Georgia religious sect dwindles as leader sits in prison

Pyramids, obelisks and a lonely sphinx stand deserted on the Egyptian-themed compound where as many as 500 members of a quasi-religious sect lived only five years ago.

The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors has gone quiet since its leader, Malachi York, was sentenced to 135 years in federal prison in April for molesting 14 boys and girls whose parents were members of his group.

The federal government has seized the Nuwaubians' 476-acre farm in this middle Georgia town and the group's members have dispersed.

"York was it. Everything flowed from York. There was never any mistake about that," said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who has clashed with the Nuwaubians since York moved his followers from New York City's Brooklyn borough to this rural county in 1993.

"He was the absolute ruler. There was no one else," Sill said of York.

At their height, the Nuwaubians brought 5,000 people to Eatonton for Savior's Day to celebrate York's birthday.

In 1999, as many as 500 people lived on the compound, practicing York's malleable religion that shifted from Islamic roots to Judaism, Christianity and Egyptian mysticism, with members at times dressing as cowboys and American Indians. At one time, York even incorporated space aliens into his teachings, claiming that he was an extraterrestrial from the planet "Rizq."

When the U.S. Marshal's office seized York's property over the summer, about 50 people were evicted from the compound.

"As far as I'm concerned, it's over. He's gone, and he was the ringleader," County Commissioner Sandra Adams said.

Some Nuwaubians carry on. Their flashy Web site is still active, and they still operate a small bookstore in Atlanta that sells various literature, including York's writings.

"Everybody is still working together and moving forward," said Adrian Patrick, York's attorney. "People are trying to fit the organization into this traditional hierarchy, but that's simply not the case. You can't destroy the organization by having the head incarcerated."

Some of the Nuwaubians still live in Eatonton near the compound, but two of them wouldn't comment when approached by a reporter. Two others who live in the Atlanta area did not return telephone messages left at their homes, and a woman working at the bookstore directed all inquiries to the group's Web site.

The site includes hundreds of posted messages from York's followers who are trying to raise money for his court appeals. They have titles like, "He NEVER Molested Us - He is innocent!!!" and "Attorney Sabotages York's Case."

A neighbor who lives near the compound said he thinks York was targeted by white authorities with an agenda against the mostly black Nuwaubians, who now call themselves The Yamassee Native Americans of the Creek Nation.

"In the old days, they would have hanged him," neighbor Bobby Walker said. "But today, they hung a charge on him he couldn't fight. ... This man bucked the power structure of Putnam County, and he should've known better."

The Nuwaubian compound has sat empty for months. An American flag hangs on the entrance gate, and some of the 20-some structures are starting to fall apart. The federal government is expected to eventually put the land up for sale.

York, 58, was convicted by a jury in January of 10 counts of child molestation and racketeering. Prosecutors said he used the cult for his sexual pleasure and financial gain, including recruiting members to groom children for sex with him.

The woman who authorities say was York's "main wife," 35-year-old Kathy Johnson, pleaded guilty to seven counts of child molestation and was sentenced to two years in prison. She allegedly videotaped York engaging in sexual activity with the minors.

York, who is serving his sentence in the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kan., plans to appeal his conviction to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta, his attorney said. York has argued that he is of American Indian heritage and should not be judged by the U.S. court system.

"He deserved what he got, and he got what he deserved," U.S. prosecutor Max Wood said. "Anyone who disagrees with them gets excoriated on their Web site. I think they're pretty much whittled down to a small hard-core group."

Sheriff Sills, who used to get harassing calls at all hours at home from Nuwaubians, said he's glad to get back to regular police work after dealing with the sect's members over the years.

He keeps some Nuwaubian paraphernalia in his office, including a doll of York confiscated from the property, complete with toy handcuffs added by Sills.

"It's nice. Victims aren't calling, no one's calling," Sills said. "It's become a popular research topic in the world of academia. ... It's good to be back to normal."