House of Judah: Neighbor describes run-ins with Allegan County cult

Michigan Live/June 29, 2013

Allegan County, Michigan - While Oscar Love served in the U.S. Army, members of the House of Judah moved in next door to his rural Allegan County address.

After he returned home, he soon considered his new neighbors more dangerous than anything he saw in the service.

He had to use the dirt road in front of their compound, on Baseline Road, five miles east of South Haven, to reach his home in rural Lee Township. Those living at the compound, a religious cult that considered themselves "Black Israelistes," didn't like him.

"When I came back, that was the only way in. They told me, 'We're going to kill you.' I'm like, 'Whoa, don't do that.' I went home and got a gun. I was ready for it."

He said he approached the camp, but stopped dead in his tracks. "A little kid popped out (of a trailer). Whoa."

Love, 57, spoke this week as the 30th anniversary approached of the July 4, 1983, beating death of John Yarbough. The child's killing led to state and federal charges against camp members, and was the beginning of the end of the House of Judah in Allegan County.

In the days after the 12-year-old's death, the government removed all 66 children who were living in the camp. The secretive cult was soon exposed to a national audience as its leaders and members appeared in court.

Hate Thy Neighbor

Love knew something wrong was going on at the camp.

He said cult members had threatened him and his family. He wouldn't allow his two children at the time to play outside. He claimed cult members climbed trees to spy on him, siphoned gas from his cars, blocked the road and threatened to burn his house down. He is convinced they poisoned and killed his dogs, too.

He never understood where the hatred came from, but said the House of Judah followers had little use for those outside of their group.

"I don't know. They usually called me the devil because I wasn't a black Jew or Israelite or whatever they called themselves. That's something you don't forget very easy.

"I didn't know if they were going to burn me out or what. My dad told them if they ever messed with me, he was going to take them out."

The Loves, originally from Chicago's South Side, moved to Lee Township in southwest Allegan County in 1969. They raised cows, hogs and chickens on their farm. It's quiet, and everyone knows everyone else in the small town. Oscar Love graduated from Bloomingdale schools in 1975.

"I grew up here. It was nice. People treated us good. I love it here."

That all changed when his uncle sold some property to the House of Judah. His grandmother did the same years later, hoping to improve relations with the group.

It didn't.

Love, who said he reported suspicious incidents to police, said he heard yelling and screaming and occasional gunshots coming from the camp. He said he also saw members locked in stocks, with head and hands clamped down, before they were hit with an ax handle.

"They would strap them up and whip their a--," he said.

Guns and Confrontations

Love said he spoke to their leader, self-proclaimed prophet William A. Lewis, on several occasions. He considered Lewis to be a "religious fanatic." Conversations were cordial. But he was wary. The camp – painted in blue and white - had a tower manned at all times that allowed members to keep an eye on him and others.

"I could see them in the tower constantly. That would make me nervous."

He claimed some friends were beaten by the group, and pinned to the ground at gunpoint while someone preached over them.

He described the armed guards who kept watch over the camp.

"It was bad. It was spooky. They had plenty of guns."

Love said he kept a couple of guns in his pockets, and had others in his house. He feared a shootout would be viewed as a soldier unable to return to society.

"Man, I didn't want to get killed, but I'm going to defend myself."

Once, cult followers locked arms and tried to block the road near his house. Love said he had had enough, and was going to hit them if they didn't move.

"I just got home (from the military). I said, 'This is my road, this is where I live.'"

His high-school buddy, business owner Dave Baylor, said Lewis had threatened his mother while she worked as a secretary for Bloomingdale schools. Lewis believed she had reported activities involving the children to police, Baylor said.

"He threatened to kill her," Baylor alleged.

"Anybody who wasn't with them was the spawn of Satan. It was crazy."

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