Sect leader's bigamy case dropped

FORT WORTH, TX House of Yahweh leader Yisrayl Hawkins pleaded no contest Thursday to four counts of child labor violations involving youngsters working on his 44-acre religious compound in Clyde, about 130 miles west of Fort Worth.

Hawkins was fined $2,000 for each count and placed on deferred adjudication probation, which means no conviction will appear on his record if he successfully completes probation, said his attorney, Knox Fitzpatrick of Dallas. He said Hawkins was pleased with the outcome.

Four counts of promoting bigamy and one count of practicing bigamy were dismissed, said Callahan County District Attorney Shane Deel. The plea agreement in the Baird courtroom came 10 days before the trial was to start.

Hawkins, 74, was accused of performing polygamous weddings and forcing about 40 children to work various jobs at his compound. Former members say Hawkins has at least two dozen wives, and state records show he fathered two babies in 2007 with women ages 19 and 22.

The self-proclaimed prophet warns his followers about the end of time and rails against a dangerous and unclean world outside their West Texas compound. Hawkins previously told The Associated Press that he and his church were misunderstood and persecuted because of their religious beliefs.

Some members have denied that anyone practices bigamy.

Two weeks ago, a judge moved the trial to Weatherford, about 100 miles east of Baird, after Hawkins' attorneys argued that finding an impartial jury in his home county would be impossible. Deel said a trial would have been too expensive based on the uncertainty of the outcome.

Authorities had "a mountain of evidence" against Hawkins but most of it dated back to 2005, when bigamy had a two-year statute-of-limitations period and was a misdemeanor, Deel said in a statement.

The bigamy counts against Hawkins were listed as felonies in the indictments with a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison. Defense attorneys had filed a motion to throw those out because elements of the alleged offenses occurred before September 2005 -- before state lawmakers made bigamy a felony, Fitzpatrick said. The judge had not yet ruled on that.

"We had filed a motion to quash ... although we assert that the allegations were not true," Fitzpatrick said Friday.

Authorities had been looking at the House of Yahweh for years, and even after the plea agreement Deel vowed to "continue to monitor them closely."

A 7-year-old died in 2003 after her mother and another sect member performed surgery on her infected leg at a home. Both women were convicted of injury to a child. And in 2006, a woman bled to death after giving birth at her home because midwives who were sect members prevented her from going to the hospital, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by her husband.

In December, a House of Yahweh elder, 41-year-old Yedidiyah Hawkins, was sentenced to 30 years in prison for molesting an 11-year-old girl during a phony cervical cancer exam. Yisrayl Hawkins founded the House of Yahweh in 1980 -- three years after the former Abilene police officer was fired for having beer in his patrol car.

The group moved to rural Clyde several years later so they would have room to celebrate weeklong Old Testament feasts. The sect claims to have hundreds of members scattered worldwide. Hundreds of his followers have legally changed their last names to Hawkins.

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