10 Jun 2011

Black Hebrews cult leader and six others charged with murder after bodies of missing woman and boy found

News & Observer    -   North Carolina    June 10, 2011

Cult leader Pete Moses Jr. charged in boy's death


DURHAM -- Investigators found the remains of a child Thursday at the same East Durham house where a missing woman's body was discovered Wednesday.

Pete Lucas Moses Jr., 27, is charged with first degree murder in the death of 5-year-old Jadon Higganbothan, thought to have been missing since October 2010.

Investigators suspect Jadon and Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, 28, whose body was unearthed at the house Wednesday, were the victims of a small religious cult led by Moses.

Sheilda Evelyn Harris, Moses' mother, and her husband rented the Ashe Street house for almost a year, property owner Dr. Wesley King said Thursday. They moved out of the house Feb. 19, within days of when police went toMoses' home at 2109 Pear Tree Lane, looking for McKoy.

"Their lease was up Feb. 28," King, a Durham orthodontist, said.

Moses also was charged Wednesday with the first-degree murder of McKoy. Also charged were six others: Lavada Quinzetta Harris, 40; Sheilda Evelyn Harris, 56; Shelia Falisha Moses, 20; P. Leonard Moses, 20; Larhonda Renee Smith, 40; and Vania Rae Sisk, 25, who is Jadon's mother.

Pete Moses Jr. has been held in the Durham County jail since he was arrested April 12, accused of assaulting and kidnapping Zayna Thomas, one of several women who police say lived with him in polygamous relationships. Four others were taken into custody Wednesday. Sisk and Smith turned themselves in Thursday morning.

The case began to unfold in February when a police officer went to the 2109 Pear Tree Lane home of Pete Moses Jr., looking for McKoy. She had been reported missing by her family after going to visit Moses in December.

It was Zayna Thomas who answered the door, and she related an unimaginable tale.

Identified in court documents as "ZT," Thomas told police that Pete Moses Jr. killed Jadon. Sisk said she left her son with an acquaintance in Durham on Feb. 20, but investigators couldn't find anyone who had seen him since October 2010.

Thomas also told police that Sisk and Smith beat McKoy as she tried to escape, and then Sisk, on Moses' order, shot and killed McKoy.

According to search warrants, police found some evidence to suggest foul play inside the house on Pear Tree Lane: spots that looked like blood, a fired bullet and shell casing, and indications that areas of the house had been vigorously cleaned.

But, until Wednesday, no bodies had been found and authorities didn't have enough evidence to charge Moses with murder.

All seven suspects are in custody at the Durham County jail without bail bonds.

'Good tenants'

The white concrete block house at 2622 Ashe St. has been vacant since Sheilda Evelyn Harris and several of her family members moved out in February, according to King, the property owner.

"They were good tenants who paid their rent on time," he said. "I never had any problems with them."

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez said the house had not been part of their investigation because Moses' mother was not under suspicion.

"There was no reason to get a search warrant," he said.

King said Sheilda Harris lived at the home for about a year with her husband, Anthony Leon Harris, two of her children, Sheila Moses and P. Leonard Moses, and her stepdaughter, Diamond Harris, 7.

Diamond Harris has been placed in foster care, but her biological mother, Regina Oliverei, and stepfather, Alfred Oliverei Jr., are battling with the Durham Department of Social Services to regain custody.

Regina Oliverei said she lost custody of both her daughters in June 2009, when she had to serve 16 days in jail for a worthless check conviction.

The Olivereis live on Owen Street, just around the corner from the Ashe Street house. Regina Oliverei said Diamond had became a withdrawn person who refused to hug her during weekend visits and who cried when it was time to return to Ashe Street.

Remains found

McKoy's remains were found Wednesday by a plumber called to investigate clogged pipes at the Ashe Street house. The plumber borrowed a shovel from the next door neighbor and the two men dug until they realized something was in the bag and called police.

McKoy lived in Washington but reconnected with Pete Moses Jr. over the Internet a year ago. When she visited him in Durham a few times, he told her the other women were his sisters whom he refused to abandon as the fathers of their children had, McKoy's sister, Janayia Dubose, said.

But Zayna Thomas described a belief system and lifestyle that Durham police have since labeled a cult affiliated with Black Hebrews, a religious sect that believes a race war will culminate in blacks' dominance. Moses fathered children with the women and kept his growing brood under lock and key.

"My sister is a devout Christian," Dubose said earlier this year.

In December, McKoy traveled to North Carolina again to talk to police about someone stealing her identity, Dubose said. Family members last talked to her a few days after she arrived.

"It is unlike my sister to go silent," Dubose said. "When Christmas came and she hadn't returned, we knew something was wrong."

News researchers Brooke Cain and Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

This article was found at:


News & Observer    -   North Carolina    June 9, 2011

Additional remains of small child found at Durham house


DURHAM -- Police have found a second set of human remains, consistent with those of a small child, in the East Durham neighborhood where a missing woman's body was found Wednesday.

Police spokesman Kammie Michael confirmed that a medical examiner was called to the scene on Ashe Street this evening and determined that the second set of human remains are consistent with those of a small child.

Human remains that police think is Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, the suspected victim of a small religious cult, were unearthed Wednesday in the backyard of a vacant rental house at 2622 Ashe St.

The last two suspects in a murder case turned themselves in today.

Vania Sisk and Larhonda Smith joined five people already behind bars. All seven suspects are in Durham County Jail without bonds.

Charles McLean, 64, a stock clerk at Angus Barn, was working on his grandson's bicycle Wednesday morning behind his red-brick home when a plumber working next door at 2622 Ashe St. asked to borrow a shovel.

Pipes that ran from the house under the backyard were clogged and the man suspected it had something to do with a thick black plastic bag that was sticking up out of the ground behind a white storage shed.

"He got to shoveling and the more he dug, the bigger the bag got," McLean said.

Something inside the bag smelled rotten and the men thought someone may have buried a dead dog in the foot-deep hole. Another neighbor had come over and suggested they tear open the heavy-duty garbage bag.

"I told them to leave that alone and call the police," McLean said.

When an officer arrived, he used a nail to rip a long tear in the bag and what the men saw was not somebody's deceased pet.

"It looked like a forearm," McLean said. "It was still intact."

McLean said the officer quickly shooed them away from the scene and called for assistance.

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez would not confirm McLean's account of how McKoy's body was found.

"But it sounds familiar," the police chief said.

A medical examiner came to the scene and confirmed that the remains were human, according to police spokeswoman Kammie Michael.

By evening, seven people were charged with murder in the death of McKoy, 28, whose family reported her missing in February.

Five suspects - Pete Lucas Moses Jr., 27, Lavada Quinzetta Harris, 40, Shielda Evelyn Harris, 56, Shelia Moses, 20, and P. Leonard Moses, 20, - were in custody Wednesday night. All but Pete Lucas Moses listed their address as 2146 Charles St.

Pete Lucas Moses had been held in the Durham County jail since he was arrested April 12, accused of assaulting and kidnapping Zayna Thomas, one of several women who police say lived with him in polygamous relationships.

Police have been working for months to build a case against him in the disappearance of McKoy, his former high school sweetheart, and Jadon Higganbothan, the 5-year-old son of Vania Sisk, another of his live-in girlfriends.

Jadon, last seen in October 2010, remains missing. Sisk told investigators she left her son with an acquaintance in Durham on Feb. 20.

A missing person

The case began to unfold in February when a police officer went to Pete Lucas Moses' home at 2109 Pear Tree Lane, looking for McKoy, who had been reported missing by her family after going to visit Moses in December.

Thomas came to the door and related an unimaginable tale.

Identified in court documents as "ZT," she told police that Pete Lucas Moses killed Jadon. She also said Sisk and another woman, Smith, beat McKoy as she tried to escape. She told them that Sisk, under Moses' order, shot and killed McKoy.

According to search warrants, police found some evidence to suggest foul play inside the house on Pear Tree Lane: spots that looked like blood, a fired bullet and shell casing, and indications that areas of the house had been vigorously cleaned.

But, until Wednesday, no bodies had been found and authorities didn't have enough evidence to charge him with murder.

Thomas described a belief system and lifestyle that Durham police have since labeled a cult affiliated with Black Hebrews, a religious sect that believes a race war will culminate in blacks' dominance.

Pete Lucas Moses fathered children with the women and kept his growing brood under lock and key.

McKoy lived in Washington, but reconnected with Pete Lucas Moses over the Internet a year ago. When she visited him in Durham a few times, he told her the other women were his sisters whom he refused to abandon as the fathers of their children had, McKoy's sister, Janayia Dubose, said.

