ALLEGAN COUNTY, MI – After self-professed prophet William A. Lewis escaped conviction in the 1983 beating death of a child at his House of Judah compound in rural Allegan County, FBI agent Gene Debbaudt sought out a federal civil-rights prosecutor to go after the cult leader and his lieutenants.
Call it a cowboy streak, or a quest for justice. Debbaudt showed up in Ann Arbor, where the prosecutor, Susan King, was trying an unrelated case.
“He said, ‘You have to do something about this case,’” King recalled.
“It was not at the time typical for an FBI agent to do that in a slavery case. This one was definitely different from the rest. Legally complicated, with the religious overtones, and by the facts the victims were in the custody of their parents.”
It required King to mount a precedent-setting case - one that showed you could enslave a child, even if they were still in the custody of their parents.
King, along with Daniel Bell, successfully tried Lewis and others on slavery charges, centered on the July 4, 1983, killing of John Yarbough, 12.
Defense attorneys said the government brought federal charges against Lewis and his followers only because state charges didn’t stick.
Prosecutors said Lewis created a “climate of fear,” with followers brutally beaten for supposed transgressions. In Yarbough’s case, he was watching TV instead of cleaning out the trailer of a former tenant. The young boy was beaten to death, his body thrown in a pickup and taken to a local hospital.
In the early aftermath of John's death, three House of Judah member were convicted in state court. Ethel Yarbough, the boy’s mother, was sentenced to four to 15 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter. Two others were sentenced to one year in jail after pleading guilty to child cruelty.
But it was the federal case that carved the legal milestone: Lewis and six members of the cult were found guilty of enslaving children.
The sentences, however, were light, ranging from one to three years. Lewis received three years.
Former U.S. Attorney John Smietanka, now a private attorney, said the House of Judah differed from a Nazi concentration camp in Poland only in its scale.
“This is Auschwitz in Allegan,” he said. “John Yarbough’s death was a very, very, very brutal, torturous death.”