Cult Fighting in Middle Georgia
Last October 27, a
three-judge panel of the federal appeals court in Atlanta upheld the federal
racketeering conviction and 135-year prison sentence of the leader of the
United Nation of Nuwaubian Moors. The successful prosecution of Dwight
“Malachi” York, and the consequent destruction of the Nuwaubians’ settlement
in Putnam County, Georgia, represent the latest example of official
suppression of an unconventional
religious groupin America—and one in which the news media played an
I first encountered
the Nuwaubians in Times Square in the 1980s. Dressed in long white robes,
they lived in Brooklyn and called themselves the Ansaaru Allah Community.
The men recruited
African-American youth by day and slept in male barracks at night. They were
“Propagators” of “
the Knowledge”—knowledge developed
by York to the effect that all “Nubians” were descended from angelic
ancestors who hailed from a distant star.
The women, who wore
face veils and also lived communally, worked in the Ansaar publishing
office, where they typed York’s voluminous sermons into booklets to sell in
their Tents of Kedar bookstores. They home-schooled their children in a
language of their own creation—Nubic, a mélange of Sudanese, Arabic, and
Ebonics. In 1986, an inspector from the New York City School Board
discovered that Ansaar children did not speak a word of English.
One day I found,
nestled between the exotic scented incense and oils they peddled, a scroll
entitled The Paleman, which revealed that all white people have
leprosy, due to the Curse of Ham. Yet white people were welcome to join the
movement. As for black people, not all were welcome. Another scroll, Are
There Black Devils Among You?, warned of black-skinned people who may be
In 1992, the Ansaars
disappeared, transformed into green tunic-clad purveyors of Black Hebrew
books. “We used to be the Ansaaru Allah, but now we are the Holy Tabernacle
Ministries,” a Propagator explained, “kind of like Falashi (sic) Jews.” It
was neither the first time nor the last, I would discover, that York changed
his group’s beliefs, symbols, and costumes.
According to a 1992
FBI report, Dwight York was born in Maryland in 1945 and grew up in New York
City. Charged as a teenager with rape, gun possession, and resisting arrest,
he spent over two years in prison, where he converted to Islam. On his
release in 1967, he began attending New York’s State Street Mosque, the
first mainstream Muslim African-American community in the United States.
But York also began
dabbling in New York’s lively black spirituality circles, borrowing ideas
and symbols from such groups as the Nation of Islam, the Moorish Science
Temple, the Five Percenters, and the Prince Hall Masons. In 1973, he
returned from a trip to Sudan to announce that he was the grandson of the
Mahdi (“savior” or “divinely guided one”). Assuming the title of “al Imam
Isa al Haadi al Mahdi,” he set up the Ansaaru Allah. In the 1980s, the group
was publicly commended by Mayor Ed Koch for purging the streets of crime and
drugs, but also investigated by the authorities for arson, harboring
criminal fugitives, welfare fraud, and possessing illegal weapons.
Twenty years later,
Ansaaru Allah sold its Brooklyn properties and moved to Georgia. It
purchased a $285,000 building in Athens for its headquarters and spent about
$1 million to acquire a 473-acre farm in rural Putnam County, halfway
between Athens and Macon, 60 miles southeast of Atlanta.
Once settled in
Georgia, the group styled itself as an Amerindian tribe: the Yamassee Native
American Moors of the Creek Nation. The aim was to create a black utopia, an
“Egipt (sic) in the West” that was to become a center of pilgrimage for
African Americans. In due course, thousands of black folks did make the
pilgrimage, coming from across the U.S., the West Indies, and Great Britain.
On their Putnam county
property, the Nuwaubians constructed an Egyptian theme park called Tama-Re
that featured two large pyramids, a Scarab Beetle, a Sphinx, a museum of
Black History, and a large statue of a black Jesus wearing an Indian
headdress crucified on an Ankh (the ancient Egyptian cross-shaped hieroglyph
with a loop at the top). York prophesied that in May 2003 a “Mothership”
would descend on one of the pyramids to carry away 144,000 of his followers
to the planet Risq prior to the world’s destruction.
Tama-Re featured an
elaborate network of secret societies and Masonic lodges, each with its own
costumes, literature, and rituals. According to York, “the Land” was a
“Sovereign Nation,” and he kept two armed guards posted at the gate. Members
of the Holy Tabernacle Ministries or the Ancient Mystic Order of Melchizedek
paid a $25 fee, offered a pledge of silence, and were given Tama-Re
passports and license plates.