She also had no concept of his religious beliefs.

"My sister is a devout Christian," Dubose said earlier this year.

Coming to N.C.

In December, McKoy traveled to North Carolina again to talk to police about someone stealing her identity, Dubose said. She packed a few changes of clothes and her Bible, Dubose said.

McKoy last talked to her family in early December, a few days after she arrived.

"It is unlike my sister to go silent," Dubose said. "When Christmas came and she hadn't returned, we knew something was wrong."

When they tracked down a phone number for Moses, he told them McKoy was fine but wouldn't put her on the phone. Durham police started to investigate in February.

News researchers Brooke Cain and Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

This article was found at:


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  1. Peter Lucas Moses, North Carolina Man, Pleads Guilty In Deaths Of Woman And Boy He Thought Was Gay

    The Huffington Post June 11, 2012

    A North Carolina man pleaded guilty to murdering both a 28-year-old woman and a 4-year-old child he reportedly believed was gay.

    As WRAL is reporting, prosecutors had been planning to seek the death penalty for Peter Lucas Moses, who has been charged with the deaths of Jadon Higganbothan, 4, and Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, 28.

    The 27-year-old Moses is also allegedly the leader of radical religious sect, whose members comprised a number of women and children who called him "Lord." Moses reportedly lived together with at least three of those women, who counted themselves as his "wives," and nine children and in a one-bedroom Durham home. Moses is the biological father of all the children, except for Jadon.

    The Associated Press identified Moses' sect as the Black Hebrews, whose members believe they have descended directly from the ancient tribes of Israel. The Black Hebrews are also said to believe that a forthcoming "race war" will leave blacks dominant and supreme, according to court documents cited by the News-Observer.

    Former District Attorney Tracey Cline told a judge during a hearing last July that Moses shot Jadon because he thought the boy was gay. "In the religious belief of that organization, homosexuality was frowned on," she is quoted by WRAL as saying.

    Moses reportedly feared that Jadon might be gay because the boy's father had left his mother Vania Sisk, who was one of Moses' "wives." Furthermore, he is also said to have witnessed Jadon hitting the backside of another young boy.

    Both of Moses' alleged victims had been shot in the head, according to autopsy reports. The partially decomposed bodies had been found crudely wrapped in plastic trash bags and lying in shallow graves in the backyard of Moses' mother, Sheilda Harris.

    The Durham Herald Sun called Moses' guilty plea a "surprise," as the defendant had only been scheduled to appear in court for a brief status update on his case. The plea means that Moses will instead face two consecutive life sentences without parole rather than the death penalty.

    "He pleaded guilty to two counts of first degree murder and agreed to testify against his co-defendants if he is called upon to testify,” District Attorney Leon Stanback is quoted as saying.

    Moses is currently being held in jail without bond. Meanwhile, Harris, Moses' brother, P. Leonard Moses, and his sister, Sheila Moses, are charged as accessories in McKoy's death. Meanwhile, Sisk, and two other women who lived with Peter Moses, Larhonda Renee Smith and Lavada Quinzetta Harris, have been charged with murder in McKoy's death and as accessories in Jadon's death, according to reports.


  2. Black Hebrew cult member pleads guilty

    BY BETH VELLIQUETTE Durham Herald Sun Feb. 18, 2013

    DURHAM — Larhonda Smith, one of the women involved in the Black Hebrew cult, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, kidnapping and conspiracy to commit murder Monday in Durham County Superior Court.

    If Smith cooperates with investigators and truthfully testifies against any co-defendants, she will be sentenced to about 25 years in prison. If she fails to cooperate and testify, the deal will be off the table.

    Smith lived with the alleged cult leader Pete Moses, along with other women and their children in Durham and Colorado. Smith had six children with Moses.

    Moses has already pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder for shooting and killing 4-year-old Jaden Higganbothan and first-degree murder for involvement in the death of Antoinette McKoy, who tried to escape from the cult. Moses has also agreed to testify against other defendants.

    Assistant District Attorney Dale Morrill told Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson that Smith was involved in the death of Higganbothan in October 2010 when she told Moses that the boy had touched another child inappropriately. Moses got a gun, took the child down to the garage and shot him in the head.

    The group was living in a large home at 2109 Pear Tree Lane in Durham at the time.

    The child’s remains were put in a suitcase and put in the attic of the house, Morrill said.

    Smith, along with other adults in the house, helped clean up the crime scene and knew that the boy’s body was in the attic.

    Smith’s attorney, Lisa Williams, pointed out that everyone in the house, including Higganbothan’s mother, knew about the boy’s murder and that his body was in the attic.

    Smith also was involved in the kidnapping and murder of Antoinette McKoy, 28, Morrill said. McKoy was one of the women living with the group but tried to escape by running out of the house and getting in a car with a neighbor in December 2010.

    Smith was one of the women who ran to the car and brought the struggling McKoy back into the house.

    After McKoy was brought back, members of the group beat her and attempted to strangle her. After discussing it with each other and Moses, they decided McKoy had to die because she knew about the boy’s murder. Another woman who lived with the group, Vania Sisk, shot and killed McKoy, Morrill said.

    Sisk’s case has not yet come to trial.

    The bodies of the two victims were found buried in the back yard of Moses’ mother, Sheilda Harris, in June 2012.

    Williams told the judge that Smith was remorseful. She asked that Smith immediately be shipped out to the N.C. Dept. of Corrections to begin serving her sentence because when she is at the jail, she is in the same pod as the other female defendants in the case and might not be safe.

    Smith also pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact to murder.


  3. Plea deal in works for cult murder

    by Tamara Gibbs, ABC11 March 13, 2013

    DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- A third plea deal is in the works for one of the main suspects in the Black Hebrews cult murders in Durham, according to the victim's mother.

    In all, seven people were arrested in connection with the murders of 4-year-old Jadon Higganbothan and 28-year-old Antoinetta McKoy. But many of the suspects will never make it to trial.

    The third plea involves Vania Sisk, Higganbothan's mother and the person police believe fatally shot McKoy. According to McKoy's mother, the Durham district attorney has offered Sisk 39 years in prison, avoiding a lengthy trial.

    The Durham district attorney's office will not confirm whether there's a plea deal in the works and declined to comment about specific details in the case. In a statement, the office said:

    "We have to weigh the strengths and weakness of our cases based on the evidence available that can be produced at trial. We always try to honor the wishes of the victims and victim's families. Sometimes we have to make a judgment call. We're not always able to please all victims. We certainly make an effort to do so."

    Investigators say Sisk watched the cult leader, Peter Moses Jr. gun down her son and then later, under Moses' command, fired the shot that killed McKoy.

    In a plea deal, Moses pled guilty, receiving two life sentences and avoiding the death penalty.

    McKoy's family is outraged and frustrated at the possibility of Sisk ever leaving prison.

    "This is where I feel justice is not being served. My daughter is no longer here. Neither is her child. So the same amount of time Mr. Moses got, she should receive as well," McKoy's mother, Yvonne McKoy said.

    Moses' sister, Sheila Moses and his mother, Sheilda Harris, were cleared of all charges and walked free. Harris was the homeowner where the bodies of Higganbothan and McKoy were found in the backyard.

    "Even with the two that were released, if you felt as though you had some type of evidence, they would've never been arrested," McKoy's sister said.

    The district attorney also worked out a plea deal with Larhonda Smith, giving her a minimum of 25 years in prison.

    Moses' brother and one of his female followers remain in jail.


  4. Spiritual leader of the Black Hebrews movement dies at 75 in Israel

    Ben Ammi Ben-Israel led his followers to Israel in 1969, but thousands of African Hebrew Israelites remain in the US, the Caribbean and Africa

    The Guardian Associated Press in Jerusalem December 28, 2014

    The spiritual leader of the African Hebrew Israelites, a movement that believes some black Americans are the descendants of an ancient Israelite tribe, has died in the southern Israeli town where he brought his followers four decades ago, a spokeswoman for the polygamous vegan group said Sunday.

    Ben Ammi Ben-Israel died Saturday at the age of 75, the group said. He was born Ben Carter in Chicago in 1939.

    He maintained that some black Americans were descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah. He said they migrated to west Africa after the destruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD and were eventually sold as slaves to the United States.

    In 1966, he had a vision that the angel Gabriel told him to “return to the holy land by way in which we came”, said Yafah Baht Gavriel, a spokeswoman for the group.

