In hip-hop years, Sam Ferguson was geriatric. True, on that molasses-sticky August afternoon in 2009 as he whistled north on Florida's Turnpike, he was still three months shy of his 48th birthday. But years in the rap business are like time in a coal mine, especially when you came out of Carol City's drug-ridden '80s scene.
"P Man Sam," as everybody knew him, had outlived the thrill-ride highs of signing rappers such as Young & Restless and Distinguished Gentlemen to major-label deals. And he had outrun felony charges for coke, guns, and assault.
His tight-cropped hair was thinning at the temples, but his wide, white-toothed smile and friendly, deep-set eyes subtracted years. He knew he was lucky to be around.
Yahweh ben Yahweh
In fact, his luck seemed to be improving thanks to a startling rebirth as a journalist. Ten months earlier, Ferguson had scooped the hip-hop world by persuading Miami giant Rick Ross to admit in a magazine piece that he'd once worked as a Florida prison guard. (An embarrassing revelation considering his image as a street-hardened drug dealer.)
The scoop earned Ferguson his own profile in Hip Hop Weekly as "The Man Behind the Admission."
It also garnered threats: "Ferguson is a liar. He's an informant, he's a rat, he's a bitch. Get at me in the streets, nigga — you know how we play. This shit is about to get deeper than rap," Ross blustered.
All that press had bought him a new national gig too: Miami president of Don Diva Magazine, a well-read hip-hop monthly.
Ferguson was so focused on his new career that he likely didn't even notice when a black-tinted car with clear taillights roared up to the passenger side of his burgundy sedan near the Griffin Road exit. It slowed to match his speed.
The driver's window slid down, and a steely gun barrel popped out. Before Ferguson could react, bullets peppered his car, piercing the shatter-proof glass and thudding into his body.
P Man Sam slumped over the wheel. His car slammed into the median, spun across the fast lane, and skidded to a halt.
By the time an ambulance had weaved through the backed-up traffic, Ferguson was dead.
That was just before 2 p.m. Within hours, the Internet buzzed with speculation: Had Ross ordered a revenge hit? Or had another rapper? Did Ferguson's rough past finally catch up with him?
But as detectives followed those labyrinthine clues, they instead discovered vestiges of a violent cult thought long dead: that of race-baiting ghetto savior Yahweh ben Yahweh, who 20 years earlier had been convicted of conspiring to murder 14 people.
This past February, prosecutors charged Adolphus Symonette, who as a child was raised in Yahweh's Temple of Love. He had begun running a criminal enterprise that included fraud, kidnapping, and Ferguson's murder.
But the waif-thin 28-year-old, who had virtually no criminal record before the indictment, says he didn't do it. The true criminal, he contends, is his charismatic uncle, Maurice, a fiery conservative activist better known as Michael the Black Man who was accused of two gruesome Yahweh murders in the '90s and has since been charged with — but never convicted of — four other felonies while starting his own bizarre religious enterprise.
"Adolphus is just telling you what he thinks will get him out of prison," Maurice responds to his nephew's claims.
Indeed there's no direct evidence tying the uncle to any of the crimes. But smokescreen or not, Adolphus Symonette's background as well as his defense throw back the curtain on a frightening reality: the strange, bloody legacy of the late Yahweh ben Yahweh lives on in the Magic City.
Maurice Woodside was 21 years old when he first met fiery preacher Hulon Mitchell Jr. around 1980. Maurice's younger brother Ricardo had already joined Mitchell's flock. "He got me by just walking up and saying, 'All white people are the Devil,'?" says Maurice. "I was a real militant race warrior right then, so I said, 'Whoa! Yeah, that's right!'?"
Over the next decade, Mitchell would transform from Afro-wearing black militant to murderous, robe-clad cult leader Yahweh ben Yahweh. The Oklahoman would demand his enemies heads be displayed on spikes and eventually would be sentenced to 20 years in the federal pen for conspiring in murders that included a gruesome beheading.