A growing source of
tension between the Nuwaubians and Putnam County locals—black as well as
white—was caused by the crowds who converged on Tama-Re for “Savior’s Day,”
a week long celebration of York’s birthday June 26. The Savior’s Day
festivals of 1997 and 1998, which drew between 4,000 and 5,000 people,
generated business for local merchants but also raised fears that county
government would be “taken over” by black cultists (known locally as “Waubs”),
just as the followers of the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh had taken control of the
town council of Antelope, Oregon in the early 1980s.
To say that Putnam
County (pop. 18,812) is characterized by little in the way of in-migration
or religious diversity would be an understatement. The 500 Nuwaubians who,
according to one estimate, were living there in 2000 represented 60 percent
of the people who had moved to the county from other states since 1995. As
for religion, the North American Religious Atlas, relying largely on 2000
data, puts the percentages of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims in Putnam County
at zero, and adherents of Eastern religions at one-tenth of one percent.
The Nuwaubians experienced their first major
conflict with local officials in 1998 when the county rejected their request
to have the Tama-Re property rezoned from agricultural to commercial. In an
interview five years later, York’s estranged son Jacob contended that
commercial development had been behind his father’s decision to relocate to
“That’s the only
reason he claimed his people were an Indian tribe—so they could have
sovereignty over their land and run a casino,” Jacob York said. “They
thought all they had to do was dress up in Indian costumes, feather
headdresses, and play tom-toms and the government would back off.”
Interviewed in his
office in 2003, County Sheriff Howard Sills explained to me that it was
while watching an Atlanta TV report on lively gatherings in the Ramses
Social Club at Tama-Re in 1999 that he first realized he had a
“Nuwaubian problem” on his hands. “It was a barn, not zoned for commercial
use,” Sills said. “They had no license to sell alcohol.” In April of that
year, county building inspector J.S. “Dizzy” Adams was turned away from the
gates, and Sills decided to go along the next time the inspector visited.
Shortly thereafter, a
few former members of the Montana Freemen (paradoxically, a white
supremacist group) came to town, and one of them, Everett Stout, introduced
himself to the Nuwaubians as a “common law judge.” On their behalf, Stout
filed a complaint in federal court signed by more than 200 people listing
their address as 404 Shady Dale Road (Tama-Re). Stout also issued arrest
warrants for a Superior court judge, two deputies, York’s former attorney
Frank Ford, and Sheriff Sills.
When Sills and Adams
turned up at Tama-Re in June, they were served with papers declaring that
they would be fined $5 million if they went onto the property.
“I became aware of what a volatile situation I had
been dragged into when…I heard them say, ‘We are not subject to your laws,’”
Sills said. “Here we were, facing the guards who were wearing guns and
saying, ‘No, you can’t come on our land, we are a sovereign nation.’ What
was I supposed to do? They had guns and my job was to disarm them.” York
was, Sills said, “begging for a Waco. He asked for it!”
After the Savior’s Day
festivities that year, hundreds of York’s supporters remained in the area to
protest the zoning decision. One hundred state troopers and Georgia Bureau
of Investigation agents were secretly dispatched to the Eatonton armory in
case of trouble.
By now, the Georgia
news media, which had hitherto portrayed the Nuwaubians as simply a bizarre
“quasi-religious sect,” were relying heavily on the sheriff’s
characterization of them as threatening and worrisome.
In a July 27 article,
Patricia Mays of the AP called the Nuwaubians a “cult” like Heaven’s Gate
and the People’s Temple. “This group has a combination of all those schools
of thought,” she quoted Sills as saying. Writing in the Macon Telegraph
August 8, Rob Peecher reported that customers in a local barber shop
“once joked about the Nuwaubians,” but that they had ceased to be a laughing
For their part, the
Nuwaubians, interpreting the obstacles to their utopian enterprise as rooted
in racism, reached out to state and national black leaders. In due course,
there were visits to Tama-Re from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, the latter
calling York’s community “The American Dream.”
In 2001, the
Nuwaubians put up their own (Republican) candidates for public
office—including sheriff. Prior to the primary, the county Board of
Registrars declared 196 Nuwaubians ineligible to vote because they had not
established residence in the county. The following year, the government put
an end to the Nuwaubian experiment in Putnam County.
