ALLEGAN, Mich. (WOOD) — July 4 marks the dark anniversary of when a mother who was part of a small religious cult beat her son to death in southern Allegan County.
Twelve-year-old John Yarbough and his mother Ethel, 33, lived in rural Grand Junction on the camp of the House of Judah led by “Prophet” William A. Lewis.
Lewis began gaining followers when he was working in Chicago in the 1960s as a radio preacher, claiming to be an Old Testament prophet. He called his followers “Black Hebrew Israelite Jews.”
“People don’t join groups that don’t make sense to them. So a particularly good salesman or salesperson can get you excited about something that you wouldn’t necessarily be excited about otherwise,” Megan Goodwin, co-director of the Bardo Institute for Religion and Public Policy, told News 8, explaining how cults form and grow.
As Lewis’ following grew, the group moved to Michigan.
LIFE AT THE CAMP
Lewis’ estimated 100 followers, many of whom were from Chicago, lived in mobile homes on the 22-acre camp in the area of Grand Junction, about 15 miles southwest of Allegan.
The camp was located about a quarter-mile back from the nearest paved road. The property was dotted with signs quoting biblical phrases and all the buildings and at least one car were painted with blue and white stripes.
Law enforcement knew the group to be quiet and secluded, according to the Grand Rapids Press which covered the case of John’s death extensively.
“Religion is constitutionally protected. So prosecuting abuse or even identifying the conditions of abuse that groups like this … there can be both a reluctance to get involved in those groups on the part of law enforcement,” Goodwin said.
Life at the camp was strict, requiring adherence to religious rules that called for the beating of members who disobeyed. The beatings, Lewis claimed, were justified because the scriptures allows for corporal punishment.
“We at the House of Judah, Black Hebrew Israelite Jews, try to raise our children according to the laws and commandments of the true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” Lewis told investigators at the South Haven state police post in 1983.
Everyone age 2 and older who didn’t follow the rules received a “whuppin,” according to Lewis. This could mean receiving two to 70 “licks” from a switch or a wooden board, called the “Big Mac” by adults in the cult.
Usually, parents were responsible for disciplining their children. If they didn’t, there was a backup system.
“The backup system was that (Lewis) would have one of the large guys (cult members) chastise” misbehaving children, Allegan County Deputy Medical Examiner Kenneth Kratzer testified during the trial for his death, the Press reported.
“You have to chastise your children to get to heaven,” Lewis reportedly told Allegan County Deputy Medical Examiner Kenneth Kratzer after the boy’s death.
Goodwin, the expert on cults, said patterns of abuse are most common in families and the closeness within the cults creates a family atmosphere.
“You will very often see a language of family emerge in cult situations … where it becomes an excuse for horrible, violent, exploitative, dehumanizing behaviors. Not all families but lots and lots of families,” she explained.
She said that family mindset gives way to excuses for the abusive patterns, with members rationalizing that “it’s just the way we are” though the behavior is horrific to outsiders.
“You can be aware that this is not OK, but if this is your family, if this is your purpose, it can be hard to imagine a space outside of that,” she said.
‘BE FRUITFUL AND MULTIPLY’
The camp had no shortage of children. As a closed community, the easiest way for Lewis to grow his congregation was to have followers born into the cult.
In an article published July 17, 1983, the Grand Rapids Press reported that Lewis prohibited birth control between House of Judah couples. While no legal marriages were recorded with the county, Lewis performed ceremonies linking men and women.
Former members told the Press that Lewis commanded his followers to “be fruitful and multiply” because “each time you have a child, it’s a blessing,” and they did.
In the four years leading up to John’s death, at least 26 babies were born to 16 women. That was estimated to be three times the rate of other Allegan County residents at the time.
With each new child, the mothers were charged $250 to $300 for midwife, fees which included a wooden “birthing stool” and a midwife. They had to provide their own baby clothes, diapers, pins and powder.
