House of Judah: Deadly anniversary for West Michigan religious cult

Michigan Live/June 24, 2013

Allegan County, Michagan - Authorities and neighbors will tell you they knew something odd was going on at the House of Judah encampment in rural Allegan County, but it wasn't until a young boy's battered body arrived at the local hospital in the back of a pickup that the brutal underbelly of the cult was exposed.

John Yarbough, 12, died 30 years ago this summer.

Survivors and authorities alike say the nightmare of that place still haunts the living.

What started out as a communal group of "black Israelites" living under the leadership of a self-proclaimed prophet devolved into a place of despair, where punishment for minor transgressions was meted out in the form of public beatings and disfiguring burns, survivors and investigators say.

It was a place where armed guards roamed the perimeter, and children were padlocked into a collection of trailers at night.

Former U.S. Attorney John Smietanka, now a private attorney, said the House of Judah differed from a Nazi concentration camp in Poland only in its scale.

"This is Auschwitz in Allegan," he said. "John Yarbough's death was a very, very, very brutal, torturous death."

This week, MLive and The Grand Rapids Press will look back at the camp, John's slaying, and who was held responsible. While the boy's death made national headlines, the justice authorities sought also set legal precedent in federal court.

Wednesday: How a local FBI agent, federal prosecutors pushed 'the prophet' behind bars

Thursday: After boy's death in Allegan, the cult regroups in Alabama

Friday: Two women who left the cult talk about life on the inside

Our investigative journey into the case and its aftermath took reporter John Agar and photographer Chris Clark from Allegan to Alabama and beyond.

We talk to survivors about what they remember, why they waited so long to make their break from the cult.

And we examine the terrible price that living through that continues to exact from the children who called the House of Judah a home.

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