Early on the afternoon
of May 8, armored vehicles filled with over 300 agents from the FBI, the
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and four county sheriffs’
departments rammed through the flimsy painted obelisks that flanked the
gates of Tama-Re. Agents leaped out of helicopters, kicked in doors, and
threw tear gas in windows. An FBI SWAT team, clad in head masks and body
shields and armed with machine guns and hand grenades, made a “dynamic
entry.” Outside the gates, fire trucks, ambulances, body bags, and
refrigerator trucks were at the ready.
As was the case with
the ATF’s assault on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco in 1993, there
were plenty of news media on hand to record what happened. But unlike Waco,
there were no deaths. The 60 children, 40 women, and 25 elderly men residing
at Tama-Re put up no resistance. A few rifles and handguns, all properly
registered, were found in the subsequent search.
As for York, he had been arrested that morning
leaving a supermarket with his “main wife,” 33-year-old Kathy Johnson.
What was the cause of the massive display of force?
More than 208 state
counts of indictment alleged that York had molested dozens of children of
both sexes, at Tama-Re and elsewhere. A federal indictment charged that he
had violated the Mann Act by transporting children across state lines for
illegal sex when the Nuwaubians moved from Brooklyn to Georgia in April
1993, and when he later took children on trips to Disneyworld.
The federal case was,
significantly, brought under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt
Organizations Act (RICO). The claim was that a number of Nuwaubian women who
had been victimized by York later participated in a conspiracy to provide
York with young children to molest.
The key witness
against York was Abigail Washington, a diminutive eighteen-year-old known to
the Nuwaubians as “Habiba the Dwarf” who had borne two children to York in
her early teens. Washington had been one of the main administrators at
Tama-Re until she quarreled with York and defected.
She had contacted York’s estranged son Jacob, a
childhood friend, and he in turn phoned the sheriff. Having long since
rejected his father’s spiritual claims, Jacob showed Abigail films on
Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate to show her (as he told me) that “we were a
cult—we lived like this.” Indeed, he had made it his mission to help
Nuwaubians escape from Tama-Re. Jacob put Sills in touch with more young
defectors, and Sills introduced them to the FBI.
After the raid, the
Nuwaubians produced a realistic tabloid called the Macon Messenger
(done up to look like the local Eatonton Messenger) that
featured essays by Tama-Re children detailing their traumatic experiences in
the raid. Articles described Sills as “John Gotti hiding behind a badge” and
provided fictitious criminal histories of many county officials.
York appeared at a
pre-trial hearing in January 2003 dressed in a red fez with a black tassel.
“I am secured and do not give permission to use my name,” he declared. “If
you proceed it will cost you $500,000.” His disciples stood outside the
courtroom giving journalists a “copyright notice” stamped, “Clerk of Federal
Moorish Cherokee Consular Court, USA.”
York’s Atlanta lawyers
persuaded him to take a plea bargain, and on January 23, 2003 he pleaded
guilty, having been promised a 15-year prison sentence. But on June 27, U.S.
District Judge Hugh Lawson rejected the deal as too lenient. Lawson recused
himself shortly thereafter in response to a defense motion accusing him of
prejudging the case.
On July 1, York appeared before U.S. District Judge Ashley Royal in a
feathered headdress and Amerindian regalia while three hundred Nuwaubians,
many in Indian garb, stood outside the courthouse beating tom toms and
handing out antigovernment flyers.
York told Royal that
he had been “under duress” when he entered the guilty plea. “I was in a
two-man cell with rats,” he said. “After being tortured and being told that
I would get 1,000 years, they made it look like a racial issue.” Denying
that his name was Dwight York, he identified himself as “Chief Black Eagle”
and demanded to be turned over to the Yamassee Native American Government,
claiming that the U.S. Government had no jurisdiction over him.
“All I am asking is
that the court recognize that I am an indigenous person,” York said. “I am a
Moorish Cherokee, and I cannot get a fair trial if I am being tried by
settlers or Confederates.” Royal ordered York sent for a psychiatric
evaluation in New York, and in due course he was pronounced competent to
Because of pretrial
publicity, the judge moved the venue to the coastal city of Brunswick and,
because of anticipated disruption from York’s followers, closed the
proceedings to all except the news media.
When the trial began
on January 5, 2004, there were heavily armed police on patrol outside the
courthouse and snipers on the rooftops around it. The jury was sequestered,
and put under the care of masked, machinegun-toting guards.
