Dignity, Diligence, Scandal

Yusuf Bey built a business empire for his Black Muslims in Oakland. But before his death, he faced charges of raping underage girls.

Los Angeles Times/December 30, 2003
By Lee Romney

Oakland -- A chain of white stretch limousines ferried many of Yusuf Bey's wives and 43 children to his memorial service in October. Against a backdrop of his fez-clad image, 16 sons in white suits and red bow ties performed a military-style drill in his honor. Nation of Islam ministers from Chicago and Florida paid their respects.

In more than three decades here, Oakland's most prominent Black Muslim had built an empire of bakeries, security firms, a school and other businesses. He taught dignity, hard work and discipline to many in this city's sea of street felons, putting them to work when no one else would.

He championed "family values" on his weekly cable television program, while assailing what he called the white devil's "tricknology" that kept the black man down.

His finely dressed followers, with shaved heads and ramrod posture, would fill City Council chambers by the dozens when Bey organization members or their allies sought public financing or other city help, which was often approved.

But when the 68-year-old Bey died Sept. 30 of complications from cancer, another story was emerging.

He was facing criminal charges and a civil lawsuit alleging that he had repeatedly raped underage girls at his compound -- in some cases fathering their children, then demanding their welfare payments.

According to court records and interviews with his accusers, girls in the foster care of one of Bey's wives had given birth to child after child fathered by Bey. Authorities did nothing, even after the alleged rape of another teen who had worked at Bey's burgeoning Your Black Muslim Bakery was reported to police.

In a town hungry for black male role models, nobody seemed compelled to judge or probe. Not until one woman stepped forward last year. Not until one detective listened.

"I decided that somebody had to stop this," said the woman, a former foster child of Bey's. She marched into the Oakland Police Department headquarters after her own daughter -- fathered by Bey -- told her that she, too, had been abused by Bey. "God gave me the proof and I wasn't going to stand by and not use it."

Yusuf Ali Bey Sr. was born Joseph Stephens in Greenville, Texas. He moved to Oakland at age 5 with his parents. He served in the U.S. Air Force, worked briefly in warehousing and opened a beauty salon in Santa Barbara before converting to the Nation of Islam and changing his name. Inspired by the strict dietary code of Nation of Islam founder Elijah

Muhammad, he launched a natural foods bakery that used no preservatives, salts or refined sugars.

Over time, Your Black Muslim Bakery expanded into what the Bey organization says is a multimillion-dollar chain, selling its trademark bean pies, muffins and carrot cakes at the Oakland Airport, among other places, and winning key contracts with natural food stores throughout the Bay Area.

Other enterprises followed: security, apartment management, and most recently, a health market and spa. Today, its red and white awning with the Muslim crescent moon and star stretches along a block of Oakland's San Pablo Avenue.

"He did a service in the community because he created businesses," said James Bodley, who works at a black-owned auto parts store down the street. "Everybody's got something bad about them. That's part of life.

You turn a cheek and look at the good parts."

In this bayside city where one of every 14 adult males is on parole or probation, Bey hired "men with nowhere to go and a rap sheet from here to Chicago," said the Rev. Bob Jackson, pastor of Oakland's Acts Full Gospel Church.

Many of the men found pride in what Bey called "knowledge of self." Those who fared well, he adopted as "spiritual sons," granting them the Bey name.

"He did a lot of fathering to African American males, to make them self-reliant and responsible," said Jackson. "You can't take that away from him."

Bey's empire answered to no one. Even though Bey was a strict disciple of Muhammad, who died in 1975, he never operated under the auspices of the Nation of Islam.

"He wasn't accepted by all the mosque members, or all the churches, but he had the respect of the lowly street people," said Antar Bey, Yusuf's 21-year-old son and appointed successor.

Bey parlayed that respect into power. When he ran for mayor in 1994, he made numerous anti-Semitic and anti-gay comments, and finished with just 5% of the vote. But his stock rose. Councilmen, county supervisors and state legislators applauded Bey's community contributions. His organization's security firm won big contracts, including one with Oakland's downtown Marriott. One "spiritual" son won a $1.1-million city loan -- now in default -- for his home health-care business, city officials have said.

Last year, in a nod to his influence on the streets, Bey was named vice president of Black Men First, a multi-faith organization headed by Jackson that aims to stem black-on-black violence.

But even as his prominence in the community grew, court records and interviews with women who came forward allege, Bey was living a double life.

In 1978, two sisters aged 10 and 11 were placed in the foster care of one of the many women Bey claimed as "wives." (Bey was legally married to one woman, but his family and supporters acknowledge a harem of other women he had wed in nonbinding ceremonies.)

According to court records and police reports, Bey began soon after to rape the sisters and continued to do so for eight years. He allegedly threatened them, beat them and forced them to swallow his urine.

The younger sister gave birth to her first child in 1981. She was 13. Two more would follow by the time she was 18. The older sister would bear Bey two children before she reached adulthood.

Tarika Lewis, who had married the sisters' biological father, was among the first to cry foul. "Every time a child was born, I reported it," said Lewis, 53, who said she had sought help from police, the county's Social Services Agency, even private lawyers. "I kept reporting it. That was the least I could do. I kept running into brick walls or threats." Bey treated the foster sisters' children as his own, and DNA tests have confirmed his paternity. A lawsuit filed against Bey last summer by the sisters and a third alleged victim also seeks damages from the bakery, the Bey organization, two wives and three social workers, alleging that they turned a blind eye to abuse at the compound. The suit was recently amended to name Yusuf Bey's estate.