    He then gathered his few hundred followers, mainly from Chicago, and led them to Liberia, the west African republic which was settled by freed slaves in the 19th century. In a statement, the group said time was then spent “shedding the many detrimental habits that as an enslaved people, they had acquired”.

    They moved to Israel in 1969 and settled in Dimona, a poverty-stricken town in the southern Negev desert. “Ben Ammi’s immense love for the Land of Israel remained constant throughout his life – from the initial awakening to his Hebraic roots,” the group said.

    But Israel didn’t know what to make of the newcomers, who adopted Hebrew names and a west African style of dress, and the government was unsure where they fit under the country’s “law of return” which gives citizenship to almost any Jew who requests it.

    The group refused to convert to Judaism, even though it would have entitled them to citizenship. They considered themselves the true Jews of ancient Israel, and they followed a lifestyle they said was based on the Torah and Ben Israel’s teachings, but without traditional Judaism’s rabbinical interpretations.

    Members of the group dress in colourful, self-made clothes, practice polygamy, shun birth control and refrain from eating meat, dairy products, eggs and sugar.
    The group has thousands more members in the US, the Caribbean and Africa.

    The African Hebrew Israelites say they have chosen a way of life dedicated to serving Yah, or God. They address each other as “saint”.

    At first they were met with a mixture of welcome, skepticism and bewilderment. But over time, the estimated 6,000-strong community, known in Israel as the “black Hebrews”, became widely accepted.

    Many of them entered Israel as tourists and were in the country illegally until the interior ministry granted them temporary residency in 1992. They were granted residency status in 2003.

    Living mostly in Dimona, they established businesses in crafts and tailoring, formed a respected choir, started a factory producing tofu ice cream and set up several vegan restaurants.

    Several members have achieved prominence. Two singers from the group represented Israel in the annual Eurovision song festival in 1999. Another singer was killed in a Palestinian shooting attack at a Jewish family celebration in the Israeli city of Hadera in 2002.

    The group said it was shocked by the passing of their beloved founder.

    “While obviously deeply saddened at the loss of our Holy Father’s physical presence,” said Ahmadiel Ben Yehuda, a spokesman, “we are nevertheless emboldened in knowing that his spirit truly lives in each and every one of us.

    “His example and focused commitment to Yah and His people will be an eternal flame in our hearts and a guiding light on our path.”

    Neither the cause of death nor a funeral date has been announced.


  5. Black Hebrew cult members sentenced for murders of woman and child

    By Thomasi McDonald — News & Observer June 28, 2013

    DURHAM — Four people who police say were members of a black supremacist cult pleaded guilty this week in Durham County Superior Court to conspiring to murder a 28-year-old woman and 5-year-old boy in 2011.

    Vania Rae Sisk, 27, pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, first-degree kidnapping and accessory after the fact of first-degree murder, assistant prosecutor Roger Echols said Thursday.

    Sisk was sentenced to two consecutive sentences that range between 15 and nearly 19 years in prison.

    Echols, who prosecuted the case along with co-prosecutor Dale Morrill, said the sentencing took into consideration the age of the youngest victim, Jadon Higganbothan, and that the murder of the second victim, Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, was “conducted to conceal the murder of Jadon.”

    “She was trying to escape (the cult) and was murdered because they feared she would tell someone what had happened,” Echols said.

    LaRhonda Renee Smith, 28, pleaded guilty Thursday to second degree murder, conspiracy to commit first degree murder and accessory after the fact of murder. She was sentenced to two consecutive sentences that range between 11 and 15 years in prison.

    “She was the one that actually pulled the trigger on Ms. McKoy,” Echols said.

    Lavada Harris, 42, pleaded guilty to two counts of accessory after the fact of murder and was sentenced to two consecutive prison terms of between six and eight years in prison.

    P. Leonard Moses, 24, was sentenced to five to six years in prison after pleading guilty to accessory after the fact of first-degree murder.

    Police said Sisk, Smith, Harris and P. Leonard Moses were members of a religious cult led by Pete Lucas Moses Jr., 29, who pleaded guilty to Jadon and McKoy’s murders in June 2012.

    Investigators had been working for months to build a case against Moses in the disappearance of McKoy, his former high school sweetheart, and Jadon, the son of Vania Sisk, whom police described as one among several of Moses’ live-in girlfriends. In June 2011, Jadon’s and McKoy’s decomposed remains were found stuffed inside of black trash bags, buried in the backyard of a vacant rental house at 2622 Ashe St. in East Durham.

    Seven people were initially charged in the case but charges last year were dropped against Peter Moses’ mother, Sheilda Evelyn Harris and his sister, Sheila Falisha Moses.

    Peter Moses sentencing hearing is set for late next week.

    Echols said he’s not sure what influence Moses used to convince his followers to commit murder.

    “You could probably read the 12,000 to 13,000 pages of documents and view the 70 or so DVDs and still not know why,” he said.


  6. House of Judah: Deadly anniversary for West Michigan religious cult

    By John Agar | Kalamazoo Gazette
    June 24, 2013

    ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI — 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.

    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.

    As these stories unfold, please let us know if you have questions. We will try our best to answer them below.


  7. House of Judah: How a 12-year-old's death exposed a West Michigan religious cult

    By John Agar | Kalamazoo Gazette
    June 24, 2013

    ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI – Twelve-year-old John Yarbough promised his sister he would get them out of the House of Judah camp, where vicious beatings came as God’s punishment.

    He did, but at a terrible price: His life

    His young body eventually gave out after repeated whacks from “Big Mac,” the stick used to bloody and bruise followers of self-styled Prophet William A. Lewis who strayed from his harsh commandments.

    The 1983 death, which led to slavery convictions against Lewis and his lieutenants, and a manslaughter conviction against his mother, exposed to a national audience the brutal, secretive camp in rural southwest Allegan County.

    Court testimony would describe inhumane attacks: a hot iron to a young boy’s face, burning coals put into a man’s mouth, scores of blistering “licks” administered to bare, bloodied buttocks from a heavy, wooden ax handle while victims’ arms and heads were held in a whipping block.

    Often, the public beatings drew cheers from followers, court documents showed.

    An unrepentant Lewis, who subscribed to a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and believed he was God’s representative, convinced his followers that they - as a congregation of Black Hebrew Israelite Jews - were the chosen people and true Israelites. Others – black, white – were heathens.

    John Yarbough's transgression was that he was caught watching TV instead of doing his chores. For that, he suffered several days of beatings, the investigation showed. He finally collapsed, unable to drink a glass of water from his brother, Daniel.

    Dying, he was thrown in the back of a pickup truck and taken to a South Haven hospital.

    He died July 4, 1983.

    30 Years Later, the Nightmares Linger

    Thirty years after John Yarbough’s death, the horrors of House of Judah still haunt many. Former members said the camp – a cult – destroyed lives, in particular, those of children.

    Children were forced to work long hours raising crops and animals, suffered beatings, and in some cases, sexual assaults.

    They watched their own parents being locked in stocks, beaten with “Big Mac.”

    “I’ve seen a lot of brutality in this job, but that was about as brutal as I’ve ever seen,” retired FBI special agent Gene Debbaudt said.

    The House of Judah case made national headlines. Lewis, who died in 2004 at the age of 84, wasn’t shy in front of the cameras. He gave several interviews extolling his virtues and that of his teachings before a federal judge ultimately sent him to prison.

    In the isolated camp, which was patrolled by armed guards, children like John Yarbough – who had tried to escape before – had nowhere to turn for help. They lived in a trailer that, like every other structure on the Allegan County camp, was painted blue and white.

    John Yarbough’s sister, Latoya, once said he'd vowed to get them out of the camp.

    She recently declined repeated requests for an interview. She didn’t want to talk about her brother, or the camp. She now lives in Alabama, not far from where Lewis set up a second House of Judah camp after her brother was killed.

    continued in next comment...

  8. In an email, she said: “I have put all that behind me. I had a rough time as a child (dealing) with the mishaps of my childhood.”

    Her mother, Ethel Yarbough, was convicted in 1984 of involuntary manslaughter for young John's death. She was sentenced to four to 15 years in prison. Prosecutors say she landed the final blows.

    Others from the House of Judah were convicted of lesser charges in state court after the boy's death, but Lewis was acquitted of child-cruelty charges. Similar charges against his son, William L. Lewis, and others, were also dismissed.

    Federal authorities then got involved. Lewis and his son and six others were indicted on slavery charges. It was a legal milestone. It was the first time the statute had been used when victims were in the custody of parents when the crime occurred.

    But even in the aftermath, the nightmare lingered for many.

