Judge rules feds can confiscate religious sect’s headquarters

The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors will lose its 476-acre headquarters in Putnam County, a judge ruled Thursday.

The property was seized by federal officials after the religious sect’s leader, Malachi York, was sentenced to 135 years in prison in January for 11 counts of child molestation and racketeering. Prosecutors said he recruited older girls to groom younger girls for sex with him and used the cult for his financial gain.

U.S. District Judge Ashley Royal ruled Thursday that federal officials were allowed to seize $1.7 million in property tied to the sect, including the group’s headquarters and a $750,000 home in Athens.

Royal had previously found that the property was owned by York, which many members of the sect are contesting.

Attorney Robert Ratliff, who represents some of the members claiming ownership of the property, said he will appeal the decision and is asking for an injunction to delay the seizure.

U.S. Attorney Maxwell Wood said he doesn’t know when the government might take possession of the land.

Federal prosecutors last year filed a civil lawsuit against York to seize the two pieces of property and more than $430,000 in cash taken at the time of York’s arrest. Two groups of York supporters said they actually owned the property.

Royal’s decision Thursday comes just two weeks after he said he would delay his decision until after he determined whether York would get a new trial. Royal’s ruling did not explain why he decided to allow the government forfeiture to proceed.

Ratliff said his clients will vigorously fight the judge’s decision, but ‘‘if it came down to brass tacks, they would turn it over peacefully.’’

The group’s Putnam County headquarters contains a church, fellowship hall and offices. It is home to about 50 people.

The grounds are decorated with Egyptian-style monuments, including two pyramids and a replica of the Sphinx.

The group’s teachings have incorporated parts of Islam, Judaism, Christianity and space aliens over the years.