04.18.11

The 'Black Hebrew' Cult Murder Case

A polygamist sect in North Carolina is suspected of killing two of its members, one of them a 5-year-old boy. Winston Ross on the group's international reach—and its tyrannical leaders.

At first blush, Vania Sisk's MySpace page looks like garden-variety millennial narcissism. Her first photo album, titled "Beautiful me," is a collection of self-portraits with titles like "I'm cute!!!" to "Tryna be sexy." And the woman in these photos, according to her profile, is just as conventional as her Web presence suggests: a 25-year-old customer service representative who makes between $45,000 and $60,000 a year. "Those close to me call me Vee," she writes. "I'm originally from Waterloo, Iowa aka Tha Loo. I currently live in Colorado Springs. Pretty much I'm a real easy person to get along with..."  

In fact, the only thing on her MySpace page to indicate that Vania Sisk leads anything but a typical life is the title of the sole video (now disabled) on her page: "World war israel iran army unit deploys in america to enforce martial law." The comment she's written next to the video is: “this is what’s happening now.”

According to family and friends, this video is a window into the secretive world Sisk has been ensconced in for several years now. Sisk, they say, is involved with a North Carolina polygamist cult that refers to itself as the Black Hebrews—and whose leader, Peter Moses Jr., is suspected of murdering Sisk's child. In addition to that, Moses is alleged to have ordered Sisk to kill another of the sect's members, 28-year-old Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy. Both McKoy and Sisk’s 5-year-old son, Jadon Higgenbothan, are officially “missing.”  

Lacking evidence, authorities have arrested Moses and Sisk on other charges, hoping to keep them in jail while they race to put together a murder case. Moses was arrested in February on old warrants after detectives investigating the disappearances discovered him hiding in the cabinet of a home he reportedly lived in with nine women and as many children. He was freed on bond, and then re-arrested, along with Sisk, on Tuesday. Sisk was charged with marijuana possession, and Moses with assault for hitting and holding captive a victim described in court documents as "ZT."  

As if the case didn’t already have enough trappings of a sensational true-crime TV show, Bobby Brown, the Colorado Springs private investigator known for his work with Dog the Bounty Hunter, is working with relatives—including Sisk's stepmother, Trina—to try to find little Jadon. Brown says Sisk has repeatedly tried to get investigators and family members to back off, assuring them that Jadon, wherever he is, is fine.

But, Brown told The Daily Beast, "She's also said, 'Everybody get off my ass. Jadon is fine, everybody will find out that he's fine, everybody will see him when the world ends in 2012.'”

Court documents suggest Peter Moses Jr. was living with up to nine women and fathered children with many of them.

Sisk’s reference to an impending apocalypse likely stems from her involvement with the Black Hebrews, an "identity"-based religious movement whose African-American followers believe they are the true descendants of Jesus Christ. Polygamist and anti-Semitic, the more established sects of Black Hebrews number in the thousands and live all over the world, including in Israel. But there are many splinter groups that exist in the shadows, says Rick Ross, founder and executive director of the New Jersey-based Ross Institute, an educational non-profit that investigates cults around the world. He defines the Black Hebrews as a cult because the group's past activities have described a totalitarian leader at the head of several of its sects, the brainwashing of its members, and some element of harm, be it violence, child abuse, or another crime committed in the name of God.

"I suspect that Pete Moses may be a breakaway from one of these larger movements," said Ross. "There are thousands and thousands of little groups in the U.S. following authoritarian leaders, and many of them fly under the radar. Until there's some type of tragedy, or something bad happens, they go unnoticed."

Which isn't to say they go unseen. One group of Black Hebrews—familiar to (and loathed by) many harried New Yorkers—can often be found in Manhattan, wearing "unusual costumes and preaching on street corners," said Ross. Ironically, these Black Hebrew sects share something in common with the white Christian identity movement, a race-based hate group that is closely watched by the Southern Poverty Law Center. "They believe that the people who call themselves Jews today are pulling a fast one,” said said Mark Potok, the Birmingham director of the SPLC's Intelligence Project, which monitors such groups throughout the world.

Among the best-known Black Hebrew sects is a group led by a man named Ben Carter, who moved his 40 followers to Israel in 1969, believing it to be their homeland as members of the 10 "lost tribes" of Israelites. Thanks to the men having multiple wives and the migration of members from the U.S., Carter's followers now number 2,500, said Ross. They forbid birth control, their leaders decide who will marry whom, and they prohibit eating meat, dairy products, eggs, and sugar. Members adopt Hebraic names in place of their former "slave names," and women are instructed to focus on child rearing and other family duties, according to Ross' research.

Like other secretive fringe religions, the Black Hebrews appear to have even penetrated the American celebrity bubble: Whitney Houston reportedly sought help from the group in 2006 during her battle with drug addiction.

Little is known about the group that Peter Moses Jr. apparently controls. Court documents associated with police search warrants suggest he was living with up to nine women and fathered children with many of them. Sisk's aunt, Denise Garing of St. Paul, Minnesota, said her niece moved to Durham from Colorado two and a half years ago. Sisk's grandmother, of Waterloo, Iowa, has told reporters that Vania had three children with Moses in the last several years.  

"It was like they were making a baby farm or something," Naomi Sisk told the Raleigh News and Observer. "She fell right into Pete, and Pete found her weakest part, and he's brainwashing her. Her actions are showing that she's in some kind of cult and she's brainwashed." 

What's happened since is largely known only to Sisk and other members of Moses' secretive clan. Sisk told police that she had left her son Jadon with an acquaintance in Durham on February 20—ia woman named Alicia Sanders or Sanderson, driving a burgundy Pontiac Grand Am—and that she'd been unable to reach the woman since. Sisk sent an email to family members recently advising them to stop calling her, as the group was moving to the countryside to stock up on guns for a race war that would end the world.  

This talk of end times is a common way cult leaders control their followers, explained Ross. By isolating members from the real world and freaking them out about Judgment Day, they're easier to control. Charles Manson preached of impending race wars and told his followers that the murders they were committing were to help incite them.  

"He manufactures an impending crisis," said Ross said, "to draw people into isolation, to create a panic, crisis mentality."

Cult members get murdered when they try to leave, said Ross, or for insubordinate behavior. That's what's alleged to have happened to Antoinetta McKoy, according to Brown.

Detectives have learned that "Vania was supposedly given instructions by Peter based on the thinking that McKoy was trying to get away," said Brown. "He instructed Vania to kill the 28-year-old” McKoy.

In search warrant documents, an unnamed informant told police that after McKoy was killed, he helped carry her body outside and bury her. Despite this, no corpse has been unearthed. The search warrant affidavits show the same informant told Durham police that Moses shot Jadon, wrapped his body in plastic, stuffed it in a suitcase, and carried it into the attic, moving it only after it started to smell. The informant claims Moses shot the boy for disobedience.

"They're trying to develop all this information, but if I have it, you have it, the world has it, it's perplexing to figure out why there isn't enough there for an arrest warrant," Brown said.

On January 27, Sisk posted an update on her MySpace profile that seemed to hint she was involved in something big. "Fuck the world bitch I ain't here to stay," she wrote. She didn't post anything else for two months. Then she re-emerged, writing, "love his hate," "Bored as fuck," and "I just saw a big ass bumble bee. Ain't seen one of those in years.... lol!"  

Perhaps it's a sign sent from God.

Winston Ross is a reporter for the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon and a regular contributor to Newsweek.com. He blogs irregularly at winstonross.wordpress.com.