CALLAHAN COUNTY — In his first sermon after leaving jail, Yisrayl “Buffalo Bill” Hawkins was in classic form: folksy, paternal and apocalyptic.
“No, we’re not getting ready to kill ourselves,” said the prophet of the House of Yahweh, a barbed wire kingdom of brimstone prophecies and abject poverty 15 miles southeast of Abilene.
“We’re getting ready to live through the greatest tribulation that ever will be.”
The troubles facing Mr. Hawkins may soon provide Texas’ first major test of strengthened anti-polygamy laws, just 150 miles from the national spotlight on Eldorado and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
The 73-year-old was arrested and indicted in February — less than two months before raids on the Eldorado compound — charged with four counts of promoting bigamy, made a felony in 2005 after the unrelated FLDS group arrived from Utah.
“This will probably be the first case of its kind,” said Callahan County Attorney Shane Deel, who began investigating the House of Yahweh after taking office in 2005.
Mr. Hawkins also faces a misdemeanor charge of breaking child labor laws, accused of having up to 40 children working weekdays “in the fields, in a canning operation, in a cafeteria and in the butter making process.”
Another member, elder Yedidiyah Hawkins, is expected to stand trial this summer on charges of aggravated sexual assault of his now 14-year-old stepdaughter, a girl who authorities allege he was planning to make his wife.
Yedidiyah, who like many members changed his last name to that of his teacher, faces additional charges, including bigamy and engaging in organized crime. Prosecutors say he has at least four wives.
Both men deny all the accusations. Their attorney, John Young, said the criminal charges stem largely from accusations by disgruntled former members and from misconceptions about the group.
“I think anytime there is a lack of understanding or knowledge about a group of people or a club or a religion, I think there’s a natural tendency on the part of society to be suspect,” Mr. Young said, adding that Mr. Deel is “overreaching” with the charges.
Mr. Young denies that polygamy occurs in the church and says the charges are for acts alleged to have occurred before the new law went into effect.
“He teaches against multiple marriages,” he said of Mr. Hawkins.
Yisrayl (pronounced “Israel”) Hawkins, a former rockabilly band leader and Abilene policeman, founded his ministry in the early 1980s, moving in 1991 to the stretch of County Road 254 near the small town of Eula in Callahan County (population 13,491). The mesquite-studded grassland, with hundreds of acres owned by Mr. Hawkins and the church, includes a gated sanctuary with mobile homes and old tractor-trailers in which canned food is said to be stockpiled.
The criminal charges come after years of suspicion surrounding the sect, which gained attention in the 1990s for its eclectic, sometimes vitriolic, Old Testament teachings and prophecies. The group believes in strict adherence to the 613 laws of Yahweh, a Hebrew name for God.
One current House of Yahweh member, who spoke to The Dallas Morning News multiple times on the condition of anonymity, described a system of authoritarian leadership and possible criminal abuses.
The member, who says she has grown progressively disenchanted with the group’s teachings but has not yet decided to leave, said she believes that the elders keep multiple wives.
She said suspicions are difficult to prove because the elders, deaconesses and other leaders maintain tight control of information, part of a system of power and supervision.
“They do watch everything you do. They’re always watching,” she said.
“You don’t know who is married to who, and you’re not allowed to discuss it.”
Women, the member said, are required to call their husbands their “heads” and to wear latex gloves and a veil during and immediately after menstruation. Dress codes are strictly enforced. A “breeding program” shields select girls and boys from the world to become future priests and priestesses of the church, the member said. And the congregation is asked to pray for nuclear war to fulfill the prophecies espoused by Yisrayl Hawkins.
In 2006, Mr. Hawkins forecast that a “nuclear baby” would be unleashed on the world, bringing nuclear war to the Middle East on Sept. 12 of that year. After doomsday failed to materialize, the prophet said the 2006 date was the day of conception and that the metaphorical baby — depicted as a horror-movie-evil infant holding a baby bottle and missile — would be born in 2007. That too failed to come to pass.
“I used to go to afternoon classes after the services. I started calling it the brainwashing session,” the current member said. “The women said, ‘You’re not supposed to ask questions. You just do what you’re told.’ ”
Shaul Hawkins, an elder who joined the group in 1988, attributes the allegations to unhappy former members and discrimination from locals. The church does not observe holidays such as Christmas and Easter and holds its Sabbath services on Saturdays — traditions that the elder believes have led to discrimination in the Bible Belt.
He said the church attracts those who wish to live in simple accord with biblical teachings, removed from a corrupt world saturated with sexuality. Anyone is free to leave the church, Shaul Hawkins said.
