cause considerable discord among the local population," wrote U.S. Probation Officer Scott Schakett in February in a letter to the warden of the Ray Brook, N.Y., federal prison where Yahweh is being held. "It is important to remember that Enid is a small rural community comprised primarily of Caucasian, traditional Christian individuals (Schakett) who would not subscribe to Mr. Yahweh's highly publicized religious and social beliefs."

Schakett, who works in Oklahoma City, likewise cited the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building as another reason to exclude Yahweh.

"Oklahomans in general are highly sensitive to and offended by individuals who may be perceived as being anti-government. ... Both Mr. Yahweh's cable television program and Web site describe their organization as being at war with the United States government," Schakett wrote.

"The law enforcement community is particularly concerned that if Mr. Yahweh were permitted to reside within our district, not only would his personal safety and that of his followers be seriously compromised, but that the probability for civil disobedience would be high as a result."

Yahweh won't appeal the decision to exclude him from residency in Oklahoma. His father, Hulon Mitchell Sr., died recently, "so he has no real reason to go back there now," said attorney May.

Yahweh and 14 members of his Temple of Love church were indicted in 1990. Following a five-month trial in Fort Lauderdale before Senior U.S. District Judge Norman Roettger, Yahweh Ben Yahweh and six of his disciples were convicted of taking part in the racketeering conspiracy that featured 14 murders, two attempted murders, extortion and arson. At trial, Yahweh was defended by now U.S. Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Machetes and beatings

The case featured a string of sensational crimes in which victims were beheaded with machetes, shot, stabbed and beaten to death. In some cases, as proof of a kill, the ears of victims were sliced off and presented to Yahweh by the so-called "death angels" he dispatched.

"Between April and October 1986, Yahweh sent his death angels into the Miami community on multiple occasions to kill white people randomly and to commit acts of retribution against blacks who interfered with the Yahweh's sales of products and collection of donations," according to a 1996 opinion by the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upholding the convictions.

In May 1986, Yahweh's terror came to a predominately African-American neighborhood in Delray Beach when as many as 20 Yahwehs tossed Molotov cocktails through the windows of six homes. Two days earlier, local youths had beaten up several sect members who were preaching door-to-door. "Yahweh ordered the arsonists to stand in front of the residences and use their swords and machetes to murder anyone who tried to exit the burning homes," the appeals court ruling said.

Yahweh insisted on his innocence and has offered no apology. "I have not discussed it with him, but I imagine he still maintains his innocence," says May.

In arguing that Yahweh should be allowed to reassociate with the Yahweh group, May says it could be a matter of life and death.

"The conditions of plaintiff's parole place plaintiff's life in jeopardy," May wrote. "Adherents, who never became involved in any illegal activity and who were not implicated in any criminal conspiracy, desire to take him back into the fold, give him a place to stay, and a place to work. They can protect him. But if he is cut off from his congregation and is forced to work in public to support himself he will be nothing but a sitting duck for any crackpot."

May contends Yahweh is the victim of both racial and religious discrimination, and offers "proof" by comparing Yahweh's case to that of ex-television evangelist Jim Bakker, who was convicted of fraud that involved his ministry.

"No restrictions were placed upon the practice of [Bakker's] religion by the Parole Commission. Indeed, he is back in the business of creating a new ministry, a new Christian ministry," May wrote.

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