    Former members of House of Judah said the children who were raised in the camp have struggled. They did not attend school, so they were behind academically, but mostly, they have struggled with horrors of their childhoods, former cult members said.

    “There were some that did well, but very few, very few,” said a former cult member who did not want to be identified.

    One of the camp's children died in prison, while another, who provided critical testimony about the brutality at the camp, killed himself after killing his wife. His family declined to comment.

    “You cannot really forget,” said former member Celia Green, who now lives in Georgia. “Those things, you never forget, you put them behind you. Lesson learned. The Bible says, Don’t put your faith in man. Man will deceive you, using God.”

    Rooted in Chicago, Gathered in Allegan

    House of Judah got its start in Chicago, where Lewis – a self-proclaimed prophet – held classes, and preached on the radio. As his following grew in the mid-1970s, he moved them to the camp on Allegan County's Baseline Road near 60th Street, about five miles east of South Haven. The 100 or so followers lived in 30 trailers, while Lewis and “prophetess” Muriel King lived in the two houses on the property.

    Other buildings included a meeting room and a classroom.

    The communal camp “started out beautifully, like most things. You cannot gain people if you show your stripes right away,” Green said.

    The late U.S. District Judge Douglas Hillman, who convicted the Lewises and others in a bench trial, summarized the testimony in court documents: Early on, in the mid-1970s, the camp was described as “warm, cooperative and friendly. By 1981, however, life at the camp began to change. Apparently, the Prophet reached the conclusion that the House of Judah members were backsliding, breaking camp and/or biblical rules. As a result, he established whippings as a means of punishment or chastisement.”

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  9. In early 1982, followers had to sign documents agreeing to accept punishment for sins against God and Lewis.

    “Punishment was specified in the document to include death, banishment, confiscation of material goods, imprisonment, beating, burning, hanging or stoning of both the adult member and that adult member’s children,” Hillman wrote.

    Lewis ordered construction of a whipping block “fashioned after the stocks used in colonial days containing holes for the head and hands to confine offenders during the whippings,” Hillman wrote.

    The judge determined that Lewis and a handful of close associates created a “climate of fear” with their “cruel and inhuman beatings of adults and children.”

    Among them: John Yarbough’s brother, 7 or 8, was purposely burned on the face with a hot iron after a younger brother was accidentally burned while in his care or presence.

    John's brother described another vicious beating after man dropped his baby or let him fall on hot coals, according to court testimony.

    The man was put in the block, and given “80 licks.” The prophet then told a man to get hot coals, and burn the man every place his baby was burned.

    “And the Prophet told him to turn the blocks around so that they could – the congregation could see them burn him,” the boy testified.

    “He turned the blocks around and kind of leaned it back. He got to the block with the hot coals. (Robert) McGee put on a glove, grabbed a coal out of there and put it into (the victim’s) mouth. Then they put one in each of his hands, a hot coal, where the baby had been burned on the hands. And they took the hot pan and rubbed it against his forehead and burned him on the forehead because the baby had been burned on the forehead.”

    Hillman said evidence showed Lewis and his lieutenants enslaved John Yarbough.

    “To that question, there can be only one answer. Yes. At least for the five days between the severe beating that John received on June 29, 1983, because he failed to return to work on time and his death, John was a subjugated individual, in both body and mind. John was not a passive child. He exhibited more strength of will than many of the other children (he attempted to run away at least once) and, had he lived, there might have been some question as to whether the defendants succeeded in subjugating him. However, he did not live.”

    After several years of court hearings, and jail and prison sentences, House of Judah followers had their chance to break away from Lewis.

    But many stayed with him, and set up another camp, this time in Wetumpka, Ala. where Lewis had his roots.

    Among those who followed him to the new compound: John Yarbough’s mother, after her release from a Michigan prison, records showed.


  10. House of Judah: What police found at the cult's Allegan County compound

    By John Agar | Kalamazoo Gazette
    on June 25, 2013

    ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI – The Sheriff’s Department was aware of the secretive House of Judah camp, all painted in blue and white, that sprawled across a remote area of southwest Allegan County.

    But no one knew what was really going on among that cluster of trailers and houses. That is, until John Yarbough, 12, was beaten to death.

    Then authorities discovered a cult led by self-professed prophet William A. Lewis, who invoked fear in followers with vicious punishments.

    John Yarbough’s death on July 4, 1983, was the first step in bringing the House of Judah in Allegan County to a close.

    “There was an aura of secrecy, and I think, no one wanted to start a war,” Allegan County Probate Judge Michael Buck recalled.

    “With John Yarbough’s death, we had to do something.”

    Rick Cain had just been promoted to detective sergeant when the sheriff’s department got word from the hospital that a boy from the House of Judah camp had died of beating injuries.

    Cain and two others showed up at the rural compound hours later, just after dawn. He is certain that camp members had spotted officers coming from a distance, possibly keeping watch from a tower.

    One of the first things he noticed were the children. The camp's youngest members soon began to spill out of trailers, 66 little ones in all. Add to that more than 30 adults.

    Badly outnumbered, Cain’s first thought was: “I need some help.”

    Lewis’ followers approached, and said he couldn’t talk to the prophet. Cain told them it didn’t work that way.

    “They worshipped him like a God,” said Cain, who eventually retired as a sheriff’s lieutenant.

    Going Back to the Scene of the Crime

    At the request of MLive and The Grand Rapids Press, Cain recently surveyed what was left of the camp on Baseline Road in Southwest Allegan County. There were dilapidated trailers and a house, virtually hidden by dense brush. The blue-and-white paint on the structures had faded but was obvious on the former homes, power poles and fencing.

    “I would speculate (the house) to be the prophet’s. He was the dominant person, and he had the best, the biggest and the nicest,” Cain said while walking the property, which has since reverted to Allegan County, records show.

    One of the items Cain found in the house: A New World Translation of Holy Scriptures. It was ragged, crumbling to dust at the corners.

    “This is 30 years, still out here,” he said

    Cain recalled the immediate task in the aftermath of John's death was getting the surviving children out of the camp.

    “They were nice kids, cute kids, but they had issues.”

    Police took 11 children who showed signs of physical abuse from the camp on July 6, 1983, two days after John's death. Two days later, a judge ordered removal of 55 other children.

    Police were on scene at the camp for days, interviewing, serving search warrants, while others sought paperwork to have the camp's children removed.

    Under the Radar

    The site, bordering Allegan and Van Buren counties, for years had grown while staying under police radar screens.

    The camp is accessible only by dirt roads. Police wouldn’t normally go there if not responding to a call for help.

    “We knew it was there, and they did different things. But they were odd. We knew it wasn’t a Boy Scout camp,” Cain said.

    “It was bizarre – it was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen.”

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  11. Retired Allegan County Circuit Judge George Corsiglia presided over the jury trial for Ethel Yarbough, the victim’s mother, who was convicted of involuntary manslaughter in her son's death.

    Corsiglia remembered another child had been killed years earlier in the same area at a Seventh Day Adventist Camp. That child had psychological problems.

    “They thought they could beat it out of him,” Corsiglia said. “They killed him. They believed the kid was possessed by the devil. That’s the same thing the prophet believed.”

    Corsiglia never understood how Lewis gained his followers.

    “I could never figure out, theologically, what he was calling for,” Corsiglia said.

    The retired judge, who lives in southwest Allegan County, said he once ran into Lewis at a store in Pullman.

    “He was somewhat of a hypocrite, let’s put it that way,” Corsiglia said. “He had three bottles of wine. (When Lewis recognized the judge), he walked away like it wasn’t his.”

    Corsiglia said Lee Township was the perfect place for Lewis to set up camp. It’s rural, people are scattered, and a lot of them want to be left alone. It’s one of the few townships in the state with no zoning ordinance.

    Bret Hinz, 40, lives just down the road from what remains of the House of Judah camp.
    His family farmed the property across the street. He said he often wondered what was going on in those blue and white buildings. There seemed to be a lot of children. A lot of dogs, too.

    “It was a weird thing – that’s about the feeling I got out of it. … You definitely didn’t want to ask for directions. It was just so odd. It wasn’t a good feeling.”

    "It Was Horrible, the Hollering and Screaming."

    Buck, the probate judge, was an assistant prosecutor during the House of Judah investigation. He recalled the urgency in getting the children out of the camp, and the unusual circumstances. Initially, no one knew who was the slaying suspect. And because the children had been raised communally, authorities decided to treat them as one big family.

    A former House of Judah resident said the children, who had been taught to trust no one outside the camp, were beside themselves when authorities arrived to take them into protective custody.