Ricardo and Maurice Woodside would play a big role in the rise and fall of the cult. The brothers grew up in a tight Carol City family, raised by their mother, Johnnie Simmons. Maurice says his father was Al Symonette, an Overtown architect who once owned a historic club called Knight Beat that hosted everyone from Aretha Franklin to B.B. King. (Maurice also claims his father is related to Sir Roland Symonette, the independent Bahamas' first prime minister, whose face now graces the island's $50 note.)
Al Symonette wasn't around much, but he passed on a love of R&B and jazz. Maurice and Ricardo, who is two years younger and has a different father, began singing together as kids and later formed a group called the Cool Dudes. They were "very, very close," Ricardo would later testify.
"We were very involved with each other and kept each other laughing all the time," he said in court. "In our neighborhood, [my mother] was like the big sister... She took all the kids to the beach."
But by the time Maurice hit his late teens, life in racially charged Miami was weighing on him. Mariel-era Cuban arrivals were changing the city's complexion, and race riots wracked its street corners. Although he was raised Christian, he started experimenting with Buddhism and Islam. After watching the film based on Alex Haley's book Roots, he migrated to Black Panther-style militancy.
"I was shocked and I was upset, so I became a warrior against the whites," Maurice says. "I went insane." Ricardo passed through a similar radicalization.
They were exactly the kind of disillusioned, angry, young black men Mitchell was looking for. Born in 1935 in small, segregated Enid, Oklahoma, the future cult leader was the oldest of 15 kids fathered by a Pentecostal preacher. A brilliant orator, the younger Mitchell had a fiery presence and mesmerizing blue eyes. He earned a master's degree in economics in Atlanta before reinventing himself, first as a Muslim, then as a Christian preacher, and then as a black activist named "Brother Love."
When he landed in black Miami in the late '70s, many citizens welcomed him as a Malcolm X-style fighter. "He was a bright guy, and a lot of people thought he could help turn these neighborhoods around," recalls Trudy Novicki, an attorney who later prosecuted him.
In 1982, the brothers fell under Mitchell's spell and moved into his fortified Liberty City headquarters; six months later, their mother and two other siblings joined them. Soon a half-brother named Ruben also joined, bringing along a beautiful Bahamian wife and a baby boy named Adolphus. Yahweh renamed the child "Solomon Israel."
From the outside, the group seemed good for the neighborhoods where they settled. Followers helped Yahweh renovate dilapidated homes, open grocery stores, and start clinics. But Mitchell changed. He proclaimed himself the Messiah and gathered a "Circle of 10" — a muscled group of followers armed with six-foot wooden "staffs of life" that were used to beat dissidents. He began controlling every aspect of his devotees' lives.
Inside the Temple of Love, worshippers slept on hard beds with no mattresses and were often limited to one daily meal of rice, beans, and water; women "shared" husbands, who could have sex only in a communal "conjugal room" with Yahweh's permission; they all worked 18-hour days for no pay in the cult's printing shops, stores, and offices. "You had to dedicate your life totally to Yahweh," Ricardo later testified.
Beginning as early as 1981, for a select group called his "Death Angels," that dedication included torture and murder. A follower named Aston Green who argued with Yahweh was beaten to a bloody pulp until semiconscious and then driven into the Everglades and slowly decapitated with a dull machete.
Two years later, a karate champ from Louisiana named Leonard Dupree was cracked over the head with a tire iron, kicked in the groin, and gored through the eyes with a sharpened stick.
White drifters were regularly killed as an initiation rite and their ears given to Yahweh as trophies, witnesses would later testify.
The Miami Herald, which won a Pulitzer Prize for Yahweh coverage, in the mid-'80s began chronicling the cult's links to the murders. But it was the Woodside brothers' falling-out — as well as Maurice's alleged role in the killings — that ultimately helped destroy the sect.
