Warrena Bostic arrived unusually early for work at Diplomat Travel Service that cold December morning.
About 90 minutes before the travel agency was to open, Bostic asked a guard at the 15th Street NW building to let her enter the office by a rear door. Once inside, she opened two boxes of blank airline tickets, "took as many as I could put into my shopping bag," placed her sweater atop the bundles and walked out.
A few hours later, in a New York motel room, Bostic, now 30, handed the tickets to a man she knew as Yeriel, a leader of the Black Hebrews group. Four days later, she was whisked away to the sect's settlement in Monrovia, Liberia, to escape prosecution for the Dec. 17, 1981, theft, and leaving behind her three children.
Bostic's story, told last week to a federal court jury, and the testimony of two other former sect members provide what prosecutors allege is an inside view of a multimillion-dollar international crime ring operated by Warren Brown, the U.S. leader of the sect, J.C. Vortis, the Washington Black Hebrew leader, and some of the sect's members to support the group's activities in this country and abroad.
The testimony of Bostic and the two other former members dealt with more than just the crimes that they say they committed, painting a broad picture of how members of the sect live here and in the group's foreign settlements.
Theirs were tales of an existence that recognized no laws save those of their Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem -- a life style that was fueled primarily by stolen airline tickets, stolen cars and stolen merchandise and that was predicated on the promise of a better life in Israel.
On trial are Brown, 55, who is also known as Prince Asiel, Vortis, 36, who is also known as Navee, and seven other Black Hebrews on charges of operating a continuing criminal enterprise, mail and wire fraud, and trafficking in stolen vehicles and other merchandise. The trial is in its seventh week here before U.S. District Court Chief Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr.
Involving more than a dozen attorneys, scores of witnesses, thousands of documents and 20 to 30 hours of telephone conversations taped under a court-ordered wiretap, the trial has moved slowly, and prosecutors estimate that it will last at least another month.
The courtroom is a study of contrasts as the defendants, usually dressed in white or brightly colored tunics and trousers or flowing robes, known as "culture garments," listen to conferences at the judge's bench through high-tech, wireless headphones. The tactic saves the jury of seven women and five men from being shuttled in and out of the courtroom.
Robinson and prosecutors, led by J. Michael Hannon Jr., have said that the Black Hebrews sect, also known as The Nation, is not on trial. The defendants' attorneys said they will not base their defense on religious persecution or other First Amendment issues.
One of the witnesses to testify, former Black Hebrew Alvin Scott, 36, described how the Black Hebrews are organized. At the top is Ben Ami Carter, also known as Rabbi, who founded the group in Chicago in the mid-1960s and directs the sect from Dimona, Israel, a town in the Negev Desert that Black Hebrews regard as the "spiritual capital of the world."
Under Carter are the 12 Nacim, also called princes or apostles, one of whom is Brown, whose Hebrew name is Prince Asiel Ben Israel. Below them are the Sahreem, officials who run many of The Nation's outposts in this country, Israel, Ghana and Liberia.
Crown Brothers and Crown Sisters make up the next level in the hierarchy, and below them are the everyday members of the sect, called Brothers and Sisters or Saints.
The Black Hebrews, who trace their ancestry to the original 12 Tribes of Israel, believe that the American way of life oppresses blacks and that through salvation they can be "delivered" to Israel.
The Israeli government does not recognize the Black Hebrews as Jews and has refused to recognize the legitimacy of the group's settlements. Perhaps because of this enmity, Black Hebrews in this country are sometimes allied with the followers of Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan.
Prosecutors and Israeli officials have made estimates of the group's worldwide membership that range from a few thousand to 20,000.
The group teaches of a better life in Israel and regards Ben Ami Carter as the Black Moses. But Scott said living conditions in Israel were "very cramped" -- worse than in Black Hebrew houses in this country, where 30 to 35 persons often live communally -- and that sometimes there was not enough food.
