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Witness's past catches up to him: '80s cult killer gets 'third strike' term for passing bad checks

By Peter Hecht
Bee Staff Writer
(Published Jan. 13, 2001)

The heinous deeds and bizarre, once-hidden past of Robert Rozier formally caught up with him Friday.

After a spirited, emotion-filled hearing in a Placerville courtroom, an El Dorado County judge sentenced the former Miami cult executioner and protected federal witness to 25 years to life in state prison, concluding one of the strangest bounced-check cases ever.

Rozier, a former Cordova High School and University of California, Berkeley, football star, was arrested for passing bad checks nearly two years ago in a quiet, wooded Cameron Park subdivision where he was living anonymously as Robert Rameses -- his secret identity under the federal witness protection program.

On Friday, Superior Court Judge Eddie T. Keller -- saying that "words like depraved, vicious, ruthless and callous come to mind" -- sentenced Rozier to the maximum term under California's "three strikes" sentencing law for bouncing 27 checks totaling $2,200.

In reality, the sentencing and the intense arguments in court had little to do with bounced checks.

Rather, they had to do with the fact that the same man who owned a Sacramento auto-detailing business, worked odd construction jobs in El Dorado County and regularly stopped in for drinks at a roadside tavern in Coloma was also an admitted seven-time murderer.

In a Florida plea bargain, Rozier had pleaded guilty to four murders and confessed to three others but won a reduced prison term for testifying against Miami sect leader Yahweh Ben Yahweh and his cult, blamed for at least 23 murders and a series of firebombings in the 1980s.

As Rozier watched intently Friday, defense attorney William T. Yankey waved his arms emotionally and argued that his client never should have been subjected to sentencing under the "three strikes" law because of the service he provided the U.S. government in risking his life to testify against the Miami cult.

At one point, Yankey pounded on his own chest to show he was wearing a bulletproof vest as he argued that Rozier's life is in danger because he betrayed the Yahweh Ben Yahweh order. Rozier, who was guarded by four courtroom deputies, wore a loose, orange jail smock -- but no flak jacket.

Finally, Yankey argued that Rozier was a reformed man who long ago had been brainwashed into killing by Yahweh Ben Yahweh, a charismatic cult leader who exhorted his followers to seek retribution for 400 years of persecution of African Americans. He even likened Rozier to Lieutenant William Calley, the officer -- who now lives freely -- who was convicted in the My Lai massacre for killing of hundreds of civilians in Vietnam.

"This man (Rozier) has been called the 'poster child' for three strikes. But I tell you, you will not find another poster child who testified to close down the most evil cult in America," Yankey said. "You won't find a poster child who put his life in danger."

Prosecutor Paul Sutherland, however, said, "You can't find a more appropriate candidate to receive 25 years to life" than Rozier.

After four murder convictions and a plea bargain that had helped him escape the death penalty in Florida, Sutherland said Rozier thought nothing of committing felony check fraud. He had knowingly written checks on a closed account for items that included brake shoes, groceries, video rentals and his bar tab at the Coloma Club on Highway 49.

"They had Ol' Sparky (the electric chair in Florida) waiting and he (Rozier) talked them out of that," Sutherland said. "He was so brazen, so arrogant, so certain that the law didn't apply to him."

As he pronounced sentencing, Keller lectured Rozier, telling him he had blown an unbelievable opportunity for freedom after serving 10 years in prison for his murder convictions.

"It was probably one of the greatest gifts, Mr. Rameses. You were home free. Free of the death penalty. Free of those cults. And you went back to committing crimes," Keller said.

Rozier didn't react to the comments. Instead, he told the judge he wanted to give praise and thanks to his attorney, Yankey, as someone "who stands up against righteous indignation."

In interviews with The Bee, Rozier said he has grieved over his past and is no longer the same person. He insisted he spiritually rebuilt his life while mastering five languages and earning a college degree under the federal witness protection program. He was kicked out of program when he broke the rules by visiting his mother before her death.

After sentencing, Yankey begged Keller to keep Rozier in the El Dorado County jail for another 120 days before sending him to state prison, because he feared his client would be assassinated without proper security.

"I don't want to have a dead man out there," Yankey said.

Yankey said a federal appeal is being filed in the case based on Rozier's plea bargain with U.S. prosecutors. He said he hoped Rozier could be moved into federal custody, which he considered safer. Keller granted him 30 days to explore the security issues.

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