The brothers' feud apparently began in 1985, when their mother was diagnosed with cancer. Yahweh refused to let her seek medical help, prosecutors later said, instead prescribing "vegetables, nuts, and herbs" and his personal prayers. Without chemotherapy, she suffered an agonizing, protracted death.
Ricardo was horrified. He left the cult for good after her funeral.
Maurice kept the faith.
Before he picks up the phone on the other side of a smudged Plexiglas window spiderwebbed with key-scrawled graffiti, Adolphus Symonette carefully wipes the earpiece and mouthpiece with a tissue. He has delicate, almost feminine almond eyes and frizzy hair grown long into a ponytail. In the musty confines of the 12-story, concrete Palm Beach County Jail, he articulately unspools an almost unbelievable conspiracy that he contends landed him here.
"All this goes right back to Maurice," Adolphus says, sadly shaking his head. "I never should have trusted my uncle."
He never wanted to have anything to do with the man his mom warned was a "con man and a snake," he says. But the two have something in common: They're among the few Miamians who fondly remember Yahweh ben Yahweh's Temple of Love.
Granted, Adolphus was just a baby when he moved in. His memories are mostly fuzzy: "feast days" of huge spreads of food with music, white robes, and Bible classes.
But the three or four years Adolphus spent at the temple were about the only time his family stayed together. His dad, Ruben, has a history of drug problems and a lengthy felony arrest sheet. His mom, Laverne, never secured legal papers to live in the United States and suffered mental health problems to boot.
Life under Yahweh's strict control actually helped his parents, Adolphus says. After Yahweh's arrest, when Adolphus was 8 years old, the family left the temple and his mom and dad separated. Adolphus went to live with his grandmother, Sarah, who raised him and two of his brothers, Rufie and Alex, in Liberty City.
As a kid, Adolphus was so slight — and so fond of wearing a floppy blue ski cap — that everyone began calling him "Smurf." The name sticks to this day. "Smurf was always the smart kid, the one who looked out for the rest of us," says Rufie, who's one year younger. "He's a small guy, so he couldn't really be out there on the streets. He had to use his brain."
He was smart enough to get into Design & Architecture Senior High in the Design District — one of the nation's top high schools, according to US News & World Report — where he learned drafting and technical drawing. While a lot of kids on his block spent nights playing basketball, Adolphus was a bookworm.
"He was kind of a pretty boy, this don't-want-to-get-his-nails-dirty type of dude," says Amber Green, his best friend in high school who is now a model in Tampa. "He came from a really tough situation, but he respected women, he respected other people."
Before Adolphus's junior year, a school cop caught him with pot. Around the same time, his mom moved back to Miami with a well-off boyfriend. They decided he'd benefit from a stint at Bay Point, a disciplinary school.
After six months there, he moved to Krop Senior High and began living with his mom. Soon Uncle Maurice called with an offer. If Adolphus came to his office in North Miami a few times a week, he would sign off on his work papers, a requirement of his probation for the marijuana charge.
Adolphus had run into his uncle on and off over the years, but they had never been close. "Adolphus respected Maurice," Green says. "But I have great judgment in people, and I always warned him to stay away from that guy."
She wasn't the only one. Adolphus's mom proclaimed that if she caught him with Maurice, she'd kick him out of the family home.
But his uncle's offer was too good to pass up. Adolphus moved in a few months before graduating from high school.
Maurice Woodside — now 51 years old, with a dark beard and designer sunglasses — grins and snakes his head side to side to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." He sits at a keyboard in a fluorescent-lit room. His hair is frosted on top and braided in the back, and he wears a bright, baggy polo shirt. Then he turns off the music. "It's trouble for the Democrats, who are the Confederate Rebels," he says, his cadence rising like a Baptist preacher's. "I want to save black people from Democrats, who started the KKK. They are the original discriminating racists who started the Ku Klux Klan, who started Jim Crow and were the slave masters."
