Bigamy charges against West Texas sect leader Yisrayl Hawkins were dismissed Thursday after the head of the House of Yahweh pleaded no contest to four cases involving child-labor violations, the Callahan County attorney announced.
Hawkins, 74, was scheduled to go on trial Nov. 9 in Weatherford after 42nd District Judge John Weeks granted a change of venue from Callahan County. Hawkins' attorneys had argued that an impartial jury could not be seated there.
County Attorney Shane Deel said in a statement that Hawkins agreed to pay a $2,000 fine and serve 15 months of probation in each child-labor case.
Two factors contributed to the dismissal of charges, he said.
"First, the change of venue made the case financially impractical to try. Second, there were some substantial issues with the case and the statute of limitations," Deel said.
"While we literally have a mountain of evidence against Yisrayl Hawkins in relation to these cases, most of it dates back to before 2005. At that time, bigamy was a Class A misdemeanor with only a two-year limitations period. While I can make an argument about the continuing nature of the conduct, it is simply not worth the county's resources to pursue the case in Parker County with the necessary expenses that that will entail when the outcome is as uncertain as it is."
The Legislature made bigamy a felony crime in 2005. Last year, Deel charged Hawkins with four counts of promoting bigamy and one of practicing bigamy. The charges of violating child-labor laws by forcing children to work at the church's property are misdemeanors.
John Young, Hawkins' attorney, could not be reached to comment Thursday night.
Hawkins, a former Abilene police officer and mobile-home park owner whose real name is Buffalo Bill Hawkins, founded the House of Yahweh in 1980. He is believed to have more than 20 wives.
The church is headquartered on a 44-acre compound about 15 miles east of Abilene.
The church is believed to have several hundred members in West Texas, but it has gained followers around the world through satellite broadcasts of Hawkins' frequently apocalyptic sermons.
"He's nothing but a polygamist," his ex-wife Kay Hawkins said Thursday as she watched a television report on the charges being dropped. ". . .he's still a bigamist.
"Callahan County doesn't have as much money as Yisrayl Hawkins," she said. "That's why this happened."
Kay Hawkins says her ex-husband owns millions of dollars worth of real estate. "No one knows how much he has because you can't open the church's books," she said.
Kay Hawkins said she divorced Yisrayl Hawkins in 1993 after his secretary told her that he had married her.
The dismissal of the charges shocked Margo Hawkins, Yisrayl Hawkins' 36-year-old daughter, who left the House of Yahweh when she was 22. "It's a cult. They brainwash people," she said.