Everything, in short,
was calculated to convey the impression—to public and jury alike—that these
were very dangerous people. “The threat of violence was completely
over-hyped,” Manubir Arora, one of York’s lawyers, later recalled. “I was
even scared myself.”
Every day, a handcuffed and shackled York was escorted into the courtroom
by Sills (though he had no jurisdiction in the county where the trial was
held). Forty York family members and Tama-Re administrators watched the
proceeding on closed-circuit TV in another courtroom, while rank-and-file
Nuwaubians sat outside peacefully chanting and beating on drums in violation
of the judge’s order banning demonstrations on York’s behalf.
The government’s case
rested on 14 witnesses—male and female—who claimed that York had molested
them. Six of York’s alleged victims ended up testifying for the defense that
they had not been molested by him but that prosecutors pressured them to say
The defense also
presented a gynecologist who reported that there was no medical evidence
whatsoever of wounds, flesh tears, or prior medical treatment to corroborate
the testimony of violent acts of molestation. The defense argued that if the
accusers were to be believed, York—a 58-year-old with a heart
condition—would have to have committed 12,000 molestations over ten years.
“It was like he was having sex with everything that moved,” Arora said. “It
got to the point where it was almost laughable.”
After a three-week
trial, York was convicted on four counts of racketeering and six child
molestation-related charges. While there may have been sufficient grounds
for a prosecutor to proceed with some molestation charges, the extent of the
alleged abuse, and the absence of corroborating evidence, should have raised
reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.
The RICO racketeering
case was even less plausible, and smacked of ulterior motives.
No other member of the
alleged conspiracy was put on trial. “Main wife” Kathy Johnson did agree to
a guilty plea and was sentenced to two years in prison. Three other women
were initially charged, but have never been prosecuted.
What the RICO did was
enable the government to evict the Nuwaubians from Tama-Re and confiscate
their property. On July 14, 2004, Royal issued an order permitting the
government to seize Tama-Re, now valued at $ 1.7 million. The Egyptian
temples were demolished, the gods smashed, and the land sold. Sills
personally drove a bulldozer to tear down the compound.
Last September, the
Putnam County Sheriff’s department and the FBI received checks for $546,000
and $350,000 respectively from the sale of the land.
There can be little
question that Sills was the key figure in extruding the Nuwaubians from
Putnam County. In doing so, he had the aid of Rob Peecher, who began
covering the Nuwaubian story for the Eatonton Messenger, 1992 and
kept the beat after joining the Macon Telegraph, writing nearly 200
articles on the group for that paper between 1999 and 2003.
Shortly before the
raid on Tama-Re, Peecher told documentary filmmaker Paul Greenhouse, “I went
down with him one night and sat there in the cold mud watching them for six
hours…. We used a scanner and wiretapped the guards’ walkie-talkies so we
could hear them. Sills camped out in the woods across from the gate for one
or two months, picking up their frequencies.”
Peecher himself became an object of the Nuwaubians’ ire. “There were flyers
circulating saying bad stuff about me,” he told Greenhouse “All it took was
one lone crazy Waub to decide he was going to be the Nuwaubian of the Year
and take me out!”
Bill Osinski and Bill
Torpy, who covered the story successively for the Atlanta Journal
Constitution, made some effort to convey the distinctive beliefs of the
Nuwaubians, and to portray them with evenhandedness and even some sympathy.
But it was virtually impossible for the news media to avoid the classic
“cult paradigm” of a group with peculiar beliefs and practices, given over
to brainwashing, and beset by perverted sexual practices. By their
secretiveness and truculence, the Nuwaubians did not make it easy for the
journalists to work outside the paradigm, particularly after York was
charged with being a child molester.
Where the media as a
whole came up short was in failing to give sufficient scrutiny to the
excessive shows of force during the raid and trial, the weakness of the
conspiracy case, and to Sills’ role in the affair—not to mention the
interest of law enforcement agencies in feathering their nests from the
confiscation and sale of Tama-Re.
At another time,
perhaps, reporters and opinion writers might have taken greater care to look
out for the rights of a group of religious eccentrics and even their accused
leader. But the raid on Tama-Re came less than a year after the attacks of
9/11, and, it seems, journalists were not about to downplay the potential
for religiously inspired violence, or to second guess law enforcement’s
efforts to keep it from breaking out.