The rambling, hourlong speech, uploaded to his personal site — michaeldefeatssatan.com — last October, is a snapshot of the strange theology Maurice has been preaching since Yahweh's empire crumbled and he avoided prosecution for two of the Messiah's murders. In the 20 years since, the devoted follower has become a leader himself, a Tea Party-courting racial apocalyptic named Michael the Black Man who has earned infamy for a spate of increasingly bizarre stunts.
Maurice's transformation began November 7, 1990, when the Temple of Love was shuttered for good. That day, federal agents arrested Yahweh and 16 of his followers — including Ricardo and Maurice Woodside — and charged them with racketeering and conspiracy in 14 murders and a firebombing.
Ricardo, estranged from his brother and Yahweh's temple since his mother's death, became a key government witness, quickly agreeing to serve five years in prison and testify against Yahweh and Maurice.
Ricardo said in court that in 1981, his brother had helped beat Aston Green unconscious and accompanied the group that beheaded him in the Glades; two years later, Maurice had delivered the coup de grâce to karate champ Leonard Dupree by inserting a sharpened stick into his eyeball, Ricardo testified. Both brothers had also attempted to kill another wayward follower with "long knives," Ricardo claimed, but that man escaped.
Maurice, meanwhile, told jurors that he considered Yahweh "the Messiah" and that he'd never seen any violence in the temple.
When Ricardo took the stand, Maurice burst into tears and shouted, "You are going to lie on me! You are going to kill me! I'm your brother." He later testified in his own defense, literally singing a song in his silky vibrato and then telling jurors: "I am like a sheep, that's what I am. I am not a warrior."
After a six-month trial, the jury convicted Yahweh on 14 charges of murder conspiracy. But Maurice and six other codefendants walked. Richard Scruggs, who prosecuted the case along with Novicki, says he has "no doubt" Maurice was involved in the crimes. "It was an acquittal by pity," he says. "Woodside had one of the worst criminal defenses I'd ever seen."
Maurice, who legally changed his last name to Symonette — his father's surname — soon after his acquittal to distance himself from the case, declined to meet in person but spoke at length by phone about his past and his relationship with his nephew. He says he was innocent of those crimes — and so was Yahweh.
"His conviction was purely political," Maurice says. "Yahweh had decided to start supporting Republicans, and the Democrats were very frightened about that... I never did any of that. They made my own brother say those things through threats and lies."
Maurice had to regroup after the trial, so he restarted his singing career, touring with ex-Miami Vice star Philip Michael Thomas — who was trying to launch a musical career that quickly fizzled — and playing solo jazz shows at small clubs around town.
In 1995, Maurice sued a Palm Island landowner, claiming she wouldn't sell him a mansion simply because he was black. The owner, Mary Jean Sassoon, responded that Maurice had stopped paying a $3,000 monthly lease. A federal judge sided with Sassoon and tossed the case; a separate civil suit against the island's homeowners association and the Miami Beach Police Department (whose officers had barged into the house and threatened him, Maurice claimed) was dismissed in 1998.
Maurice later established headquarters at a $900,000, two-story, yellow mansion on the Intracoastal on NE 165th Street in North Miami Beach. At a $400,000, dilapidated, old house on South River Road in Opa-locka, he installed a towering radio antenna. (While trying to buy that house, he filed a quickly dismissed, handwritten complaint in federal court claiming the homeowner was stalling a sale because of "discrimination against the Yahweh religion.")
Maurice began throwing weekly parties for neighborhood kids at the houses. He'd play R&B, and they'd ride Jet Skis and play basketball. He'd also preach. "I told everyone: 'You can't smoke weed here, and you can't fight,'" he says. "It was a good, godly place to relax."
He also invented a new persona: Michael the Black Man, an anti-liberal, anti-gay preacher. He built a strange website, michaeldefeatssatan.com, where he posts videos of his sermons alongside old photos of Yahweh ben Yahweh and a pledge to "vindicate" his old leader. He now goes by Michael instead of Maurice.
