Bigamy charges against West Texas sect leader Yisrayl Hawkins were dismissed Thursday after the head of the House of Yahweh pleaded no contest to four cases involving child-labor violations, the Callahan County attorney announced.
Hawkins, 74, was scheduled to go on trial Nov. 9 in Weatherford after 42nd District Judge John Weeks granted a change of venue from Callahan County. Hawkins’ attorneys had argued that an impartial jury could not be seated there.
County Attorney Shane Deel said in a statement that Hawkins agreed to pay a $2,000 fine and serve 15 months of probation in each child-labor case.
Two factors contributed to the dismissal of charges, he said.
“First, the change of venue made the case financially impractical to try. Second, there were some substantial issues with the case and the statute of limitations,” Deel said.
“While we literally have a mountain of evidence against Yisrayl Hawkins in relation to these cases, most of it dates back to before 2005. At that time, bigamy was a Class A misdemeanor with only a two-year limitations period. While I can make an argument about the continuing nature of the conduct, it is simply not worth the county’s resources to pursue the case in Parker County with the necessary expenses that that will entail when the outcome is as uncertain as it is.”
The Legislature made bigamy a felony crime in 2005. Last year, Deel charged Hawkins with four counts of promoting bigamy and one of practicing bigamy. The charges of violating child-labor laws by forcing children to work at the church’s property are misdemeanors.
Deel said the district attorney’s office will continue to closely monitor the House of Yahweh.
Deel said he will continue to assist those who wish to get out of the House of Yahweh.
“Many people were duped into changing their last names to Hawkins as part of an indoctrination into the cult,” Deel said. “We will help them get their names changed.”
Deel offered to change the names on a pro-bono basis with the individuals only having to pay court costs.
He also would like for women of the group and former members to pursue efforts to collect child support.
Hawkins is notorious for his frequent doomsday predictions — most recently announcing that nuclear war would begin on June 12, 2008 — or sooner.
In Kenya, hundreds of his followers actually hid in basement bomb shelters and donned gas masks on the date.
Former members say there is a method to Hawkins’ madness, that the doomsday predictions help him make money and keep disillusioned members from leaving, for fear they will be killed when the end comes.
“He’s been saying just give me two more years, we’re right at the end,” said former member Miriam Martin who left in 2004.
“Why would you give up now? That’s how he controls people, is through fear,” Martin said.
Other former members say they are required to buy doomsday food and supplies from a company that Hawkins owns personally, Life Nutrition Products.
“Everything that he preaches has to do with people buying something,” said former House of Yahweh elder David Als of New York City.