Much of the money to support the sect's Israeli settlements came from items taken there from the United States, where, Scott said, they were purchased with worthless checks or fake credit cards.
Scott and Scarlett Smith, 33, also a former Black Hebrew, described the shopping sprees they went on as part of their preparation for being "delivered" to Israel.
Scott, a native of Kankakee, Ill., testified that one of the first things he was instructed to do when he joined the Black Hebrews in 1977 was to open checking accounts. He eventually opened three, and over a four-month period he wrote more than $40,000 in bad checks.
Other Black Hebrews told Scott what to buy, and his shopping list ranged from gold jewelry and expensive designer clothes and fabrics, always pure cotton, wool or silk -- "only pure, Hebrews wear nothing synthetic," he explained -- to everyday items such as deodorant.
"At first I was just scared," Scott said. He said he was told "what value it would be to The Nation, and that [a sect leader] would help me get out [go to Israel] earlier, help me get the things I needed and what others needed."
Smith, who grew up in San Antonio, testified that she was told to dress nicely when she went shopping in Dallas, where she lived with the Black Hebrews. She was told how to detect whether a special check verification system was being used. If she was asked to go to a store's credit department, Smith said, she was to leave the store.
Scott testified that many purchases were made on stolen or fake credit cards. He told the jury that several times he had delivered payments to a U.S. Postal Service employe who, he was told, took credit cards out of the mail before it was delivered.
But prosecutors contend that the major source of income for the alleged crime ring was stolen airline tickets. Some of the tickets were allegedly sold.
Scott, Smith and Warrena Bostic told the jury how they took airline flights on tickets provided by the Black Hebrews, tickets that sometimes bore the names of other persons. Their testimony was filled with descriptions of sect leaders traveling almost constantly among the various "extensions" of the sect in this country and overseas.
Scott and Smith testified that they frequently saw sect leader Warren Brown in Israel.
And Scott told the jury that he saw blank airline tickets being prepared and validated in a room of one of the Black Hebrew apartments in Chicago. Scott said he saw Brown there.
Bostic testified that while she lived in Liberia, a regular part of her job was to prepare airline tickets under the direction of a man she knew as Ben Kiel. Kiel's American name is Gerald Bethea, and he is among the nine persons on trial here.
Scott faces bad-check charges in Illinois, Smith was on probation for a passport violation, and Bostic pleaded guilty last week to conspiracy charges arising from the airline ticket theft and faces a possible five years in jail and a $10,000 fine.
In recounting her involvement with the Black Hebrews, Bostic said she moved here with her three children in July 1980 from her home in New Haven, Conn., to join the sect. For the first few months the four lived with more than 20 other sect members in a house at 1428 Buchanan St. NW. Bostic did not work.
But by March 1981, Bostic said, the group was having "money problems" and many of its members had to seek employment.
Bostic quickly found a job at Diplomat Travel Service as an office assistant, and she soon began training there to become a travel agent.
In September 1981, she was summoned to the sect's headquarters in Chicago, where she was photographed and members made several pieces of identification bearing the name Gail Stewart. One of the group's leaders talked to her about the possibility that she might be able to get some of the agency's blank "ticket stock."
On Dec. 16, 1981, Diplomat received a shipment of blank tickets, but they arrived too late for placement in the agency's bank deposit box. That night, Bostic said, she had several telephone conversations with Black Hebrew officials and was told what to do the next day. After a night of little sleep, Bostic said, she got up at 6 a.m. and shortly after 7 a.m. she picked up the tickets at Diplomat. The assistant to the president of Diplomat Travel testified that the theft has cost his company more than $85,000 and that some of the 400 tickets that were taken have not been used.
Accompanied by another Black Hebrew, Bostic said, she went to National Airport, where they boarded a shuttle for New York. About two hours after they checked into a New York motel, she said, she delivered the tickets to Yeriel.
After this testimony, Bostic stepped from the witness stand to point out to the jury James Stone, one of the defendants, as the man she knew as Yeriel.