A former Chicago jukebox salesmen who now heads the Black Hebrews in the United States and eight of the religious group's members went on trial in federal court here this week on charges of operating what prosecutors said was a multimillion-dollar crime ring that specialized in "shopping sprees" using counterfeit credit cards and bogus checks and trafficking in stolen airline tickets.
"The government is not saying that 'The Nation' is an illegal operation," Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Hannan said in his opening arguments Monday. It is "saying the nine defendants used illegal methods for the purposes of 'The Nation' and for themselves."
Specifically, he said, the proceeds of the crime ring were used to support Black Hebrews in this country and in Israel.
Members of the Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem, also called the Black Hebrews and The Nation, believe that blacks were a part of the original 12 tribes of Israel. The group has branches, called "extensions," in Israel, Ghana, Liberia and the United States, where there are an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 members.
The nine men on trial -- Warren Brown, James B. Stone and Gerald Bethea of Chicago and J.C. Vortis, Cordell DeBardelaben, Thomas Cavin, Darryl Grisson, Gregory Coles and Kevin Robinson of Washington -- were arrested last summer after an 18-month investigation that included court-approved wiretaps on three telephone lines in two of the group's three communal houses here.
Searches of the houses -- at 556 Varnum St. NW, 1218 Taylor St. NE and 386 37th Place SE -- and rental storage areas in the area yielded dozens of stolen airline tickets, stolen and counterfeit credit cards and fake identity cards and stolen checkbooks.
Of more than 1,500 hours of conversations recorded from the wiretaps, Hannan said, 20 to 30 hours of tapes will be played for the jury and constitute a major part of the government's evidence in the case.
But one defense attorney told the jury in opening arguments yesterday that the government misinterpreted the conversations, failing to understand "black English" phrases and religious references. Another said that despite the government's statements that "The Nation" is not on trial, "I think the evidence in this trial will show otherwise."
However, attorneys have said in court they will not base their clients' defenses on religious persecution or other First Amendment issues.
Ernest McIntosh Jr., lawyer for Vortis, cited as an example of the government's incorrect interpretation of the tapes their view of repeated references to "Ben."
He said the name Ben means "son of Israel" and that it is a "fundamental religious tenet" of the Black Hebrews that Ben is the middle name of every male member. In addition, he said, any female member of the group who is in trouble and needs help uses "Ben" as a code word when contacting other members of the group.
Lewis Myers Jr., attorney for Warren Brown, told the jury that, despite the government's claims, The Nation is being tried along with the nine men. He also warned that many of the government's witnesses are former members who left the Black Hebrews after disagreements over religious matters and that some had since conducted a vengeance-based campaign against the group's leaders.
According to the government's case, Myers said, Brown "is supposed to be a big-time racketeer, a gangster directing a criminal enterprise" who is "hiding behind God somehow." But Brown was named in the 29 criminal counts against him primarily because he is the leader of the Black Hebrews in this country "and in order to have a criminal enterprise, they had to have a leader."
The indictment charges all nine men with operating a continuing criminal enterprise and with conspiring to operate a criminal enterprise. The other counts cover individual criminal acts such as carrying a forged check over state lines, illegal use of a telephone, transporting a stolen car over state lines and obtaining welfare benefits fraudulently. A 10th person named in the indictment, Mary Swoope, also known as Anam, is now in Israel and is not on trial.
In addition, Vortis, Stone, Cavin, Coles and Robinson are charged along with 13 other Black Hebrews in a second indictment with conspiracy and wire fraud in connection with a scheme to defraud the American Telephone and Telegraph Co. and the MCI Co. by charging to accounts of company customers a large number of national and international telephone calls.
Another indictment charges six Black Hebrews with defrauding the Montgomery and Prince George's county departments of social services of welfare benefits paid to them and their children.
The trial here before Chief Judge Aubrey Robinson is expected to continue for at least two months. It took three days last week to select the six-man, six-woman jury and the three men and three women who are alternate jurors.
During Monday's opening arguments most of the 50 members of the Black Hebrew group who crowded into the courtroom dressed all in white including white headwraps for the women and white crocheted caps for the men.
Seven of the defendants also wore all white.
A member of the group, who did not give his name, said the Black Hebews wear all white on certain religious days and that courtroom spectators wore white Monday to show that "we are all one people."
Yesterday, there were about half as many spectators in the courtroom but they were dressed in bright colors -- the women mostly in long dresses and the men in tunics over trousers.
Brown, the group's leader, wore a long, gold-colored boubou, a long African-style flowing robe. BLACK HEBREW DEFENDANTS
These are the defendants on trial in U.S. District Court before Chief Judge Aubrey Robinson:
*Warren Brown, 55, also known as Prince Asiel, Nasi Asiel, the Ambassador, Shagreer, Chief and Legs. Brown was the highest-ranking member of the Black Hebrew sect in the United States. He is represented by John Garland and Lewis Myers Jr.
*James B. Stone, 37, also known as Yeriel, was a principal lieutenant to Brown. His attorney is James Lyons.
*Gerald Bethea, 41, also known as Ben Kiel, was also an aide to Brown. He is represented by Melvin Dildine.
*J.C. Vortis, 36, also known as Tyrone Downs, Navee and Ben, was leader of the Black Hebrews organization in the District and Baltimore. His attorney is Ernest McIntosh Jr.
*Gregory Coles, 23, also known as Rooakel, was Vortis' principal deputy. His attorney is William Garber.
*Cordell DeBardelaben, 25, also known as Sadiekiel, was a leader of the Washington-Baltimore Black Hebrew organization. He is represented by Joseph Bernard.
*Thomas Cavin, 28, also known as Navaniel, is represented by James S. Kurz.
*Darryl Grisson, 26, also known as Amatsyah, is represented by S. Edgar Wilhite.
*Kevin Robinson, 26, also known as Smiel, is represented by Dennis Hart.