Before the 2000 elections, he began broadcasting his religious tirades against Democrats on a pirate radio frequency, 104.1, beamed from the Opa-locka house. Between jazz and funk songs, he ranted against Al Gore and Jesse Jackson.
He burst into the national spotlight during the most recent presidential campaign, when Barack Obama spoke at the BankUnited Center on September 19, 2008. Michael and a gang of followers grabbed seats in the upper deck, unfurled banners that read "KKK," and screamed about Obama being in the Ku Klux Klan. The future president chuckled and said, "See ya!" as security escorted them out.
Michael and his followers were extolled on Fox News. Soon they were invited to Tea Party gatherings from South Florida to Georgia, where Michael appeared in photos with conservatives such as then-Senate candidate Marco Rubio and House hopeful Allen West.
But echoes of the violence from his days in Yahweh's cult followed. On September 15, 2008, a 25-year-old gunman named Taytreon Edwards charged Michael and his followers as they boarded a bus headed to a protest in Mississippi. Edwards blasted at them with an AR-15, grazing Michael's head and wounding a follower in the arm.
Michael told anyone who would listen that "Obama ordered the hit." (Edwards was later convicted of trying to rob Michael and his followers at gunpoint. No tie to the president was ever found.)
If you believe Adolphus, that was just the tip of Michael's lunacy, which looks a lot like that of Yahweh ben Yahweh. When the nephew moved into a small upstairs bedroom in his uncle's North Miami headquarters midway through his senior year at Krop, he joined a group called BOSS — Brothers of a Superior Status. "The idea is that black men are the real chosen people," Adolphus claims. "They stand above everyone else."
The 20 or so men who lived rent-free in the various houses had to gather every day to listen and cheer during sermons that Michael sometimes taped and uploaded to his website. In a stuffy room where Michael had a wall-size doctorate in theology pasted up, the meetings started with men chanting an oath over a soft jazz riff: "One God, one mind, one love, one action."
"He preaches the same thing, every day, the same thing over and over," Adolphus says. "He brainwashes you, basically. You forget what day of the week it is. You forget what else you're supposed to be doing."
Michael strongly disputes his nephew's description of the group. He says the men in the room — who, in filmed videos, echo his teachings with regular chants of "Yes, sir!" — are simply fellow religious travelers who agree with his interpretation of the Bible. "Yahweh showed me the path, but the Bible is my guide," Michael says. "I don't have 'followers.' I'm not a leader. I don't know where Adolphus got all this stuff."
In the sermons posted online and broadcast on his pirate station, Michael's messages are consistent: One-third of all black women are "jezebels" trying to destroy the world (chief among them: Oprah). Democrats are secretly the KKK and trying to destroy black men. And gays are abhorrent.
Adolphus stayed in the North Miami house on and off until 2008, he says. But he was upset about the Obama incident and moved to an aunt's home in Deerfield Beach. "I had no idea what was coming," he says.
What happened was this, prosecutors say: Less than a year later, Adolphus contracted three 20-something men to kidnap Michael's 25-year-old son, Yachin Parham, beat him bloody, and warn him that "this is what happens when you fuck with King Solomon." Adolphus's nickname was King Solomon, the feds say.
Eight months after the beating, on December 23, 2009, prosecutors claim, Adolphus was driving a Lexus in Ives Estates, just south of the Broward County line, when he fired an assault rifle four times at a man named Samuel Howard IV, wounding him in the stomach.
Soon he was arrested, and during the year that followed, prosecutors piled on the charges. First came attempted murder in state court for the attack on Howard. Next the feds nailed him for what they called a "fraudulent mortgage scheme." The indictment claims he directed three men to recruit straw buyers who would snatch up homes, fake mortgage documents, flip the houses, and pocket the loan money. The kidnapping of Michael's son was an attempt to "intimidate" anyone threatening their crime spree.
