Six Washington area women, all members of the Black Hebrews religious sect, were convicted yesterday by a federal jury here of conspiracy and aiding and abetting wire fraud in connection with a scheme to obtain welfare benefits illegally for one of the women.
The trial, one of two being heard in U.S. District Court involving members of the Black Hebrews, attracted an unusual amount of attention after Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Calif.) testified as a character witness for Darlene Wilson, who prosecutors said was the leader of the scheme.
Dymally testified that he did not see anything irregular about members of the sect using fraudulently obtained passports to visit Israel, prompting a series of sharp questions from presiding Chief U.S. District Judge Aubrey E. Robinson Jr.
Although many supporters and members of the Black Hebrew group often filled the courtroom -- prompting extra security yesterday -- the spectators present when the verdict was read were mostly court personnel and other lawyers.
Five of the defendants -- the sixth was not present in the courtroom -- sat quietly and without expression as the jury foreman announced that all six had been found guilty of the seven counts with which each was charged. Wilson, 35, who has been jailed since she was arrested nearly a year ago, embraced another defendant before she was escorted from the courtroom by a U.S. marshal.
The jury completed its deliberations in eight hours, in contrast to the jury in the second trial, which is in its seventh week of deliberating the case of nine Black Hebrews charged with operating a multimillion-dollar crime ring.
Also convicted yesterday were Gloria Denson, 32, of Temple Hills; Rosalind Wood, 37, of 7500 Glenside Dr., Takoma Park; Mary Adams, 35, of 1410 Oak St. NW; Hope Elliott, 34, of 7500 Glenside Dr., Takoma Park, and Sylvia Bumbry, of 556 Varnum St. NW.
Each of the women faces a maximum prison sentence of 35 years and a fine of $1.75 million.
Denson did not arrive to hear the jury's verdict, but appeared later before Robinson. Denson said that she had arrived home late from her job as an all-night cashier at a Hillcrest Heights gas station and that she could not be reached at her home because the telephone had been disconnected.
Robinson allowed all except Wilson to remain free pending sentencing, which he said he would set later, but ordered Denson to report by telephone each weekday to court officials.
William Becker, attorney for Elliott, said he was "disappointed by the conclusiveness of the verdict." Other attorneys said they had no comment. None of the jurors would talk about their decision with reporters.
Three of the women convicted yesterday, Wilson, Denson and Wood, are among 17 Black Hebrews charged with conspiracy and wire fraud in connection with an alleged scheme to defraud MCI and other long distance telephone companies by charging toll calls to stolen credit card numbers.
The three cases, and two others, stem from a lengthy FBI investigation of the Chicago-based religious group, which traces its origins to the 12 original Hebrew tribes. The bulk of the evidence in the two cases that have been presented comes from court-approved wiretaps of several Black Hebrew residences.
According to the indictment and testimony presented during the trial, the scheme centered on Wilson's attempt to obtain welfare benefits for herself and four children from Montgomery County, and later Prince George's County.
As a part of the plan, Elliott allowed Wilson -- who actually lived at a Black Hebrew communal house in Northeast Washington -- to use Elliott's Takoma Park address when applying for welfare payments for herself and four children.
The other women helped Wilson falsify medical data and school records for the children and carry out the plan.
Although Wilson has four children, fathered by Gerald Bethea, a defendant in the other Black Hebrews case that is being deliberated, they were not in this country when Wilson applied for the benefits.
Bethea and two other male Black Hebrews also are charged in that case in connection with the welfare fraud scheme.
Assistant U.S. Attorney John Stevens, who prosecuted the case, said the women never actually received any money as a result of their efforts.