EATONTON (AP) — After months of common-law tactics and protests by followers dressed as Egyptian pharaohs, mummies and birds, Nuwaubian cult leader Malachi York‘s child molestation case finally heads to trial Monday.
And officials are doing all they can to keep the courtroom from turning into a circus.
“It’s like living in bizarro world,” said Frank Ford, an attorney who has argued with the Nuwaubians in court. “They cannot stand being told no, and they cannot stand being ignored.”
York, who moved the quasi-religious United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors from New York to a central Georgia farm in 1993, faces 13 federal counts of molestation and racketeering. A plea bargain nearly a year ago was rejected by a judge who felt the proposed 15-year prison sentence was too lenient.
The trial, which was moved 225 miles from Macon to Brunswick because of pretrial publicity, could be dogged by Nuwaubian supporters dressed in Indian garb. Hundreds of protesters have turned out to many of York’s court hearings, sometimes beating drums or handing out anti-government literature.
York, aka “Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle,” has unsuccessfully argued he has American Indian heritage and shouldn’t be judged by the U.S. court system.
In previous hearings, he’s responded to a judge’s questions with answers based in common law, such as “I accept this for value.”
One time, York refused to stand when U.S. District Judge Ashley Royal entered the courtroom. Two U.S. marshals pulled him to his feet and held him until Royal told the courtroom to be seated.
“You have this mocking of the court system,” said Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills. “These victims have been jerked around and … it doesn’t give the public a lot of confidence.”
Hoping to head off potential disruptions, Royal this past week ruled that York’s supporters won’t be allowed to demonstrate outside the courthouse during the trial, which could last up to three weeks.
York’s attorney, Adrian Patrick, said he didn’t expect protesters to cause any problems, but he couldn’t promise York wouldn’t resort to unorthodox legal tactics.
“I can’t say definitively what will and what won’t come up,” Patrick said. “It will ultimately be up to the defendant.”
Prosecutors have said they plan to make a case that York used his status as a religious leader for sex and money, enriching himself, marrying several women and abusing young girls who were part of his sect.
District Attorney Fred Bright, who is heading a planned state prosecution to follow, has accused York of having sexual contact with as many as 13 girls and boys, including instances of sexual intercourse.
York, 58, has maintained he’s being unfairly prosecuted because of a vendetta by small-town authorities who dislike the mostly black members of his cult for their unusual practices and a neo-Egyptian compound that includes pyramid-like structures complete with hieroglyphics.
The Nuwaubians, who once claimed 5,000 members but now are down to a few hundred, have actually gone through several transformations since moving to their 476-acre compound. They’ve dressed as cowboys and American Indians, claimed to be Muslim and Jewish, and York has said he’s an extraterrestrial from the planet “Rizq.”
At a Christmas parade in Brunswick, the Nuwaubians said they were a Mason’s group as they handed out literature and asked spectators about the guilt or innocence of York. Their delegation in the parade included depictions of the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses, participants wearing bird and cow masks, and a group of mummies carrying parasols.