Police reopen 1968 Santa Barbara mosque slaying investigation
By Bob Butler and Thomas Peele, Chauncey Bailey Project
SANTA BARBARA — Police here, responding to inquiries by The Chauncey Bailey Project, have reopened an investigation into the unsolved 1968 shooting deaths of a couple affiliated with a mosque that was the forerunner to Your Black Muslim Bakery.
Detectives could arrive in Oakland as early as this week to question Abdul Raab Muhammad, 71, formerly known as Billy X Stephens. He is the brother of late Your Black Muslim Bakery patriarch Yusuf Ali Bey, who was born Joseph H. Stephens.
In the mid-1960s, the brothers converted to Islam in this seaside city 90 miles north of Los Angeles and founded a now-defunct mosque, planting the seeds of what eventually became the Bey organization, its Oakland bakery and a culture of African-American defiance and self-reliance.
But just as those aspects of the bakery began in Southern California, so too did allegations of intimidation and crimes ranging from fraud to murder.
On Aug. 17, 1968, two members of the Santa Barbara mosque, Birdie Mae Scott, 33, and her husband, Wendell Scott, 30, were slain with a .30-30 rifle as they slept in an apartment they shared with her two children, ages 13 and 10.
Though he was never named as a suspect, records show the police investigation at the time focused largely on Billy X Stephens, who was the organization’s top leader as minister. Joseph Stephens served as its secretary.
No arrests were made in the case. Police reports were copied to microfilm, archived and remained untouched for decades. Nearly 200 pages of documents about the Scott killings released by Santa Barbara police to the Chauncey Bailey Project show that detectives in 1968 focused on internal mosque disputes as the motive in the Scott killings. Wendell Scott, according to police documents, had written a letter to Nation of Islam leaders in Chicago complaining that he had been forced to burn two cars belonging to the Stephens brothers’ mother so insurance money could be collected.
Billy Stephens learned of the letter and suspended the Scotts from the mosque, the documents said. The couple was killed weeks later.
Documents also show similarities to the Aug. 2 killing of Oakland Post Editor Chauncey Bailey, who was investigating the bakery’s finances and internal disputes. A former handyman at the bakery has been arrested and charged with murder in connection with the shooting. The handyman, Devaughndre Broussard, 20, told authorities he shot Bailey because he wanted to be a “good soldier” for bakery leaders; he has since recanted that confession.
In both the Scott and Bailey cases, police have theorized the slayings were carried out to silence critics of the Stephens/Bey family and their organizations.
Santa Barbara police said they will investigate the Scott killing again.
“There has been some recent information from some cases up in Oakland that have some similarities,” said Santa Barbara police Lt. Amando Martel. Detectives will “see maybe if there are any connections with the case in Oakland and the one here in 1968.”
Billy X Stephens, in a telephone interview from his home in Oakland, denied last week having anything to do with the double slaying in Santa Barbara.
“I didn’t do it. I don’t know who did it, nor did I know beforehand that it was going to happen,” he said. “I don’t have anything to hide.”
He said the shooting had nothing to do with the mosque and that “outsiders” committed the crime.
In their 1968 reports, Santa Barbara police wrote they suspected Wendell Scott was targeted because of his complaints about Billy and Joseph Stephens.
Police noted that Birdie Scott’s brother, Toby Jackson, told them Wendell Scott was “trying to drop out” of the organization.
“In those days … the only way you left the Black Muslims was feet first, because you were privy to information that may have involved possible criminal activity,” said retired Santa Barbara Officer Keene Grand, who worked on the case.
In investigating the Scotts’ killing, police found a pattern of intimidation and fear within the mosque’s members. The mosque was a closed group that resolved its own problems and had little contact with outsiders, especially police, records show.
“There were a lot of discussions and rumors (in 1968) of the potential of a connection (between the killings and) the mosque and some of (its) leaders,” Martel said. “People were reluctant to talk.”
Detectives also ran into a tangle of family intrigue — Birdie Scott was the sister of Billy X Stephens’ former wife, Mary.
Documents show that detectives believed Mary Stephens, who still lives in Santa Barbara, may have known more about the killings than she said at the time.
In a brief telephone interview last week, Mary Stephens said she would welcome justice for her late sister but declined to discuss the slaying.
“It’s been 40 years and I’ve put it out my mind and I don’t want to put my mind back on it,” she said.
Five weeks after the killings, Billy and Mary Stephens married for a second time.
Police reports note that several people told detectives the couple remarried because Billy X Stephens believed Mary could not be forced to testify against him if she were his wife. The couple divorced again in 1976.
The early investigation
Much of the investigation in 1968 focused on Billy X Stephens and a phone call he made to police the night of the shooting — a call that other mosque members told police was in direct violation of Stephens’ stringent policy against bringing outsiders into mosque affairs, according to police reports.
Stephens, however, said no such policy existed.
