© St. Petersburg Times, published August 13, 2001
MIAMI -- The Nation of Yahweh was a mystery to most people when Aston Green, a breakaway follower, was beheaded with a machete in 1981. A series of random killings notable for the severed ears of victims put the cult under more scrutiny five years later.
Ultimately, Green's slaying and up to 22 others would be blamed on the commands of Yahweh Ben Yahweh, founder of the Miami-based group with a combined religious and racist message of salvation for blacks.
Yahweh is due for release Friday after serving 11 years for his only conviction: federal racketeering. He will go to a halfway house under strict conditions his attorneys call unconstitutional.
The self-proclaimed son of God wants to retake his leadership position with the group, which attracted about 1,000 people to a gathering last year in Montreal.
But the U.S. Parole Commission considers Yahweh such a risk to public safety that it has barred him from contacting any followers directly or indirectly once he is free. His attorneys say the group's Web site and cable TV show are off limits to its leader under parole rules intended to send him back to prison for seven more years.
"They're clearly acting out of fear, but I don't know that they're acting out of malice," said defense attorney Jon May. For all the horrific crimes attributed to Yahweh, his sentencing judge cited the "good deeds" of followers who gave all of their worldly goods to the group. Under Yahweh's direction, members known for wearing white from head to toe rejuvenated businesses and housing in some of Miami's bleakest neighborhoods when no one else would.
About 30 supporters, including several professionals and many in white, attended a court hearing this month challenging the conditions for Yahweh's release.
Miami-Dade police Detective John King has a different perspective. He recalls the initial steps taken after Green's body was found in a remote construction lot and can recite key street addresses involved in the case 20 years later.
He met Yahweh, visited the group's communal Temple of Love in a converted warehouse now occupied by an auto body shop and talked to former followers, the key to solving some of the killings.
"I couldn't say with any degree of certainty whether he would be a danger or not," King said. But he doesn't want Yahweh back in charge again because he "strongly promoted racism, he hated whites, and this is something he was teaching to the kids."
The group denies it is racist and points to its non-black members. Its Web site concentrates on a Bible-based religious message, rails against Yahweh's conviction and accuses the U.S. government of waging a war of words against the group. Yahweh's name is printed in the Hebrew alphabet throughout the site.
"I found him to be fascinating," King said of Yahweh. "I can understand the draw to him. He's an excellent teacher. I just wished he was a positive influence instead of turning out as negative as he did."
The scope of the slaughter and the mutilations stood out even in a city jaundiced in the 1980s by commonplace machine-gun killings in cocaine turf wars. Yahweh was accused of dispatching his closest followers in 1986 to kill "white devils" and return with a physical souvenir as proof. Both ears were chopped off the body of a man killed in his car because the first was dropped and lost.
A criminal defense attorney who was at the courthouse on the day of Yahweh's hearing said without a second thought that he should never be let out of prison.
Yahweh was charged in three murders, but two cases were dropped after a state jury delivered a quick acquittal in the third. May, one of Yahweh's attorneys, said the government has lumped "a group of very decent, very sincere followers" in with convicted racketeers, with whom Yahweh agrees not to associate.
"The case is not a prosecution of a religion," May said. "There is absolutely no evidence presented that Yahweh represents any risk to the community."