The suit and police reports allege that children who lived at the compound knew not to go to Bey's room alone. They also contend that other men at the compound and some of Bey's wives were aware of the abuse and told the young victims that they would get used to it over time. At one point, the lawsuit alleges, the sisters' biological father grew concerned about abuse and took them to South Lake Tahoe to live with him.

But, the sisters said, at the Bey family's request, county social workers returned them to the Bey compound.

The sisters moved away after they turned 18. The abuse of young girls continued at the Bey facilities, according to police files. As Bey campaigned for mayor on a pledge to turn Oakland into "a clean and wholesome environment to raise a family," the third alleged victim -- a 13-year-old girl -- landed a job at the bakery. Like the sisters, she was a ward of the court, although she was not in the Beys' custody. According to the records and an interview with the bakery worker, now 23, Bey beat and raped her one week later, and continued the attacks for 18 months. When she stopped going to work, Bey sent men from the bakery to threaten her and her family, she said.

The woman recalled in an interview that when she spilled her story to her social worker, she was told, "Yusuf Bey is too powerful. We can't go up against him."

Alameda County Counsel Richard Winnie said a county investigation has concluded that the county and its workers had no knowledge of any abuse by Bey. The county also argues that its former social workers cannot be held personally liable and that by statute, the county is immune from liability.

Eventually, the young bakery worker committed an assault and landed in a group home. There she reported the alleged rapes to authorities, who in turn reported them to Oakland police, naming Bey, records show.

Nothing came of it. At least not until June 20, 2002, when the younger foster sister sat before Oakland Police Investigator Jim Salida and talked for hours. Salida contacted the woman's older sister, who had moved out of state. He obtained DNA samples from Bey and the foster sisters' children. And he dusted off the bakery worker's 1996 police report. With the FBI's help, he located her and pinned his card to her door.

"I was scared to death," said the young woman, who is living in hiding in California with her husband and two children. "But I thought maybe it's time to come forward. Maybe they'll hear my story now."

Alameda County prosecutors filed criminal charges in November 2002 against Bey, alleging sexual abuse of the sisters, the bakery worker and a fourth alleged victim.

Bey and his attorneys repeatedly declined comment as his case moved toward trial. But in one statement to a local television station last year, Bey called the charges "malicious lies." He referred to them obliquely on his weekly cable program as a conspiracy by whites threatened by his accomplishments. Shortly after the charges were filed, Bey posted bail and then drove directly to a Black Men First meeting. The charges, Jackson said, "took everybody by surprise and storm," although Bey had not been convicted of anything. When he walked in, many rose up and clapped.

The incident would be reported as a standing ovation, unleashing a fury of private calls to Jackson from African American women demanding Bey's ouster. Ultimately, Jackson said, Bey agreed to step down as vice president. But no one was happy.

Some people thought "I should have taken a firmer stand with him. Others said we should have kept him as vice president," he said. "I was damned if I did and damned if I didn't."

Bey fell ill. At court hearings packed with Bey's dark-suited supporters, his doctors and lawyers argued that he might not survive a trial.

Then, last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law that had suspended the statute of limitations on child molestation cases.

Charges against Bey were dropped in all cases save that of the bakery worker. As that case lurched toward a preliminary hearing, Bey was hospitalized for a colon blockage and died.

"I'm upset that he wasn't able to face his charges, but I am glad that he's gone -- that he won't be able to hurt anyone else," said the former bakery worker, who has been suffering flashbacks. "A lot of women coming into the organization were young like me and were raped ....The devil has died. That's how I feel," she said.

Some loyal supporters argued that Bey's sexual relationships should be viewed through the lens of cultural relativity.

"He was a born leader in the sense of an African chief or a Muslim caliph," said Maleek Al Maleek, a 62-year-old mathematician who attended Bey's memorial. "What is prohibited here is not prohibited in East India, where there are child marriages. I can show you chiefs in Africa who have 30 wives ....The ways of the high priests are not shared by the commoner." Sitting outside the bakery on a recent day with a red-bound book of the teachings of Muhammad, Antar Bey said he believes the women are pressing their case for financial gain and have been urged to come forward by evil forces eager to dilute the power of a black man. He concedes that the two foster sisters gave birth to his half-siblings, but suggests they were not as young at the time as they now claim.

He described a loving yet hard driving father. There were family ski vacations and visits to Disneyland. Although Bey taught that women are weaker than men, he encouraged his son to have just one wife and treat her well.

"I don't know what he did behind closed doors, but in front of me, in front of my family, in public, he was never disrespectful," he said.

Bey's tightly knit clan is picking up the pieces. Attorney Michael Blumenfeld, who is representing the bakery and the Bey family in the lawsuit, said his clients "contend they have no liability whatsoever and were completely unaware of any alleged abuse."

Some of Bey's children vow to continue his work. They recently received approval from the Oakland Airport to expand the bakery kiosk to a full-size store, and they hope to open a branch of the business in Los Angeles.

"If you can't prove anything to me, it goes in one ear and out the other," Antar Bey bellowed to an approving crowd of hundreds at the memorial service. "We have enemies. We know it's not going to be easy.

But we've got an army ....We will continue to stick together. We will continue to hire brothers off the street."

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