For West Texas sect, suspicions abound, but few charges stick

Clyde, USA - It doesn’t look like a safe haven from nuclear apocalypse.

A country road lined with barbed-wire fences, mesquite trees and ramshackle mobile homes leads to a dusty lane where "Do not enter" notices surround a sign for The House of Yahweh, a hellfire and Armageddon church whose members have rejected the ways of the world while awaiting the end of times prophesied time and again by leader Yisrayl Hawkins.

Guards cruise up and down County Road 254 south of Clyde, a tiny town about 10 miles east of Abilene. Watchtowers that look like deer stands with windows are built atop houses along the road and inside the 44-acre compound where Hawkins, 74, delivers fiery but folksy sermons.

The sect’s holdings include about 600 acres, a mammoth meeting hall, a meatpacking facility, a cannery, underground bunkers and trailers stocked with supplies for the aftermath of the nuclear meltdown forecast by Hawkins, observers say.

Beyond the sect’s spooky compound and unusual beliefs are more serious concerns.

Allegations of polygamy have dogged the group for years. Last year, an elder was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child. Last month, Hawkins was convicted of four misdemeanor child labor violations for requiring children to work from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the sect’s fields, cannery and butter operation.

The church, which according to its lawyer has 550 area members but reaches thousands of followers worldwide through satellite broadcasts, is funded by stiff tithes that are collected in advance of Old Testament-style feasts, former members say.

The feasts, which can last up to eight days and draw 1,000 people, include sermons, entertainment and drinking around campfires, said Margo Hawkins, the 36-year-old daughter of Yisrayl Hawkins. She fled the flock in 1996 after her husband was pushed to take a second wife.

"It’s eight days of brainwashing," she said. "They think they have found heaven on earth, but it’s the worst cult in the world."

Or are they, as the church’s attorney John Young maintains, a misunderstood group whose unorthodox beliefs have led to "legal witch hunts"?

"Being strange or being odd does not a crime make," Young said.

A test case

Yisrayl Hawkins, whose birth name is Buffalo Bill Hawkins, has been roiling the religious waters in the conservative Abilene area almost since he started the House of Yahweh nearly three decades ago.

Whispers of polygamy began to draw attention in the early 1990s. The sect sparked more curiosity when hundreds of members changed their names to Hawkins, Callahan County Attorney Shane Deel said.

Things took a darker turn in December 2008 when one of the renamed members, Yedidiyah Hawkins, 41, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for molesting his 11-year-old stepdaughter. Deel said the sect elder, "who has four wives," was "playing doctor" by giving the girl a cervical examination.

Also drawing questions was the death of a 7-year-old girl in 2003, after her mother and another woman performed surgery on her infected leg. The mother became a witness for the state, and Rebekah Hawkins was convicted of injury to a child and received three years’ probation, Deel said.