Yahweh Ben Yahweh, former U.S. cult leader linked to killings, dead at 71

Miami, USA - Former cult leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh, who was linked to nearly two dozen gruesome killings in the 1980s and was said to have ordered victims' ears cut off as proof they were killed, has died, his lawyer said Tuesday.

Yahweh was 71. Yahweh, who had been fighting prostate cancer, died in his sleep Monday night, lawyer Jayne Weintraub said.

The self-proclaimed "Black Messiah" founded the Nation of Yahweh and preached religious separatism for blacks. At the group's height, it claimed thousands of followers in Miami and elsewhere.

The group was praised for its rehabilitation of Miami neighbourhoods, promotion of family values and stance against drugs. But Yahweh was later accused of sending close followers to kill "white devils" and bring back body parts as proof.

He served 11 years of an 18-year federal prison sentence for a racketeering conspiracy conviction stemming from his role in up to 23 killings and was released from prison in September 2001. He was never convicted on murder charges.

"Yahweh Ben Yahweh will always be remembered for the many charitable contributions he made...as exemplified when he received a key to the city of Miami," Weintraub said in a statement.

"Yahweh will be remembered and mourned by the millions of people that he touched through prayer and teachings."

Yahweh was born Hulon Mitchell in Oklahoma. The eldest of 15 children, he became a preacher in Oklahoma, Weintraub said. He married and had four children but divorced before moving to Miami in the late 1970s, she said.

In Miami he changed his name to the Hebrew words for "God, son of God." He also opened a headquarters, the Temple of Love, in the Liberty City area, as well as a nearby education centre, and his followers often dressed completely in white.

Ultimately, his group built a modest empire of businesses - motels, restaurants, homes and stores - said at the time to be worth US$8 million. They became known for cleaning up blighted areas, Yahweh was honoured for his work. Miami's mayor declared a Yahweh Ben Yahweh Day in 1990.

But authorities said they uncovered another, violent side to the group.

Two residents who resisted the group's 1986 takeover of a drug-infested apartment complex were allegedly shot. Ex-members turned up dead and a Delray Beach neighbourhood was bombed after residents and Yahweh's followers butted heads during a recruiting effort.

Prosecutors said Yahweh also had an inner circle of group members called "The Brotherhood" or "death angels" who had to kill someone to join the group. He was indicted with other Yahweh members in 1990, shortly after the day honouring him.

During his five-month trial in 1992, Yahweh dressed in white robes and a turban and often quoted the Bible. His sister and nephew testified he ordered men, women and children to join in the beating death of sect member. An ex-member testified he ordered another follower executed for gossiping but spared his life after drawing blood with a machete.

Police officers, however, were among those who testified in his defence, Weintraub said. Ultimately, Yahweh and six others were convicted in the case.

In 1992 he was also indicted and tried in state court on first-degree murder charges, of which he was acquitted.

He was released early from parole supervision earlier this year.

His lawyers said at the time he had advanced cancer and wanted to die with dignity and his doctor wrote he was unable to walk as a result of the disease. Prosecutors argued even though he was ailing he was still a threat.