The FBI arrested 25 members of the Black Hebrew religious sect yesterday, including 17 at three houses in Washington, and charged them with taking part in a nationwide scheme of trafficking in stolen airline tickets, fake identity cards and fraudulently obtained passports.
Losses from the stolen airline tickets totaled more than $10 million over the last six years, said Norman A. Zigrossi, the special agent in charge of the Washington field office of the FBI. He said the tickets were sold at discount to business executives and on college campuses.
The passports and identity cards were used to to help criminals flee from authorities, the FBI said.
At a press conference in the local FBI office in Southwest Washington, Zigrossi also displayed dozens of stolen and fraudulently obtained credit cards and checkbooks, which he said the group used to finance its activities.
He said some of the "millions of dollars" obtained from the schemes helped support the group's colonies in Israel, but said there was "no connection" between the alleged crimes and the group's religious beliefs.
Zigrossi estimated that the sect, officially called the Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem, has 2,000 to 3,000 members in the United States, Liberia, and Israel.
The Black Hebrews follow most Jewish religious customs and holidays, observing the Sabbath on Saturday, praying in Hebrew, and circumcising their sons. However, contrary to Jewish custom, they permit polygamy; eat no fish, meat or poultry; reject modern medicine; and outside of work wear flowing dresses and tunics.
The Israeli goverment has refused to recognize them as Jews, but has not deported them.
From 1980 to 1983 about 40 members of the group were convicted of credit card fraud, passport fraud and transportation of stolen property in cases brought in Washington, New York, Chicago and Atlanta.
The group's American headquarters is in Chicago, where the FBI said it arrested four members yesterday and has obtained warrants for the arrest of 10 others.
In yesterday's raids, the FBI said it arrested three Black Hebrews in Baltimore and one in Takoma Park.
The 17 picked up in Washington were arrested in 6 a.m. raids involving about 100 FBI agents and D.C. police at three houses, which the FBI said the group uses as communal residences.
Zigrossi said several boxes of credit cards, checks, passports, and other documents were seized as evidence, but no guns or weapons were found. He said the group is not accused of commiting violent acts. Zigrossi said that on May 10 the FBI arrested four members of a Chicago street gang being sought for a triple murder as they were being harbored in a Black Hebrew "safe house" in Cleveland.
The three houses in Washington where yesterday's arrests occurred were classified by the FBI as "safe houses." The houses are located at 556 Varnum St. NW, 1218 Taylor St. NE, and 386 37th Pl. SE, according to the FBI.
An FBI statement said other illegal activities attributed to members of the group include the theft and sale of rental cars; telephone toll fraud; sale of fraudulently obtained televisions, video cassette recorders, and computers; and bank frauds and embezzlements.
The specific federal charges listed in their arrest warrants include fraud by wire, theft from interstate shipment and interstate transportation of stolen property.
Zigrossi said the leader of the Washington group arrested yesterday was Tyrone Downs, of 37th Place SE. At a hearing before U.S. Magistrate Patrick J. Attridge yesterday afternoon, lawyer Alan Bayless said his client's real name is J.C. Vortis. He said Vortis pleaded guilty in 1983 to making a false statement when applying for a passport and was placed on probation.
Attridge ordered Downs held without bail, but released most of the other defendants on $5,000 bonds.
Others arrested in Washington yesterday were Mukallaf Abdullah, Kevin Robinson, Mary Joyce Allen, Nathaniel Adams, Stephen Jones, Jason Tyrone Brown, Gloria Carter, Cordell Debadelaben, Thomas Cavin, Gregory Coles, Darryl Grissom, Andrea Ruffin, Janet Hamm, Pearl Borot, Patrice Gouveia and Rosiland Wood. All are D.C. residents except Borot, of Bladensburg, and Gouveia, who the FBI said comes from Trinidad. Hope Elliott was arrested at her home on Greenside Drive in Takoma Park, the FBI said.
The FBI said the group is believed to be responsible for the theft of about 1,000 blank airline tickets last fall from Baltimore-Washington International Airport. On June 13 two members of the Black Hebrew sect were arrested in London, the FBI said, as they attempted to board a plane to Israel using two of these tickets valued at $5,000. On June 21 the FBI said it retrieved 650 of the blank stolen tickets from a U-Haul storage bin in Baltimore.
The FBI said the arrests yesterday culminated an 18-month investigation that included court-approved wiretaps and an undercover agent who "did business" with the group but did not infiltrate it.