2 Yahweh sect members buy up land

Abilene Reporter-News/September 27, 2003
By Loretta Fulton

Tax collectors, lawmen and landowners wanting to sell at a good price can't say enough kind things about the House of Yahweh.

The only people finding it tough to like the oddly named sect members are their neighbors.

A number of Callahan County landowners have sold their property either to House of Yahweh founder Yisrayl Hawkins or to another Hawkins who is affiliated with the House of Yahweh. Some of the remaining Callahan County residents are unhappy with the spread of Yisrayl Hawkins' kingdom and with former neighbors who sold land to sect members.

One couple who sold their country home to Yisrayl Hawkins has endured the verbal wrath of their former neighbors. The wife, who asked not to be identified for fear of more retribution, said the couple was offered a fair price and took it.

"If they (the neighbors) didn't want us to sell (to Hawkins), they should have bought it," she said.

The House of Yahweh is an Old Testament-based sect with headquarters on T&P Lane in Abilene and a 43.53-acre compound between Clyde and Eula in Callahan County.

It gained notoriety in 1996 when several hundred of its followers changed their last names to Hawkins. That was in honor of the sect's founder, Yisrayl Hawkins, who changed his name from Bill Hawkins after leaving the Abilene Police Department in 1977.

Besides changing their last name to "Hawkins," many sect members change their first names to an oddly spelled name, usually containing at least one "y," such as "Yahchanan" and "Debryah."

Since 1996, the group has come under scrutiny from cult watchers and relatives concerned about the welfare of its members. However, the House of Yahweh has not been in the news since the turn of the millennium, nearly four years ago.

Cult watchers were particularly concerned about religious groups doing something bizarre when the year 2000 arrived. Nothing noticeable happened at the House of Yahweh.

Shaul Hawkins, who fields questions from the public at the T&P Lane office, was mystified about the sudden new interest in the House of Yahweh. He said some followers who live elsewhere want to retire and move closer to the founder. So Yisrayl Hawkins is buying property and making it available to them.

"Yisrayl Hawkins is buying land that people have offered to sell," Shaul Hawkins said. "I'm wondering what the problem is."

'Keep to themselves'

The unhappy Callahan County residents who are not selling say they are concerned about the increased number of trailer homes popping up in the county, some with untidy surroundings. They don't have many complaints about the sect members themselves.

"They're not a problem," said Margaret Hoogstra, who lives near the compound. "They tend to keep to themselves."

Callahan County Sheriff Eddie Curtis said the only complaint he has heard concerns trash, and that problem was quickly remedied.

"I told them they had to haul it off, and they did," he said.

Several times a year, the House of Yahweh hosts religious festivals that draw hundreds of followers from across the nation. The increased traffic is a nuisance to neighbors, but Curtis said a sect member notifies him so additional officers can patrol.

"They always call us and tell us two or three weeks ahead of time," Curtis said.

Phillip Arnn, one of the sect's most dogged trackers, said he hasn't heard anything about the sect recently, other than reports of Yisrayl Hawkins' property purchases.

"He's just doing what he's always done - spending money hand-over-fist," said Arnn, chief staff researcher for Watchman Fellowship, which bills itself as "a ministry of Christian discernment, focusing on cults and new religious movements."

Arnn, who is based in Arlington, has kept an eye on the House of Yahweh for years and considers it a cult. Watchman Fellowship also classifies the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, as a cult.

One former Callahan County resident, Lonnie Wright, sold his land two years ago to a House of Yahweh member. He said House of Yahweh representative Robert Hawkins asked what he wanted for his land and house. Wright recalled saying he wanted $45,000, and Hawkins replied, "I'll go cut you a check right now."

The transaction didn't take place that quickly, but it did transpire in short order.

Wright said he hated leaving because he and his family had lived on the property since the early 1980s. But his wife had become increasingly uneasy living so close to the House of Yahweh compound, so they accepted the money and moved.

'They pay their bills'

One measure of growth in rural areas is the issuance of septic system permits. Steve Odom, Callahan County commissioner for Precinct 3, is responsible for issuing permits in the county and inspecting systems.

Since taking on the job Jan. 1, Odom said he has received one or two requests a month from a House of Yahweh member for a septic system. Odom said a tract must be at least one-half acre in size for a septic system to be installed. Most of the House of Yahweh requests are for a half-acre, which is suitable for a trailer house, he said.

Odom said he has heard a lot of unfavorable stories about sect members, but "haven't found any of them to be true."

House of Yahweh members also get high marks in the offices of property appraisers and tax collectors.

The Callahan County tax rolls carry 27 property listings for Yisrayl Hawkins totaling 239 acres. Some 58 more "Hawkins" are listed, although all may not be House of Yahweh members.

In addition to those listings, the House of Yahweh compound sits on 43.53 acres in Callahan County. Bun Barry, chief appraiser for the county, said no taxes are paid on buildings within the compound, which consists primarily of trailer homes and a house of worship.

Individual property owners outside the compound pay property taxes. Periodically, Robert Hawkins comes to Barry's office to check on House of Yahweh members, Barry said. If anyone is behind on taxes - a rarity - Robert Hawkins ensures they get caught up immediately, Barry said.

Barry said Yisrayl Hawkins and other House of Yahweh members are paying more for land than the market value, prompting many people to sell.

"What we're seeing is top dollar," Barry said.

Schools not affected

Some county residents have expressed concern over the Eula Independent School District losing tax money because of the House of Yahweh. That is an unfounded fear, said Richard Petree, chief appraiser for the Taylor County Appraisal District.

The Eula district extends about three miles into eastern Taylor County. Because the district lies in two counties, school officials can choose which county to use for appraisal services.

No property is taken off the Eula school rolls when a House of Yahweh member buys land, Petree said.

The Eula ISD has lost value in recent years, but Petree said this is because a gravel pit in the district lost $4 million in value, and Bandag Inc. lost $1 million. Bandag manufactures materials and equipment used in making retread tires.

The Eula ISD's taxable value is $114.9 million this year, down from $116.6 million last year. The value has increased from $104 million in 2000.

The school district's enrollment has not been affected by House of Yahweh children attending.

Superintendent Karen Kidd said the district has fewer than 10 House of Yahweh children among its 503 students in prekindergarten through the 12th grade. Only "a small number" of children from the House or Yahweh attend Clyde ISD, Superintendent Tony Reed said. The district has 1,487 students in prekindergarten through the 12th grade.

Kidd, the superintendent at Eula, said the only noticeable distinction among the children is they don't recite the pledges of allegiance to the Texas and U.S. flags as required this year by the state Legislature. Parents sign a form stating they do not want their children to recite the pledge, Kidd said.

Kidd said the House of Yahweh children interact well with classmates, but may lag in their schoolwork because they were previously home-schooled. That is often the case with home-schooled children who are not from House of Yahweh families, she said.

Some of the House of Yahweh property lies within the Abilene ISD, including the headquarters, at 1025 T&P Lane, said Petree, the chief appraiser. That property is tax-exempt.

The Web site for the Taylor County Central Appraisal District shows 110 listings under "Hawkins," including 51 for Yisrayl Hawkins. The House of Yahweh has five listings on the Web site. All but one, a frame house at 802 E.S. 11th St., are tax-exempt.

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