“There was no rule about not calling the police,” he said last week. “You wouldn’t do it if it was a family disturbance. Any time I hear a gunshot I call the police.”
Documents show that Stephens phoned police at 2:30 a.m. Aug. 17, 1968, but didn’t report hearing gunshots from the Scotts’ apartment, which was directly above his in a shoebox-shaped complex Stephens managed just yards from U.S. Highway 101.
Stephens “said he just finished a business phone call and had gone to bed and was just in ‘twilight’ sleep when he heard what sounded like a door slam,” a detective wrote.
Stephens told police he called the Scotts’ phone several times to inquire about their welfare and became worried when no one answered, records show.
Police found the Scotts’ apartment door kicked in and the couple dead in their bed. Each was shot twice. The children in the next room were unharmed.
Police began an aggressive canvas of the neighborhood at dawn. At least six people interviewed said they’d heard four gunshots roughly 20 minutes before Stephens’ call to police, the reports said.
One man, who lived about 75 yards away, told detectives the shots came during the climactic scene of a movie he was watching on television.
The detectives contacted the Los Angeles television station that broadcast the movie and found the scene the man described aired about 2:10 a.m.
Other people who lived nearby told police they also heard the shots, followed by a more dull, cracking sound, and police speculated that the gunman may have entered the apartment with a key and kicked in the door when leaving to make it look as if entry was forced, according to documents.
Police noted that Stephens managed the apartment complex.
Stephens said he never heard any shots and suggested the killer used a rifle with a silencer attached.
“I didn’t hear any shots,” he told the Chauncey Bailey Project. “I heard them rumbling down the stairs.”
There is no reference in the police reports to Stephens telling police he heard anyone on the stairs.
When detectives confronted Stephens with the time discrepancy and other questions, he became angry and refused their request to take a lie detector test, according to reports.
Last week, Stephens said he didn’t take the lie detector test because a woman phoned him anonymously and told him police would use the results to arrest him.
“They were trying to build a case against me,” he said.
Another person named in police reports in 1968 was a former U.S. Army soldier named Ermond Givens. He is a retired school janitor, now 70, who changed his name to Ali Omar and lives in Alameda. He served as the mosque’s lieutenant and was responsible for what he described in a recent interview as “training the Muslim soldier.”
In an interview at his Alameda home, Omar first said there were never any problems at the Santa Barbara mosque during his tenure there. When reminded of the double killing, he remembered that police had never solved the case but said he knew little about it.
Police reports show that a woman named Ida Hamilton, who was also a member of the mosque, told detectives that Omar was among those closest to Billy X Stephens.
Omar said last week he had no information about the shooting.
Birdie Scott’s daughter, Audrey Hazelwood, who was 13 the night of the killing and in the next bedroom, cannot recall hearing the fatal shots. She said her family deserves to know who killed her mother and stepfather.
“Of course we do,” said Hazelwood, now 53 and living in Santa Barbara. “My (late grandmother) always said that she would live to see the day” when the case would be investigated again. “But I guess it’ll be in my lifetime.”
Investigation hits dead end
Police continued to investigate through the end of 1968, documents show, but hit a dead end when .30-30 shell casings found in the Scotts’ bedroom didn’t have any fingerprints on them. In the days before DNA testing, police were left with little physical evidence.
Martel, the Santa Barbara police lieutenant, said any breaks in the case will have to come from someone with knowledge of it who talks to detectives.
Detectives, he said, will question people in both Santa Barbara and Oakland, where the Stephens brothers moved in 1970 with orders from Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad to open another mosque.
A year later, the brothers split — Billy X became Abdul Raab Muhammad and stayed with the Nation of Islam. He served as a minister in the organization for 44 years and is now living in Oakland.
Joseph Stephens took the name Yusuf Bey and broke away from the Nation of Islam. He started his own organization, which became Your Black Muslim Bakery and served as a center of empowerment and employment for African Americans in Oakland. It was one of the few places where ex-convicts could find work.
Cracks in the bakery’s respectability began to appear in 1994 when four of its associates were charged with assaulting and torturing a man over a real estate deal.
Bey died in 2003 while awaiting trial on statutory rape charges, and the bakery soon descended into chaos.
Yusuf Bey’s hand-picked successor, Waajid Aliawwaad, 51, soon disappeared and was found five months later in a shallow grave. Another of Bey’s proteges left town after several men opened fire on him as he left his house for work.
Police suspected other members of the organization were involved in both crimes, which remain unsolved, largely because police have found no one willing to provide them with information, a decades-long pattern of silence that apparently began in Santa Barbara.
Bob Butler is a freelance journalist. Thomas Peele is an investigative reporter for the Bay Area News Group. Contact Butler at firstname.lastname@example.org and Peele at email@example.com. Bob Butler produced this story as a 2007-08 fellow of the George Washington Williams Fellowship, a program sponsored by New Voices in Independent Journalism.