In addition to growing his followers, Lewis’ instructions to multiply meant increased monthly welfare payments. In 1983, the Allegan Department of Social Services determined that half of the families within the cult received Aid to Families with Dependent Children or other assistance. Ethel Yarbough was getting $330 every two weeks in benefits, the Grand Rapids Press reported. Her family, which included six children at the time of her son’s death, also received $240 a month in food stamps.
According to Lewis’ girlfriend’s daughter Sonya Anderson, cult members paid 10% of welfare earnings into a camp “collection,” paid road tithes to fix the roads, fees to cover the prophet’s public appearance, $300 per family for a van for the prophet, fees for wood, $5.50 per adults and $3 per children for weekend meals and more.
Over the years, Lewis changed, according to former member of the cult James Nelson, who testified as part of a plea deal in 1986. Lewis had “got this power-like thing,” and he had threatened to kill himself and members of the cult were scared to leave or “say anything,” Nelson said.
“The folks who wind up in these leadership positions don’t break bad because they’re in a cult. They have gravitated to spaces that let them exercise authority in abusive ways because that is who they are and that is what they want to do,” the cult expert explained to News 8.
U.S. Department of Justice Attorney Daniel Bell said during a trial in 1986 that being the cult leader was eventually not enough for Lewis. He “decided that he was not feared enough by his followers.”
Lewis eventually installed a whipping block. This is where beatings were held in front of adults and children, Bell said.
During the trial, child abuse expert Dr. Ray Helfer, a professor of pediatrics at Michigan State University, said that the beatings and threats caused the children to be subservient to the prophet.
“Children had no rights whatever; they were subject to the whims of the (prophet),” Bell claimed. Adults in the camp could escape — even if only with the “shirts on their backs” — but “children such as John Yarbough couldn’t leave. They had no choice.”
Two former members later testified that parents had to promise that if they left, their children would remain.
John had asked his mother if he could live with his grandmother in Missouri, she testified, but due to his grandmother’s age and health, he wasn’t allowed to go.
“His whole being, his whole attitude changed,” she said. “Although he had been a problem (before the beating) … at this time, he had become too much.”
She said when he didn’t get his way, he had a tendency to sulk, refuse to eat and deliberately defecate in his clothing.
“It’s really hard to leave an abusive relationship that is also one that your brain has coded as loving and often as necessary. Like the intensity of that relationship can make it feel important, maybe even safe,” the cult expert said.
THE FATAL BEATING
On June 29, 1983, John went on a lunch break from his work detail and didn’t return.
According to testimony from cult members Larry Branson and Theodore Jones, they found the boy and placed him in the cult’s homemade wooden stocks, immobilizing his head, hands and feet. He continued to struggle as they struck him 30 times with a 3- to 4-foot-long tree limb.
The Grand Rapids Press said both men testified that they didn’t tell his mother that they punished him.
Not knowing that he had already been hit 30 times, Ethel Yarbough, who was pregnant at the time, admitted in court that she beat her son several hours later. She was known for being “very faithful” in raising her kids, Lewis said, including regular beatings.
“She (Ethel Yarbough) said she didn’t want her kids to be burners or looters. So I gave her permission to have them whupped,” Lewis testified.
Cult member Celia Green testified that she witnessed John being “dragged” to the gymnasium on July 2, 1983. She testified that cult members were hitting his head with a fist and his back with a stick before he fell backward, hitting a freezer that was stored in the building.
During the trial, Ethel Yarbough admitted to hitting her son mildly “about four times” with a broomstick on July 3. She first told law enforcement that it was for refusal to eat but later testified that she wanted him to leave the family’s trailer to exercise. A doctor and detective later testified that she “tore up the bottom” of her son in the beating.
John was found dead in his bed in the early hours of July 4, 1983. Three cult members wrapped his body in a quilt, loaded him into a pickup truck and dropped him off at the South Haven Community Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Sunday on woodtv.com, News 8 looks back at the state and federal response to John’s death that led to convictions but did not spell the end for the cult.