    “It was horrible, the hollering and screaming,” she said.

    “It was overwhelming, but we had a lot of agencies, state police, the sheriff’s department, (Department of Human Services), foster care from around the area, really pitched in,” Buck said.

    He has always wondered how the children turned out. Some went back to parents, or with parents who were living outside of the camp. Some were adopted out.

    “I wonder where the kids are, and what’s happening,” Buck said. “I think we made a difference and did the right thing.”

    Former U.S. Attorney John Smietanka said it was heartbreaking “seeing how little kids were affected by the craziness. I don’t know if anybody (in House of Judah) leadership realized what they were doing was wrong. It was a cult mentality.

    “It still makes me ask: ‘How can people do this to their kids?’”


  12. House of Judah: How a local FBI agent, federal prosecutors pushed 'the prophet' behind bars

    By John Agar | June 26, 2013

    ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI – After self-professed prophet William A. Lewis escaped conviction in the 1983 beating death of a child at his House of Judah compound in rural Allegan County, FBI agent Gene Debbaudt sought out a federal civil-rights prosecutor to go after the cult leader and his lieutenants.

    Call it a cowboy streak, or a quest for justice. Debbaudt showed up in Ann Arbor, where the prosecutor, Susan King, was trying an unrelated case.

    “He said, ‘You have to do something about this case,’” King recalled.

    “It was not at the time typical for an FBI agent to do that in a slavery case. This one was definitely different from the rest. Legally complicated, with the religious overtones, and by the facts the victims were in the custody of their parents.”

    It required King to mount a precedent-setting case - one that showed you could enslave a child, even if they were still in the custody of their parents.

    King, along with Daniel Bell, successfully tried Lewis and others on slavery charges, centered on the July 4, 1983, killing of John Yarbough, 12.

    Defense attorneys said the government brought federal charges against Lewis and his followers only because state charges didn’t stick.

    Prosecutors said Lewis created a “climate of fear,” with followers brutally beaten for supposed transgressions. In Yarbough’s case, he was watching TV instead of cleaning out the trailer of a former tenant. The young boy was beaten to death, his body thrown in a pickup and taken to a local hospital.

    In the early aftermath of John's death, three House of Judah member were convicted in state court. Ethel Yarbough, the boy’s mother, was sentenced to four to 15 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Two others were sentenced to one year in jail after pleading guilty to child cruelty.

    But it was the federal case that carved the legal milestone: Lewis and six members of the cult were found guilty of enslaving children.

    The sentences, however, were light, ranging from one to three years. Lewis received three years.

    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.”


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

    By John Agar | Kalamazoo Gazette
    June 27, 2013

    WETUMPKA, ALA. – 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 Yarboughhad 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 1984.

    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.

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  14. 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.


  15. House of Judah: Two women who left the cult talk about life on the inside

    By John Agar | June 28, 2013

    ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI – In the 1970s, Celia Green and her new husband were looking for a place to belong.

    They found it with William A. Lewis, with a self-styled prophet in Chicago. He led religious classes and aired a weekly program on the radio. He eventually set up a commune-style community in southwest Allegan County.

    “There was no House of Judah until we were there. It started with five of us, and grew from there,” Green said.

    Everything was fine in the beginning. Then things began to change.

    “The first thing they do is break you off from your family,” Green said. “They say, ‘You don’t need family. We are your family.’ That’s a cult. I didn’t know that then.”

    In 1982, Lewis had followers sign agreements to accept punishment - beating, burning, hanging and stoning of adults and their children – for their misdeeds.

    He had a whipping block constructed to hold to hold follower’s heads and hands while they were beaten.

    Green soon saw no way out. The beatings were becoming more vicious. Armed “goons” patrolled the perimeter of the camp. People started ratting each other out, leading to more beatings. Stories spread about punishments for those who tried to leave.

    She used to tell her husband: “’Somebody is going to lose their lives,’ and that’s exactly what happened. The way I saw it, somebody would have to die.”

    John Yarbough, 12, died July 4, 1983, of beating injuries.

    “That child didn’t have to die. There was no reason on God’s Earth that child had to lose his life. I mean, a part of me was lost when that child lost his life. That was the life, that was the child, that was that person that lost his life – I feared somebody was going to die. I wanted to get out of there, but I had no way to go.”

    Green, who said she shared her story in hopes it could help others, is convinced Lewis brain-washed his followers. She used to see things happen in camp, and question what she really saw.

    She said God eventually opened her eyes. But it took more than the boy's death to get her to leave.

    Lewis held sway over many. Green left the Allegan County camp, only to re-join Lewis at a new compound in Wetumpka, Ala. Others followed.

    Ethel Yarbough, the victim’s mother, moved to Alabama after she served a 4- to 15-year prison sentence for involuntary manslaughter for her role in her son's death.

    Her daughter, Latoya Yarbough, fought her mother’s efforts to regain custody of three younger sons. She feared her mother would stay at the Wetumpka camp. The daughter, however, eventually moved to the area, too, records showed.

    “I had a good, hard lesson,” Green said. “I can’t say I’m ashamed. It happened. It happened to a whole lot of people other than me. People be aware: There are people out there to destroy you.”

    Her regret, she said, is that she stayed so long. She left in the late 1980s.

    Lewis was later brought up on federal charges related to the boy's death and was sentenced to three years in prison.

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  16. Another former member, who asked that her name be withheld, said she met her eventual husband when she came home from Northern Illinois University. He followed Lewis.

    “I happened to fall in love with someone involved in something,” the woman said.

    The former member grew up in the Methodist church. Her father was a Sunday school teacher, and she graduated from a Catholic high school.

    “I was never 100 percent there (in the camp), and I think they knew that. I was an outsider,” she said.

    The woman said living at the camp became a chore. Followers had to buy everything – from meals to wood for heating - from a store at the compound. Prices were higher than at a regular store. They also had to pay rent. Essentially, she said, all of their money went to the House of Judah.

    When followers left the House of Judah after the boy’s death, she and her husband left with Lewis for Alabama. She landed a job in a hospital.

    “That’s when I knew I had to leave,” she said. “They really monitored everything you did. They knew when you would go to work, and when you would get off.”

    She said a co-worker helped her find a place to rent. She made it look like she was leaving her husband.

    “I couldn’t show fear. I didn’t show fear. So they didn’t know what I would do. I had reached the point I wasn’t taking anymore.”

    She said she did not want to live at the camp with the “so-called prophet.” She said he always made passes at her, so she was never alone with him.

    After she got out, her husband did, too. She was concerned: They would be cutting ties with those who lived at the camp, including family members. They would be shunned around town.

    She has eight children. Most of them turned out OK, she said.

    The older ones remember being at the camp. Her oldest son has a job, but could’ve done more with his life, while her oldest daughter has her own problems, including a gambling addiction.

    “I think it’s my fault, I do.”

    She said her struggles can be attributed to “being at that place, and that will be true ‘til the day I die.”

    Her oldest son was disciplined in the camp. She told leaders, “Don’t put your hands on my children anymore.”
    But, she said, “I think I failed him there. I failed him.”

    Her other children have professional jobs.

    She sees a lot of other grown children from the camp working at fast-food restaurants.

    “All the ones there were kids (at the House of Judah). My God, is that all they do? You feel bad. It’s probably because we failed them, told them they didn’t have to do well in school.”

    The children were the real victims, survivors and authorities have said. She broke down when talking about how young John Yarbough was beaten to death.

    “They just threw his body on the pickup truck.”

    Nobody talked about what happened, she said.

    About a year later, two children died in a trailer fire at the Allegan camp. Their deaths were considered punishments from God, the followers were told.

    “I’m like, ‘Oh my God. This is sick. These people are sick.’”


  17. House of Judah: Prophet's son denies father led a cult or enslaved children

    By John Agar | June 28, 2013

    ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI – Thirty years ago, self-proclaimed prophet William A. Lewis said that the beating death of a 12-year-old boy in his House of Judah camp was the will of God.

    “We haven’t done any wrong because God tells you to put the rod on the child’s back, and that’s what we were doing,” he told the Associated Press after John Yarbough died on July 4, 1983.

    “I believe what we’re doing is exactly what God said.”

    Lewis led a group of “Black Israelites” in southwest Allegan County where the boy was fatally beaten as punishment for not doing his chores.

    Lewis, who died 2004 in at 84, was cleared of state charges in the child's death, but he was later convicted in federal court of slavery.

