MIAMI -- They are disenchanted idealists and true believers. Most are sons of the working class who saved their middle-class dreams for the "Black Messiah."
For him, they gave up money, jobs, family. They listened spellbound as he preached brotherhood and retribution. They believed with such loyalty that they allegedly killed for Yahweh Ben Yahweh, the leader of Miami's Temple of Love.
"They were his group who would, without question, do whatever he told them to, including killing people," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Scruggs.
Sixteen members of the Yahweh Nation, including its leader, are awaiting trial on charges that they conspired to murder 14 people and hurl firebombs at concrete-block houses in Delray Beach. They were indicted in November after a four-year investigation of crimes that took place between 1981 and 1986.
The suspects' biographies are a tale of broken dreams, shattered families, disillusionment and a search for pride. Often, their only real bond is with Yahweh Ben Yahweh, a man whose 2,000 followers believe he is the son of God.
The oldest indicted follower is Richard Ingraham, 48. He changed his name to Job Israel. Seven times a day, he faces east with outstretched hands and prays to Yahweh.
For 11 years, Israel, a New York City native, ran the Yahweh beauty shop in Liberty City. He marketed Yahweh baby shampoo and Yahweh cocoa butter body lotion.
In court, Israel declared himself indigent after prosecutors charged that he had crushed a Yahweh dissenter's head with a tire jack. "It's God's will," Israel said of his arrest in November.
The youngest suspect is Michael Mathis, 24, accused in the 1986 Delray Beach firebombing. Like many indicted followers, he grew up among the working-class poor. His parents struggled on modest wages to provide for nine children.
In 1984, he dropped out of school. Influenced by a friend, Mathis stopped by the temple to ask about Bible scriptures. He "wanted something to believe in more than himself." He found the group's regimented lifestyle a challenge, said his lawyer, Ron Polk.
For Mathis and other indicted followers, the Yahweh sect seemed "to address many of the problems that so many black people in America feel," said Wendell Graham, attorney for another of the suspects.
Eight of the suspects have criminal records.
Some of their police records list rebellious acts, such as rioting and disorderly conduct. Others list violent acts, such as assault and resisting arrest.
Two of the suspects never really made an educated choice to join the Yahwehs. Maurice Woodside, 31, and a brother, Ricardo, 29, followed their mother, Johnnie Simmons, into the group. Hebrew teachings made the mother feel better, she once said. But Yahweh's special herbs couldn't cure her cancer. She died.
Ricardo grew disenchanted, friends said. He left the group with a younger brother. Maurice, known as Mikael, stayed with a younger sister.
As their loyalty to Yahweh grew, many of the suspects effectively cut ties to outside relatives.
They became their own "human family on Earth," as Yahweh called it, building the "nation" together. Yahweh had them believing in a new world order without possessions, savings and personal bank deposits.
They wore white, color of the saints of God. "He that overcometh the white man, the same shall be clothed in white raiment," Yahweh told them. "You shall not shave the hair of your face," he said, so they grew beards and kept their hair in tiny braids.
For the outside world, they smiled broadly and spoke softly. They said they read the Bible, learned Hebrew, sang happy songs and studied marketing and computers. They said Yahweh preached the "moral law": no drugs, no alcohol, no smoking.
Prosecutors said Yahweh Ben Yahweh instilled fear in disciples and squelched dissent through public humiliation and beatings. He controlled everything, said Scruggs, the assistant U.S. attorney, from the food people ate to the place they lived to the money they made to the hours they worked to the amount of sleep they got.
Most of the indicted followers couldn't give federal magistrates a confirmed address, a record of employment or evidence of property or assets. All entered not-guilty pleas or stood mute to the charges.