EATONTON – People in Putnam County are waiting to see what will happen to the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors religious sect now that its leader, Malachi York, is in federal prison and the government wants to seize its headquarters.
At Wooten’s Barber Shop in Eatonton, owner Sammy Wooten said many of his customers are hopeful the sect will fade into memory if the federal government owns the property and York is behind bars.
“At first it was funny when they showed up,” Wooten said. “It got to be ridiculous.”
At least one member of the group said it will carry on. Kermit B. Nowlin, 33, said Tuesday he has been a York follower for more than 10 years and previously lived at its headquarters in rural Putnam County.
“Nuwaubians are not going to be wiped out by this,” Nowlin said.
Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League said quasi-religious cult groups like the Nuwaubians react differently to the loss of a leader.
“Some of them continue on under new leadership, some kind of die out and sometimes a leader may try to continue to lead from prison,” Pitcavage said. “In this case it’s too soon to tell.”
York was sentenced in April for his conviction on child molestation and racketeering charges. His lawyers have filed a motion for a new trial and a notice of intent to appeal his conviction.
Nowlin said he does not believe the Nuwaubians’ leader will remain in prison.
“I believe 100 percent that Dr. York is not guilty of the child molestation charges or the racketeering charge against him,” Nowlin said. “And I believe that one day he will be cleared of those charges.”
York started the group in the late 1960s in Brooklyn, N.Y., calling it the Nubian Islamic Hebrews, according to an FBI report on the group.
Over the years, the group moved outside the city to a suburban property and became known at the Ansaru Allah Community. The group’s teachings have incorporated parts of Islam, Judaism and Christianity over the years, as well as the polytheistic Egyptian themes.
York at one time claimed to be from another world.
He moved his headquarters to Putnam County in 1993 where it has been known as the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and more recently as the Yamassee Native Americans of the Creek Nation.
The Nuwaubian empire York built included the $950,000, 476-acre tract in rural Putnam County that group members have argued is their sovereign holy land, a $750,000 house in Athens and more than a dozen book stores in at least five states.
Last year, federal prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit against York to seize the two pieces of property and more than $430,000 in cash seized in May 2002, at the time of York’s arrest.
Group members are fighting forfeiture of the property, claiming York deeded it to them.
The book stores are not part of the forfeiture action, according to Pamela Lightsey of the U.S. Attorney’s office in Macon. She declined to answer questions about who owns the bookstores and why they were not part of the forfeiture.
Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, who investigated the allegations against York, said some of the bookstores have closed since York’s arrest.
“They sold York’s books, tapes and videos, but they were also recruiting stations,” he said.
A man who answered the telephone at Macon’s Nuwaubian bookstore, All Eyes on Egypt, declined comment for this story. A woman at the All Eyes on Egypt location in Augusta said she would return a call later, but did not. The telephone at a store in Columbus had been disconnected.
U.S. District Judge Ashley Royal ruled last month he will not decide whether the government can take ownership of the group’s land until the issue of whether York will get a new trial is decided.
Group member Anthony Evans testified at a hearing last month that he, his wife, Patrice, and another group member, Ethel Richardson, own the land, after York deeded it to them.
At the same hearing, Richelle York Davis testified that the Athens house is owned by a family partnership and is not the property of Malachi York. Prosecutor Verda Colvin said York had 99 percent ownership of the partnership.
York followers testified in a hearing last month that they plan to continue living on the Putnam County land they call Wahanee, where the group’s church, fellowship hall and office is located and where they have built a number of Egyptian-style monuments.
Property manager Al Woodall testified that the group, which now calls itself Yamassee Native Americans of the Creek Nation, has plans to improve the property if it retains ownership. He did not go into details about work that is planned.
On Tuesday, guards at the gate turned away a reporter seeking comment.
The two men, dressed in red shirts and black pants asked the reporter to back out of the driveway. When asked if officials or others could be interviewed, one of the men said, “This is not the place.”
The guardhouse where the men were stationed is located inside a large faux stone pillar on the left side of the main driveway into the property. That pillar and its twin on the right side, along with a cross piece on top are engraved with Egyptian-style symbols.
No other people were visible on the rambling property. Its main street is paved in white crushed stone and flanked by alternating flagpoles and monuments that lead to buildings to the rear of the development.
Attempts to reach officers of the group last week and on Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Sills said the group’s presence in Putnam County seems to have diminished in recent years. But late last month, about 1,000 people attended the group’s Zed Festival centered on York’s birthday. In past years, the birthday has been marked by an event known as Founder’s Day or Savior’s Day.
Officials have said at one time hundreds of Nuwaubians lived and worked in Putnam County, with perhaps several thousand visitors for Savior’s Day. About 50 people still live at the Nuwaubian property, Sills said. Putnam County Commission Chairman Steve Layson said the number of Nuwaubians seemed to decline even before York’s arrest.
“The people who distributed literature on the street corners and the people who became familiar through their dealings with the county over zoning issues, you don’t see anymore,” Layson said. “Where they are now, I don’t know.”
Nowlin said the Nuwaubians who remain at the compound are not representative of the majority of the group.
“The people that protest in front of the courthouse and are filing all these lawsuits are not Dr. York’s supporters,” Nowlin said. “They are actually trying to do him harm. It appears their purpose is to make us all look ridiculous. They walked with him for years, but they didn’t hear his message.”
Staff Writer Sharon E. Crawford contributed to this story.