    He believed in a strict reading of the Old Testament, and convinced his roughly 100 followers they were the “real Jews,” the “chosen ones” based on bloodlines and his biblical interpretations.

    In a 1974 paper, he wrote: “The true God of our Father Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have made it very clear who the real Jews are. It is the so-called Negroes, and there are 12 tribes of us. The Black Israelite Kingdom was divided. This chapter gives us some of the best reasons why God destroyed us. After Black Solomon married all of these strange women, many of which were so-called white, which God did not want the so-called Negroes to do. God divided our kingdom and we became 2 kingdoms, one was Judah and the other kingdom was Israel. The kingdom of Israel consists of 10 tribes, and God scattered them into Assyria unto this day.”

    One of his sons, William L. Lewis, who also was convicted of enslaving children at the camp, said both he and his father were innocent men.

    “I wasn’t guilty. I don’t care what nobody says. Was the Lord guilty?" asked the younger Lewis, 68, now of Montgomery, Ala. He served two years in prison on that charge.

    He believed his father to be a true prophet. But many did not want to listen. The younger Lewis blamed troublemakers for bringing down the House of Judah in Allegan County.

    “The problems with the House of Judah started within. They had a conspiracy going," he said recently in a phone interview. "The big problem is, they did anything they can do to destroy something. That’s what it’s all about. There were already told by the prophet. They came in, but they weren’t interested in learning.

    “They say, ‘Amen,’ and ‘I’ll help the prophet,’ but they were men and women fighting against God. Prophet was a very good man. He was a real father, a very good man. The problem with the House of Judah was right within. They tear down. They weren’t with God.”

    He said he and his father traveled the world, sharing his father's message. Once, they waited three days outside the White House before President Lyndon Johnson accepted his father’s materials.

    William L. Lewis said the federal government is “spiritually dead.”

    “They didn’t take heed. The prophet went to them, and warned about what they were doing. … That blood is on them.”

    The younger Lewis believes God spoke through his father, and said that “we were God’s chosen ones. Now, they’re too late. It’s all in the Old Testament. The truth hurts.”

    Lewis said he was “well taught and learned” by his father. He said he and others were arrested only because they were House of Judah leaders.

    “I had nothing to do with it. All the leaders got blamed.”

    He said the House of Judah was not a cult.

    “The cult is religion – not the House of Judah. The cult is religion. That’s your cult.”


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

    By John Agar | June 29, 2013

    ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI – 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.”

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  19. 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."


  20. House of Judah followed classic cult storyline, psychologist says

    By John Agar | June 30, 2013

    ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI - The early years of the House of Judah attracted young men and women looking for answers to life’s questions, and a place to belong.

    “The ‘60s, early 70s, people were searching for answers,” a former cult member told MLive and The Grand Rapids Press. “As you get older and learn about it, you were part of a cult. We were in our early 20s. That’s a youth searching for something.”

    Self-proclaimed prophet William A. Lewis started House of Judah in southwest Allegan County in the mid-1970s. It started as peaceful communal living. But within a handful of years, it had turned into a house of horrors where his followers and their children were severely beaten for misdeeds.

    On July 4, 1983, one of the children, 12-year-old John Yarbough, died of beating injuries.

    The House of Judah, which eventually left Allegan County for Wetumpka, Ala., followed a classic cult storyline, with a leader ratcheting up violence to increase his hold on his followers, said R. Scott Stehouwer, chairman of Calvin College’s psychology department.

    “They have to prove themselves to the group,” Stehouwer said of cult leaders. “Any time the leader feels threatened, they have to keep more and more control to prove themselves as the leader. The people were looking to do something better, and he twisted it into this awful thing.

    “Sometimes, people who claim to be sent from God blind us from God.”

    Those with few connections to others are generally more likely to become involved in a cult, he said.

    Stehouwer said the 1970s brought an “interest shift” where people were “looking for someone or something greater than themselves, stronger than themselves, and also to make their lives significant.”

    By joining forces, the thought was: “Great things will happen.”

    Like many cult leaders, Lewis convinced his followers – he called them Black Israelites, the chosen ones – that he was, in Stehouwer’s words, the “only way toward salvation.”

    "Sometimes, people who claim to be sent from God blind us from God."

    The followers, in turn, come to believe they know the “real truth.”
    They are distanced from family and friends, and eventually, rather than feel as if they are part of something, feel like “outsiders” to the rest of the world.

    “Ultimately, they get victimized,” Stehouwer said.

    Stehouwer said studies have shown that people are inclined to go along with others in a group if they are the only one with concerns. People are also surprisingly willing to follow rules set by authority figures such as Lewis.

    “If you’re in that group, it’s very hard not to go along with what everybody else is thinking,” Stehouwer said.

    Stehouwer said in a case like the House of Judah, one of his biggest concerns would be for the 66 children who were being raised in the camp. They were forced to work, and received harsh punishments. They were taught that whites were the devil, and that blacks outside of the compound were heathens.

    He said it had to be a horrible scene when the children were removed by authorities in the days following the boy's death. Most of the police officers were white.

    The children probably thought, “The devil’s taking us away, just like the prophet said,” Stehouwer said.

    “My bet is, there is a lot that could be done for the kids,” he said.

    “It’s not a death sentence. But it can be, for sure.”


  21. House of Judah: Former West Michigan news anchor recalls relationship with 'prophet' (Guest column)

    By John Agar | Kalamazoo Gazette - MLive.com July 01, 2013

    Former WWMT-TV anchor Barry Shanley has been a broadcaster in West Michigan for 25 years, including 10 years at WZZM and 11 years at WWMT. He also has written occasional freelance columns for The Kalamazoo Gazette since 1997.

    He remembers meeting and interviewing the Rev. William A. Lewis, and being introduced to the self-professed prophet’s group, the House of Judah, before a 12-year-old boy there, John Yarbough, died July 4, 1983, of beating injuries. The cult’s compound was on Baseline Road, five miles east of South Haven, where Shanley was born and raised.

    By Barry Shanley

    Shortly after the Jonestown massacre my aunt, Jane Zillman, who was Post Mistress for Grand Junction, which included Lacota, called me.

    At the time I was an anchor for WZZM-TV.

    As it happened the campground for the Black Israelite Jews was directly across the street from land once owned by my mom's family.

    Aunt Jane called me because her letter carriers were refusing to deliver to the campground any longer, after witnessing what they described as para-military training at the camp. Many men marching in an adjoining field with rifles.

    So, along with Chief Photographer Werner Schneider, I went to the campground for what was to become a series of explosive reports that ultimately culminated in me being a chief witness for the FBI in its trial against the camp's leader on slavery charges.

    When we first arrived, meeting us at a gate that had been constructed were two women, one of whom was the mother of John Yarbough, the young boy who was about to lose his life there. They led us to "The Prophet" who not only consented to an interview but relished the idea. He began to explain some of what he wrote and was on camera saying,

    "It would do my heart good to see a n------ hanging from every tree.”

    To which I asked, How does that fit with him being an African American? He said he had been saved along with his flock and that therefore, they are not "n------."

    But, as we were to learn in the saddest of ways, apparently some of his flock, in his mind, were not yet “saved.” Especially one young boy who would be lost forever at their hands.

    In subsequent visits for the next few days he showed us stocks he placed sinners in, women, children, men. Old-fashioned stocks like in the pilgrim days. He prohibited us from visiting his "hospital,” or his "school,” but was very candid when I asked him what was the purpose and cause of several giant holes in the ground. He said he made women dig them when they "got out of line.”

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  22. One of the more poignant moments in the series was during the taping of an impromptu church session called for our benefit to show us their service. He was up on a stage, sitting at an old-style school desk. The photographer for this installment was Al Hartwick, who passed away in recent years. I was sitting in the front row. Al was at the end of the row slowly zooming down it just as William A. Lewis pounded the desk and said, "What do we do when children get out of line? We crack heads!" To which the congregation applauded loudly. The zoom went just past me to a child sitting next to me, with his head going up and down in agreement, saying "Amen.”

    That little boy was John Yarbough. Not long after our visit John was beaten to death at the camp.

    One thing I noticed was there were many, many children who looked to be 5 to 7 years old or so. And I always thought it suspicious that Lewis had sent all the men in the camp the last several years, except his personal "guards” to Chicago to work during the week, leaving only the women and children to himself.

    The series created a stir. The Globe actually called me and kept asking if I was the "heroic newsman" who dared to go into the camp to expose what was going on, and that I had repeatedly warned authorities, who did not listen. What I had done after the first episode was go to the Lee Township Supervisor to interview him and to ask if he knew about it. He did but said there was nothing he could do...even though, I reminded him, the group took over what is supposed to be only a summer campground and turned it into a permanent trailer park, etc.

