After a 1986 double-murder, the Miami-based Nation of Yahweh was at risk of losing its good name among city leaders, who saw the religious sect as champions for the poor.
When police showed up at the crime scene, a suspect found hiding nearby wore the familiar white turban of the sect’s members. Prior to the slayings, one of the victims had criticized the group on TV after they bought the apartment building in which he lived and then evicted him. He and another neighbor in the building both were fatally shot.
After the killings, sect leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh, who built his following with a message of black supremacy, responded by ramping up his signature charm, according to Monday night’s episode of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, airing on Investigation Discovery Monday (9 p.m. ET) and exclusively previewed above.
Yahweh Ben Yahweh launched a public relations campaign. He showed politicians how the group’s members bought and cleaned up drug-riddled and dilapidated buildings — a strategy that otherwise helped the secretive sect grow wealth through real estate. He excommunicated the shooting suspect, Robert Rozier, a former NFL football player.
The mayor of Miami was convinced. He later handed him a proclamation declaring Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day.
“The residents regarded them with a great deal of fear,” former Assstant U.S. Attorney David DiMaio says in the episode. “But oddly enough, the political establishment in Miami I don’t think did regard them with fear, because they weren’t aware of what was really going on underneath the surface. So over time they came to accept him as a wonderful member of the community.”
But the excommunication of Rozier turned the former follower against the self-proclaimed preacher. Rozier admitted to seven murders — six on behalf of Yahweh Ben Yahweh — and helped authorities build a case that led the sect leader and 15 of his followers to be charged in 1990 with multiple counts of murder, attempted murder, racketeering, arson and extortion.
Inside the cult of personality, Yahweh Ben Yahweh — the former Hulon Mitchell Jr. — consolidated power and authority through intimidation, the episode reveals.
Followers who moved into a converted warehouse they named the Temple of Love were kept in line by threats of violence. A core group of machete-wielding bodyguards assigned to the leader reinforced the danger.
At one point he had every adult male line up in a show of loyalty and drop their pants — and for any who weren’t circumcised, the leader circumcised them himself.
After a small group questioned his teachings and moved out to start a new temple, he branded them as “The Hypocrites” and called for their deaths. “He talked about it. He was giving instruction,” former follower Khalil Amani says in the episode.
One of those disgruntled members returned to the Temple and demanded to speak to the leader. He was beaten with a hammer, Amani says, and his body and decapitated head were found in the Everglades.
Two others who left went to police and pointed a finger at the Nation of Yahweh. They were then attacked in their home. One died; the other recovered and went into the witness protection program, but no criminal charges were brought.
Followers were sent into the streets and ordered to collect $10 daily, and if they failed, they faced consequences: They were brought into a cafeteria that came to be known as the “Room of Understanding.”
“Basically you’re on a concrete floor with a thin layer of carpet,” Amani recalls. “You were made to kneel down on your knees and keep your back straight for four or five hours. In that room there was also guards with sticks that made sure you stayed like you were supposed to.”
After being sent away to start a temple in another state, Amani returned to find his wife distant, and the leader he’d viewed as a father figure now cold toward him. He later learned that Yahweh Ben Yahweh had been convening a weekly closed-door “Midwife Class,” where the leader led women in genital examinations along with placing their mouth on another’s private area “to give CPR to the unborn child,” Amani says.
He also invited oral sex on himself. “He would ask, ‘How many of the sisters would mind having the king’s seed?’” Amani says. “Come to find out he was having sex with my wife.”
At the trial where the leader was convicted and sentenced to 18 years for conspiracy to commit murder, Amani was the first to testify against him. “Looking eye to eye in that courtroom was terrifying,” he says in the episode, “but I knew it had to be done.”
The People Magazine Investigates: Cults episode on the Nation of Yahweh airs Monday (9 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.
This article originally appeared on People.com
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