Then, this past February 22, the feds charged that Adolphus had ordered the killing of Sam Ferguson on the Turnpike last August, plus shot at four other men, who are identified only by initials. No motive is stated in court papers.
Prosecutors won't talk much about the case, but Adolphus says it's a setup. He contends Michael persuaded his son Yachin to go to the feds with the nearly 2-year-old story of his beating (a beating that was really inspired by an old neighborhood fight, Adolphus says). He adds that Michael was the main witness to Howard's shooting. Finally, he says, the "King Solomon" nickname was just a joke.
"When a jury hears the real truth, they're going to have a hard time believing these charges," Adolphus says.
Michael, with some justification, describes all of Adolphus's claims against him as the fruit of blind desperation. But since his acquittal on the murder accusations with the Yahweh cult, Michael has amassed far more claims of malfesance than his nephew, who had nothing but the marijuana case on his record before the indictments.
Among the criminal allegations against Michael, none of which has been proven:
• In 1997, he was charged with grand theft auto, but the case wasn't prosecuted.
• In 2006, he was booked for allegedly trying to board an Atlanta-bound Delta flight with a loaded .32-caliber firearm in his carry-on bag. Prosecutors eventually dropped the case.
• The same year, he was charged with threatening a police officer. "I wish you would arrest me... I'll cost you your job," he told a Miami Beach cop who searched him and found a fake ID. The case was later dropped.
• In September 2009, Bal Harbour cops caught him driving a purportedly stolen car with a Taurus Millennium handgun on the front seat. Again, the case was dropped.
• In July last year, police initially told reporters that Michael and his 23-year-old son, Jeremiah, fired AK-47s into the water behind their North Miami Beach home in an attempt to intimidate two swimmers who had climbed onto their boat. But only Jeremiah was accused of aggravated assault. That charge is pending.
Michael is adamant that he lives cleanly. "I don't smoke. I don't drink. I don't support any kind of activity that goes against what God asks us to do," he says. "You can check my record. I've never been convicted of anything."
A man Michael calls "a close friend" and business partner, Alfred Davis, can't make the same claim. The 36-year-old last month was charged with felony grand theft. In 2004, he was found guilty of federal bank fraud and served 33 months in prison.
Several firms listing Michael as a registered agent include Davis as a co-owner, including Boss Group, Inc. and Boss Title, Inc. In court records, Davis lists Michael's North Miami headquarters as his home address.
In the current case against Davis, prosecutors say he recruited a straw buyer named Brittany Waldon and transferred a Deerfield Beach home to her via a forged mortgage document and a quitclaim deed. Then Davis took out a new $240,000 loan and pocketed the cash. He planned to flip the house to a new straw buyer while Waldon filed for bankruptcy to stall foreclosure.
Davis couldn't be reached for comment.
Though Adolphus blames his uncle for setting him up, none of the allegations against Michael or Davis clears Adolphus of the crimes he's charged with. Indeed, three accomplices have already agreed to plead guilty and testify against the onetime Yahweh cult member.
The men likely don't know much, though, about the most serious allegation against their former boss: Sam Ferguson's murder on Florida's Turnpike.
Before his death, the hip-hop journalist had been working closely with Michael on Don Diva Magazine events. Michael adds they had been friends since high school. "Sam had the biggest heart of anyone I know," he says. "He saved me once in a nightclub when I was about to get killed in a fight. I loved Sam."
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Michael says he has "heard some theories" about why Adolphus wanted Ferguson dead, but won't talk about them. "That will all come out in court," he says.
Even if they square off in federal court this summer, both men will still have one odd thing in common: They believe Yahweh ben Yahweh got a raw deal 20 years ago.
"I never saw anything violent in the temple," Adolphus says. "I believe he taught us a lot of good things."
Michael sounds a similar note. "Really, all I'm doing right now is trying to save everyone. Because I believe God is going to kill us all soon for how we're living," he says. "I'm using what Yahweh taught me and what the Bible tells me to try to save the Earth. Not to mention myself."