    The Globe nevertheless went ahead with its story that I was somehow heroic. It cracked me up, especially because Lewis wanted to be on television. In fact the night he was arrested he called me from jail in Allegan and asked me to come and interview him that night. Which I did after the late news.

    During the slavery trial, while his defense attorney tried to paint me as just another journalist sensationalizing someone else's life and story, very curiously “The Prophet” would continually smile a friendly smile toward me, despite my damaging testimony, which I attempted to deliver void of any judgment. And when the court session would come to an end, as he exited he would bow deferentially toward me. Though he had always greeted me this way for our visits to his camp it took a few years for me to understand why he would do so now. As soon as he was released from prison and was establishing his new camp in Alabama, it finally became clear. He wanted to invite me down for an interview.


  23. NC Cult Leader Sentenced to Life for Killing 4-Year-Old Boy He Thought Was Gay

    Peter Moses, Ex-Leader of Black Hebrew Israelites Sect, Pleads Guilty to Murders

    By Nicola Menzie , Christian Post Reporter July 5, 2013

    The leader of a Durham, N.C., group claiming affiliation with the Black Hebrew Israelites, viewed by some as a cult, has been given two life sentences for murdering both a 4-year-old boy, whom he shot in the head because he believed he was gay, and one of his common-law wives who had revealed that she could not have children.

    "These are some of the worst cases I've ever seen as a judge," declared Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson at the close of the trial involving cult leader Peter Moses Jr. and the women, or wives, who shared his home and called him "lord."

    Moses was sentenced in court on Friday after pleading guilty to the 2010 killings of 4-year-old Jadon Higganbothan and 28-year-old Antoinetta McKoy. Prosecutors said Moses shot the boy dead in the garage of his home in front of his mother, Vania Rae Sisk, while a recording of the Lord's Prayer in Hebrew played in the background. He concluded after seeing Higganbothan hit another boy on the buttocks that the toddler was gay. Moses also had McKoy killed by three of his wives when he learned that she could not have children and wanted to leave the sect, according to NewObserver.com.

    Sisk, one of the women convicted in McKoy's murder and who prosecutors say pulled the trigger, reportedly helped cover up her own son's death at the hands of Moses, who considered Higganbothan an "abomination," according to prosecutors.

    Officials were reportedly alerted about Higganbothan's and McKoy's deaths by a woman who eventually fled the group. The 4-year-old boy had also been reported missing by his father. The victims' bodies were found July 2011 in plastic bags buried in the backyard of a home in Durham where Moses' mother had lived.

    Sisk was sentenced to 30 years in prison, while the two women who pleaded guilty to being accessories after the fact of murder received 12 years each. Moses' brother also pleaded guilty to being an accessory after the fact of murder and was given five years in prison.

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  24. It was revealed at court that Moses' previous diagnosis of bipolar disorder likely played a part in the violence that occurred, and reported that he had been receiving treatment while detained in the Durham County Jail. Moses apologized to McKoy's mother in court on Friday, saying, "I'm sorry ma'am for your daughter."

    "She was a good girl, a church girl, a God-fearing girl," Yvonne McKoy told Judge Hudson of her 28-year-old daughter, at one point calling Moses "evil."

    The grieving mother added, "There is not a day I don't think about her. She is resting in God's arms now. That is the only thing that gives me closure.

    "There will come a time when I can forgive you, but I just haven't gotten to that stage now. …If I don't forgive you, God can't forgive me and I can't see my child again. …This is like a nightmare."

    Another local news report quoted McKoy as saying, "That's the only thing that gives me closure is to know that she knew God herself cause this is something that I never dreamt I would deal with, never."

    She added after court, "I could really choke him. But you know, that was just a little bit of anger. But I looked at him with more hurt than anything because I couldn't believe — this is like a nightmare, really and truly — that he would be so deceitful. I felt a little cold and a little bitter. But the compassion inside of me said 'Yvonne, you're a Christian.'"

    According to Moses' attorneys, the crimes occurred after their client lost his Medicaid benefits and his untreated illness "made him do something monstrous."

    The Black Hebrew Israelites group Moses affiliated himself with is also referred to as Black Hebrews or Hebrew Israelites, and its adherents teach that they are direct descendants of the ancient Israelites. There are numerous sub-sects and independent splinter groups with no central governing body, according to the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, which reports that possible adherents range anywhere from 40,000-200,000. The sect's race-based teachings, as well as their views on Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit and aspects of the afterlife put them at odds with traditional Christian teachings.


  25. Gwinnett man and daughter charged in baby’s starvation death

    by Steve Visser, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution November 14, 2014

    A Gwinnett County man and his 23-year-old daughter have been charged with murder in the starvation death of his 15-month-old daughter. And police say the dead baby’s 21-year-old mother was also starved, weighs 59 pounds and is in serious condition at a local hospital.

    Gwinnett authorities started their investigation Tuesday, when the Sandy Springs Police Department notified them that the man, identified as 44-year-old Calvin Mcintosh, brought baby Alcenti to Northside Hospital in Sandy Springs, Gwinnett police Cpl. Edwin Ritter said in an emailed statement.

    “The infant … was determined to be dead on arrival,” he said. “Due to the physical appearance of Alcenti, it was quickly determined by medical personnel that this was most likely a case of neglect and abuse.”

    Gwinnett investigators went to the family’s residence at an Extended Stay in Peachtree Corners, where Ritter said police found Najlaa Mcintosh, the daughter also charged with murder.

    Authorities also found Iasia Sweeting, baby Alcenti’s mother, on the floor, wrapped in blankets and in “desperate need of medical attention,” Ritter said. Three children in the room “were also severely malnourished and were in need of medical attention,” he said. The children ranged from 3 to 5 years old.

    Through the investigation, authorities learned Calvin Mcintosh fathered two children with Najlaa Mcintosh and two children with Sweeting. They also discovered “copious amounts of literature and notes in reference to ritualistic behavior and the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, an Islam based cult which is known for being a sovereign group,” Ritter said in the statement.

    “Calvin ordered Najlaa to deprive the children and Iasia of food if they are disobedient. The Gwinnett County Medical Examiner ruled starvation as the cause of death for Alcenti.”

    Calvin Mcintosh was arrested on multiple charges, including one count of felony murder, one count of malice murder, four counts of cruelty to children in the first degree, one count of cruelty to children in the second degree, one count of cruelty to a physically disabled adult, one count of rape, one count of incest and one count of aggravated sodomy.

    Najlaa Mcintosh was charged with one count of felony murder, one count of malice murder, four counts of cruelty to children in the first degree, one count of cruelty to children in the second degree and one count of cruelty to a physically disabled adult.

    Calvin and Najlaa Mcintosh are in the Gwinnett County jail. The three children found in the hotel are in the custody of the Division of Family and Children Services.

    RELATED articles at the link below:

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    -Police charge father, daughter accused of starving baby to death


  26. Father and daughter enter not guilty pleas in cult related starving case

    by Tyler Estep, Gwinnett Daily Post March 10, 2015

    Calvin and Najlaa McIntosh were both arraigned Tuesday morning, entering not guilty pleas to murder and other charges connected to the cult-related starving death of a 13-month-old girl.

    Their other alleged victim — and the key witness against them — was back in the hospital.

    The McIntoshes, who are father and daughter and believed members of the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors cult, have both been in the Gwinnett County jail since November, when they were arrested after taking young Tyanne Alcenti Sweeting to the hospital. Police believe Calvin McIntosh had ordered Najlaa to starve the infant and her mother, Iasia Sweeting, as punishment inside the Peachtree Corners motel room where they lived.

    Tyanne Sweeting died and Iasia Sweeting, 21, weighed just 59 pounds when Gwinnett County police arrested her alleged captors.

    Najlaa McIntosh entered a not guilty plea in front of Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Melodie Snell Conner on Tuesday morning. Her father ultimately accomplished the same thing, but Conner had to enter a plea for him.

    “(Calvin McIntosh) wasn’t giving a response,” Assistant District Attorney Rich Vandever said, “and he had told his attorney not to give a response.”

    Under law, a defendant remaining silent or refusing to enter a plea simply means their case will move forward to a jury trial.

    While all that was happening Tuesday, Iasia Sweeting, the starved 21-year-old found in the motel room, was battling more medical complications. Sweeting’s mother, Elvis Morgan, said the young woman had been hospitalized since Friday due to an abscess in her jaw, and that she was receiving some much-needed therapy as well.

