In October 1990, the mayor of Miami presented Yahweh Ben Yahweh with a key to the city in recognition of the local religious leader’s contributions to the region and his sect’s efforts to revive impoverished pockets of the community.
One month later, FBI agents slapped handcuffs on him and soon charged the former Hulon Mitchell Jr. and 15 of his followers with multiple counts of murder, attempted murder, racketeering, arson and extortion.
Despite links to crimes dating to 1981, when the decapitated body of a disgruntled former church member turned up in the Everglades, Yahweh Ben Yahweh and the organization he launched in 1979, the Nation of Yahweh, eluded criminal prosecution for nearly 10 years as its membership grew to more than 20,000 across 45 cities.
After a follower confessed to seven murders and then assisted authorities, investigators were able to expose the Nation of Yahweh as a cult of personality whose charismatic leader aggressively consolidated power in his secretive group by intimidating and brainwashing followers to the point where several were willing to kill for him.
• For more on the Nation of Yahweh and its charismatic leader’s murderous reign, watch Monday’s People Magazine Investigates: Cults at 9 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery.
The cult leader’s path from a self-described “black God” to prison inmate unfolds on the next episode of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, airing on Investigation Discovery on Monday (9 p.m. ET) and exclusively previewed above.
Here are four things viewers will learn from the show.
1. Yahweh Ben Yahweh Saw Opportunity in Racial Tensions
Born in 1935 in small-town Kingfisher, Oklahoma, the man who would declare himself Yahweh Ben Yahweh grew up experiencing racial discrimination firsthand in the 1940s and 1950s.
He came to believe African Americans deserved a religion to reflect their own heritage and power gained through the Civil Rights movement. In 1976 he moved to Miami, adopted the name Ock Moshe, or “Brother of Moses” in Hebrew, and soon started the Nation of Yahweh.
Unrest in the city fueled by anger over the acquittal of four white police officers who allegedly beat a black motorist opened a door for his message. His literature “talked about black people being the chosen people of the world, the true Jews of the Bible,” a former follower, Khalil Amani, says in the episode.
That message became a rallying cry for some, and by 1981 his congregation had grown to more than 200 followers.
Moshe did not back away from critics who may have considered his early preaching to be brainwashing. “He would say, ‘I’m washing your brain of white supremacy,'” says Amani.
2. Through Forced Circumcision, He Demanded Loyalty of Male Followers
In December 1980 the group brought an abandoned warehouse in an impoverished neighborhood and remade it as their so-called Temple of Love, where followers who dressed in white would live and adhere to their leader’s preaching.
But the early utopian ideal faded as Moshe tightened his grip.
The men were mandated to serve in his security detail. A select group of 10 became his bodyguards and were armed with stainless steel machetes, implying a threat of violence that served to keep followers in line.
In one abrupt show of authority, Moshe made all the men line up and drop their pants. “He wanted to see who was circumcised and who was not,” Amani recalls. For those who were not, Moshe squatted in front of them and did the deed to them himself, one by one.
The men’s unwillingness to stop the violence showed their submission to his growing control.
RELATED VIDEO: The Most Outrageous Cult You’ve Never Heard of: A Beheading and Circumcisions in the Nation of Yahweh
3. His First Victims Were Those Who Challenged His Authority
As Moshe started to insert himself more and more into his teachings, a few followers began to raise doubts about his direction. In 1981 a group of 16 broke off with plans to create a new Yahweh temple across town.
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Moshe was infuriated. He called the group “The Hypocrites” and rallied his remaining followers to retaliate severely: by killing them.
“I didn’t think it would come to fruition,” the former follower, Amani, says on the episode. “I thought it was more hyperbole and sermon and preaching.”
He learned otherwise when a member of the offshoot group returned to the Temple of Love on Nov. 14, 1981, demanding to speak with Moshe, who was away. He was escorted by a group of 10 men to the back of the building, beaten with a hammer, and then loaded into a car carrying the Temple’s chief of security, who Amani saw grabbing a machete, according to the episode.
The man’s body and decapitated head later turned up in the Everglades.
“It was obviously a murder where they were sending a message,” former Assistant U.S. Attorney David DeMaio says in the clip above.
4. Lack of Repercussions for Crimes Reinforced His Followers’ Belief in Him
Word of the murder led to celebration within the Temple’s walls, as Moshe declared that God was helping to eliminate the sect’s enemies.
When Moshe learned that two other members of the renegade group had gone to police with suspicions about the Nation of Yahweh’s involvement in the murder, the response was quick and deadly. The two were attacked in their home: One was killed; the other was shot and struck by a machete but survived, then placed into the witness protection program with a new identity.
The attacks made witnesses afraid to come forth, and the crimes initially went unsolved.
The impunity solidified Moshe’s belief in his own omnipotence. He changed his name again, finally embracing Yahweh Ben Yahweh. “Ben means ‘the son of,'” he says in audio heard in the episode. “So I am God, the son of God. I am the one the whole Earth has been waiting on.”
Rather than turn against him, his followers went all in on the man who much later would be convicted of conspiracy to commit murder and sentenced to 18 years in prison.
“The more crime we got away with,” Amani says, “the more it became evident that he was God.”
The People Magazine Investigates: Cults episode on the Nation of Yahweh airs Monday (9 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.