Through the years, the House of Yahweh has attracted thousands of members from around the world, using satellite broadcasts, radio and the Internet to spread a message that often weaves news reports of famine, pestilence and violence with biblical prophecies. Sermons are posted online.
“When a person tries to live according to what’s actually written in the Bible, they’re looked as some kind of antisocial freak,” Shaul Hawkins said, comparing the persecution of the group to what the FLDS in Eldorado is facing.
Ruby Wilkins, who was a member of the sect in the early 1980s and whose children were also members, said Yisrayl Hawkins first helped her escape from a bad marriage. But she later came to see him as controlling, exploiting those who had nothing.
“Out on the street, they were just nobody, and they didn’t have enough smarts to be anybody. Bill took them in, would give them a black suit and called them elders. As long as they were there, they were somebody,” Ms. Wilkins said.
Bigamy tough to prove
Shannon Edmonds, director of governmental relations for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association, believes that the Callahan County case will be the first prosecution of a polygamy suspect under the strengthened bigamy statutes.
“They can be very difficult cases to prove because there is no CSI-type evidence. There’s no blood. There’s no DNA,” Mr. Edmonds said.
And for groups like the House of Yahweh, there are typically no marriage certificates filed in the courthouse.
What impact the case could have on the Eldorado sect is not clear. The Texas attorney general’s office, now in charge of any criminal case against the FLDS, has not publicly commented on whether it intends to pursue bigamy charges.
Mr. Deel, the only attorney in an office that has a single investigator, said he acted against the group after his office compiled a number of credible reports of criminality among sect leadership, most from former members. The criminal complaints list dozens of confidential sources, and Mr. Deel said other charges may be filed. The bigamy case against Yisrayl Hawkins could go to trial in the fall.
“They didn’t get Al Capone because of all the people he murdered and all the organized crime. They got him for tax evasion,” the county attorney said.
“If we thought the worst thing [Mr. Hawkins] had done is to have however many wives he’s got, it might not be such a terribly big deal. But he’s destroyed the lives of hundreds if not thousands of people, and so that makes the criminal conduct we can prove a bit more serious.”
Lee Reed, an Abilene police detective who has studied the House of Yahweh since the mid-1980s, said he was told that elders marry teenage girls as young as 14. Detective Reed said the group probably won’t survive if Mr. Hawkins is convicted.
“If he goes to prison, I think the sect itself will slowly but surely dissolve,” he said.
For now, Detective Reed and others said the group continues to attract a cross-section of members, some with money who give up everything to come and others who are down and out.
Mr. Young, the Yahweh attorney, said many people “came to the House of Yahweh with nothing. They had no job. They had no money. They were given a place to live. They [the church] tried to teach them a skill.”
One of those is Earl Woolridge, who lives in a single-wide trailer with his sister, seven dogs and three cats.
“We didn’t have no other place to live,” he said of why he first came.
The 60-year-old, who said he doesn’t know whether elders keep multiple wives, said he stopped going to services a few years ago after disagreeing with a series of changes, including children working instead of going to school and the erection of a wooden partition to separate men from women inside the sanctuary.
“They don’t go by what Yahweh said to go by,” he said of the church leadership.
Mr. Woolridge said he still believes that the apocalypse is coming. He just no longer believes that Yisrayl Hawkins knows when.
“When it comes, it comes. Ain’t nobody knows when it’s going to come ‘cept Yahweh.”
Sidebar: A GROWING HOUSE
In 1991, Yisrayl Hawkins moved the House of Yahweh to Callahan County, steadily buying up land and mobile homes.
Mr. Hawkins has amassed more than $2.2 million in Callahan County real estate under his name, according to appraisal records. The church also maintains an office in Abilene and other properties scattered across the area.
Today, hundreds of members live in the immediate area, observers say, with thousands more around the world.
Sidebar: CPS INVOLVEMENT
Marleigh Meisner, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services, said CPS has investigated at least 20 cases involving House of Yahweh members in recent years.
Two cases resulted in the removal of children, including four taken from the home of Yedidiyah Hawkins.
Officials removed two children from a home after a mother and her neighbor performed surgery on a 7-year-old girl who later died.
CPS officials also investigated the death of a 1-year-old child who died of malnutrition and traumatic asphyxiation. Investigators found “reason to believe” the death was from medical and physical neglect. No criminal charges were brought in that case.
Ms. Meisner declined to talk about any ongoing investigations or whether she believes abuse and neglect pervades the group.