‘This little town didn’t back up’
EATONTON — The grandmother and community activist now smiles when thinking of the “wanted” poster once put out on her. Georgia Benjamin-Smith says the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors once offered $500 for dirt on her and others who were seen as enemies of the outlandish religious group.
Benjamin-Smith can now venture a grin because she senses an end to a conflict that has roiled Putnam County for much of the past decade.
Malachi York, the religious leader who moved his flock from New York to property near here a decade ago to build his idea of Utopia — complete with pyramids, obelisks and a Sphinx — went on trial last week in federal court on charges of child molestation and racketeering.
“It’s been a nightmare, but we did something New York couldn’t do,” said Benjamin-Smith, referring to other investigations into the group there that never produced any charges. “We stayed on it and didn’t back up. This little town didn’t back up.”
Many Eatonton residents — at least those who will talk about the 58-year-old York and his followers publicly — say they are happy his case has finally come to trial and that the trial is not being held nearby. The trial has been moved to the Georgia coastal city of Brunswick, where it is being held under security so tight that early in the week some armed law enforcement agents wore masks to avoid being identified.
“People are quiet now, very quiet; they’re waiting,” said Benjamin-Smith, who says she found herself at odds with the Nuwaubians when she resisted the group’s efforts to take over the local NAACP chapter. The Nuwaubians at the time also were locked in court battles with the county on zoning and building matters and accused county officials of racism, conspiracy and harassment.
Some in the community told Benjamin-Smith to back off. “I was told more than once, ‘Leave him alone. He’s just a black man trying to have something,’ ” she said. “But I had a gut feeling something was wrong. I’d say, ‘What’s wrong with you? Don’t you see what’s going on?’ ”
Sandra Adams, a county commissioner, also ended up on the “wanted” list. “This was made a racial thing and it tore the community apart,” Adams said. “Al Sharpton, who is running for president, came down here and attacked us.”
At one time, the Nuwaubians claimed to have 5,000 members and the Eatonton property drew national black leaders like Jesse Jackson, in 2001, and Sharpton, in 1999.
Activity on the 400-plus-acre compound now is minimal. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who has had run-ins with the Nuwaubians since 1997, believes fewer than 40 people now live there, down from an estimated 200 at its late 1990s peak. York’s arrest in May, 2002, crippled the organization, Sills said. What is left of the ever-morphing sect remains in a holding pattern.
The grand Egyptian-style arch at the entrance of the Nuwaubian “holy land” is water-damaged and rotting.
Outside the gate, a life-size statue of an Indian stands sentry, peering into the distance. The Indian wears a beard resembling York’s. The Indian represents York’s newest incarnation. He now says he is a Yamassee Creek Indian named Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle and leader of an indigenous nation. In the past, he has called himself a Muslim imam and a being from outer space.
These days York is most notably an accused child- molester. He has spent the past week in a heavily fortified federal courthouse, where he is on trial for 13 child molestation and racketeering charges. If convicted, he could spend the rest of his life in prison.
Prosecutors allege York, who was arrested 20 months ago, used his teachings, his group’s isolation and his own cult of personality to create and maintain a carefully orchestrated system to sexually abuse children. Several former members have testified that York sexually abused them when they were children.
York says he is innocent. His lawyers say the alleged victims testifying against him are part of a conspiracy of disgruntled former Nuwaubians caught up in a power struggle.
“The truth will come out,” Frederick Johnson, a York supporter, vowed as he and a handful of other supporters waited to be escorted on an elevator by U.S. marshals to a third-floor courtroom where they watch the trial on closed-circuit TV. The courtroom where York is being tried is closed to all but credentialed media members. And the jury remains anonymous, unknown to the defense and even federal prosecutors.
U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal moved the trial from Macon because of pre-trial publicity. But he locked down the courthouse, fearing that Nuwaubians might intimidate witnesses and jurors and disrupt the proceedings.
In past hearings elsewhere, York’s followers have packed courtrooms and have stood outside chanting and banging drums. About 200 Nuwaubians introduced themselves to Brunswick residents by marching in the Christmas parade, wearing colorful costumes, mummy outfits and bird and cow masks and handing out flyers. “I guess you’d call them New Age Egyptian,” Brunswick police Sgt. Kevin Jones said.
Brunswick residents like retired paper mill supervisor Jimmy Williamson were bemused by the spectacle and impressed by the costumes. He was picking up his mail at the post office housed in the courthouse and passed through a phalanx of federal, state and local law enforcement agents.
“This a good trial for the G-8 conference,” Williamson said, referring to the meeting of world leaders set for June at nearby Sea Island.
Most people passing the courthouse glance at the police, and residents still smile talking about the Christmas parade, but there is little local interest in the trial.
During the first week of a trial expected to last three to four weeks, there were few disruptions. Police said one man claimed he was Jesus, blocked traffic and was arrested. About 40 York supporters, most conservatively dressed and polite, have attended, many taking copious notes of the testimony.
“We were expecting more [York supporters],” said Sgt. Jones. “I don’t know where they all went.”
Sheriff Sills, in Brunswick for the trial, says the “only thing predictable about this group is that it is totally unpredictable. They could all be dressed in clown outfits tomorrow and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.”
Johnson complained the expectations of big crowds and of trouble at the courthouse were produced by law enforcement officers’ fears.
“This excessive show of force tells the jurors that we’re here to protect you from a threat,” Johnson said. He also claims that isolation and mental “torture” helped prompt York’s two guilty pleas last year to the molestation charges. A federal judge refused to accept the 15-year plea deal, saying it was too lenient.
The Nuwaubians have long raised conspiracy theories. One of the newest Nuwaubian charges is a “bulletin” on the group’s Internet site claiming Judge Royal “hates” Nuwaubians because his great-great-great-grandfather was a Confederate soldier who fought the Creek Indians.
If convicted on racketeering charges — that York allegedly operated the group to commit crimes — the federal government could seize the property outside Eatonton and sell it.
Benjamin-Smith thinks a conviction of York will kill off the group.
“With the king bee gone, [the followers] will scatter like ants,” she said.