    “She’s doing great,” Morgan said. “She’s doing more walking and a little more talking. Just a little at a time.”

    Najlaa McIntosh is charged with murder, attempted murder, false imprisonment and aggravated battery. Calvin McIntosh is facing all of the same charges, plus incest and rape — the result of his alleged sexual relationship with Najlaa, the believed mother of two of his children.

    Both McIntoshes were indicted in late January, a week or so before District Attorney Danny Porter told the Daily Post that he would not pursue the death penalty against either. Porter said he did not seriously consider the possibility for Najlaa — who “is being as cooperative as she can be under the circumstances” — and cited potential “evidentiary complications” in convincing a jury to send Calvin to death row.

    A trial is likely still months away.


  27. With new chief rabbi, black Hebrew-Israelites make bid to enter the Jewish mainstream

    By Sam Kestenbaum, THE WASHINGTON POST October 30, 2015

    The Israelites walked slowly, chanting in Hebrew and wrapped in loose white robes. A reverential silence spread across the crowd as one figure emerged above the rest. Hundreds had gathered to witness a sacred moment. “I came so that my children’s children would remember this day,” said one Israelite. “Hallelujah,” called another.

    It was a scene out of the Torah: after years of uncertainty a new leader was being installed.

    But these Israelites, unlike their biblical namesakes, had not come from scattered desert encampments, but from Georgia, New York, California, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Delaware. They were gathered not on a craggy mountain overlooking the valleys of the Holy Land, but deep in the Southside of Chicago.

    And their new leader? South Carolina-born African American rabbi, Chief Rabbi Capers C. Funnye Jr.

    Funnye has already made headlines. He’s the cousin of Michelle Obama and the first African American to join the Chicago Board of Rabbis. He has spent his career redrawing racial and religious boundaries. In sermons Funnye quotes from Malcolm X, Marcus Mosiah Garvey and old spirituals, but also Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Rabbi Louis Jacobs and the Talmud.

    “My blackness and my Jewishness, they synthesize,” said Funnye on the day of his installation as chief rabbi last weekend. His office was lined with weathered books on Judaism; a map of Africa hung on the wall. “I’m not in anybody’s box. We need this community recognized by the Jewish people. And I am their spokesperson.”

    The Hebrew-Israelites, whose practice of Judaism draws from early black nationalism and its message of empowerment, have lived for nearly a century on the fringes of the Jewish world. There have only been two other chief rabbis in this group’s history; the last died in 1999.

    Since then, “something hasn’t been right, something hasn’t been in the correct order,” said Rabbi Sholomo Ben Levy, president of the board. “Today we are able to get back in order.”

    The new chief rabbi of the International Israelite Board of Rabbis, the main rabbinical body in the Israelite world, wants to both bring unity to the group and reach out.

    “We have to build bridges,” said Funnye, “amongst ourselves and to other communities.”

    Funnye was nominated as chief rabbi last fall. Earlier this year, he released hisvision plan and spoke about his platform in a series of public meetings. A specially-formed electorate body made up of rabbis representing their communities, in this country and abroad, took a vote at the beginning of the month.

    The results came in on Oct. 4. It was unanimous.

    continued below

  28. And finally, following Sabbath services at Funnye’s home congregation, Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation in Chicago, a chief rabbi was installed.

    “The International Israelite Board of Rabbis,” Levy said during the ceremony, “have elected and elevated our brother Rabbi Capers Funnye to the highest honorable office of chief rabbi to the Israelite congregations of the United States, the Caribbean, Africa and around the world under our auspices.”

    The congregation’s choir, rivaling any gospel group, sang in a mixture of Hebrew and English; the crowd was dressed in its finest: colored kufis, knit skullcaps, dashikis and white prayer shawls.

    “My father devoted his life to a movement,” said Rabbi Shalem Knaizadek Yeshurun, whose father was an early Israelite rabbi in Brooklyn. “Now we can show to the world: we’re not going to let that legacy die. We have a chief rabbi now, we talk for ourselves.”

    A struggle to be accepted by the mainstream

    This branch of Israelites traces its history back to Harlem where, in 1919, a Caribbean-born man named Rabbi Wentworth Arthur Matthew founded one of the county’s first black synagogues, the Commandment Keepers Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation.

    A charismatic cleric from St. Kitts, Matthew taught that African Americans had ancient connections with the biblical Israelites and that they should leave Christianity and return to Judaism. New members went through a ritual process of return, Levy said, which they viewed as comparable to conversion.

    The synagogue became the center of a movement and branches spread to other parts of the country and abroad.

    Matthew wasn’t only interested in reaching out to black Americans. He also sought connection with mainstream Jews and wanted his growing community to be accepted. Matthew applied to join the New York Board of Rabbis (twice), but was turned down because he was ordained by an earlier Israelite teacher, not from a recognized school. One early critic dismissed the community as having “nothing to do with Judaism.”

    Things got slightly better in the next decades. But not by much.

    The ’60s and early ’70s saw failed attempts to usher the Israelites into the mainstream, spearheaded by (largely white) Jewish liberals who ultimately pushed for conversion instead of accepting the Israelites’ claims to the religion, and history of practice, at face value.

    To many Israelites, then and now, the politics of conversion is a fraught topic, said Rabbi Baruch A. Yehudah, executive secretary of the Israelite board and second-generation Israelite. “I’m not going to allow you to tell me who I can be or can’t be. I was born like this. My knees have bowed to no other God. I’m not asking for anyone’s permission.”

    Starting in the late ’70s, the second chief rabbi, Rabbi Levi Ben Levy, re-vamped both the Israelite rabbinical board and the rabbinical college. Independent of the Jewish world, Israelite groups blossomed across the country.

    There are some groups who identify as Israelites but embrace a more separatist message. The board, however, recognizes all practitioners of Judaism, regardless of their “race, tradition, or terminology.”

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  29. Funnye studied at the Israelite rabbinical academy but also decided to enroll in Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago. And, after consulting his Israelite rabbi, Funnye also went through a conversion in a Conservative rabbinical court.

    “I know who I am,” said Funnye, recalling his thought process and decision to go through a conversion. “I just want you to be comfortable, too.”

    Unlike some of his predecessors, Funnye said, he didn’t feel like the conversion took anything away from his being an Israelite. It would also open doors.

    “I am an Israelite and a Jew,” Funnye said. “We’re not trying to emulate or pattern ourselves after any Jewish community. We are our own community.”

    Today, a dozen U.S. congregations are associated with the board, where membership in each synagogue ranges from under 75 to hundreds.

    Funnye’s vision is expansive. He looks to the Caribbean, South America and Africa. Already the board has ties with synagogues in Barbados, Uganda, Ghana, and over thirty in Nigeria. Funnye wants to build more, also reaching out to the Lemba Jews of South Africa.

    New chief rabbi helps Israelites find their place

    During his 30 years of leadership in Chicago, Funnye’s synagogue in Chicago emerged as one of the most popular Israelite congregations in the country. He was accepted on the Chicago Board of Rabbis (making him the first Israelite to sit on any city board) and is also board president at the city’s Jewish Council of Urban Affairs.

    Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, spiritual leader of Am Yisrael, a Conservative synagogue in Chicago, has watched Rabbi Funnye’s steady rise as a leader. Twenty five years ago, Rabbi Kamin says, his congregation was a “mystery to Chicago Jewry.” Now Rabbi Kamin regularly visits his synagogue with her congregants. “He has worked hard to be part of the Jewish community.”

    Michael B. Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and close friend of Funnye’s, flew in for the weekend. “You are part of the Jewish people,” said Oren, speaking to a crowd of Israelites. “You are a part of the nation state. And we are proud and delighted to have you.”

    On a drizzling afternoon in Chicago, the board presented Funnye with a signed scroll, giving him his new authority as chief. The sun, struggling to break through all morning, finally did. The sanctuary was bathed in light.

    Would the community embrace Funnye’s desire to work with wider Jewry? Could they leave past divisions behind? And would wider Jewry accept the Israelites? There was a group prayer on Funnye’s behalf. And, for a moment which seemed to stretch on, Funnye stood silently. Children crowded to the front, the crowd watched expectantly. The size of his mandate came to him, he explained later, and he prayed for guidance.

    “I accepted the position because many of my elders and teachers have passed,” said Funnye. “Now, when I go anywhere, they will be with me. I will be speaking on behalf of them and their descendants.”

    Sam Kestenbaum is a writer based in New York City. You can reach him on Twitter at @skestenbaum