House of Judah: After boy's death in Allegan, the cult regroups in Alabama

Michigan Live/June 27, 2013

Wetumpka, Alabama - After a child's 1983 beating death in Allegan County, cult leader and self-proclaimed prophet William A. Lewis and many of his followers moved south and set up a new House of Judah camp on 12 rural acres in Wetumpka, Ala.

Police in Alabama knew all about him – and his followers. So did the camp's new neighbors. The cult's killing of 12-year-old John Yarbough had made headlines across the nation.

A woman who lives nearby said she happened to pull into the camp entrance a while back.

"Everybody knows that something is going on back there," she said. "Anybody that I've spoken to, they think it looks really odd. I do remember signs in trees: ‘Keep out,' ‘No trespassing.' Scripture. Everybody here has the same impression. That's creepy."

The woman, who asked that her name be withheld, didn't realize that the camp was deserted years ago. She and others said they didn't think it safe to venture onto the property.

It was this Wetumpka camp that Lewis and his Black Israelite followers eventually migrated to in the aftermath of John Yarbough's killing in 1983.

And though he had escaped state charges in the child's death, it was this camp in his native Alabama where Lewis ultimately was taken by authorities to face a federal slavery charge. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

A Camp in Decay

While no exact date is known, followers likely started leaving after Lewis died on Aug. 21, 2004, at the age of 84.

The trailers that line a looped driveway are falling apart. Two-by-fours hold up a ceiling in one, siding is ripped from others. Floors are gone. Several are packed with clothes hung neatly in closets that are now exposed to the elements.

There are unopened packages of boys' underwear, 10 cases of TwoCal HN nutritional supplement, shoes, lecterns, chests, drawers, an old television and a third-place trophy for a one-mile run.

Another box holds newspaper clippings about Lewis: "Black ‘prophet' calls negroes his enemy," the Herald-Palladium wrote.

One trailer contained boxes of Lewis' religious materials. Among them: "Can the so-called white man free the so-called negro?"

Using his own brand of Old Testament preaching, Lewis had argued that only a handful, including his followers, were the "real Jews," while others were heathens.

Scattered about the property are hundreds of small clay pots, a basketball and football, cans of paint, buckets, toys, riding cars and outdoor lighting in the ground. One of the houses appeared to be painted in the blue-and-white color scheme that decorated the Allegan County camp.

There were also signs that warned trespassers they could be shot.

"The People Aren't Like Us"

Elmore County Sheriff Bill Franklin said he doubted anyone at the Wetumpka camp would have shot anyone.

He recalled that his aunt, who worked in real estate, had helped Lewis find the property in Alabama.

"Back then, it was a little more bizarre. There was a little more fanfare," Franklin said.

"I don't know what happened to the people. Soon after he died, it petered out."

He said the group did not cause problems. Every now and then, police would have to go there to pick someone up on a warrant, or serve papers.

"The people aren't like us," Franklin said. "They're real defensive: ‘What are you doing here?'"

The older men at the camp would question police, and be OK after hearing an explanation.

"(Lewis) would want to know what the deal was. For the most part, they were cooperative, but they were real private people."

The closest neighbor is the Adullam House, a Christian-based safe haven for children whose parents are put in jail or prison. The ministry is on 18 acres of donated land.

Angie Speckman, who runs the ministry with her husband, Pete, thought people were still living at the House of Judah camp until told by a reporter that it was empty.

She recalled that the camp used to put racist messages on a reader board at the end of its driveway.

"They put some of the most racist signs I have ever seen in my life, very racist signs. It all had something to do with race."

She said people talked about the camp. But no one dared go up the driveway.

Coming Friday: Former House of Judah members talk about why they joined the cult, and why it took them so long to leave.

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