U.S. District Judge Ashley Royal issued an order Thursday allowing federal officials to seize $1.7 million in property tied to the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, including the group’s 476-acre headquarters in rural Putnam County.
Royal on Monday ruled the property is owned by the founder of the religious sect, Malachi York, who was convicted in January of child molestation and racketeering charges. His ruling Thursday stated the government can proceed in taking ownership of the property.
Lawyer Robert Ratliff, who represents several members of the group who claim ownership of the property, said Thursday he will immediately file an appeal of Royal’s decision. Ratliff said he will ask the appeals court to issue an injunction to delay government seizure of the property, which includes the Putnam County compound and a $750,000 house in Athens.
U.S. Attorney Maxwell Wood said he doesn’t know when the government might take possession of the land.
“It’s too early to put a timetable on that,” he said.
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 at the time of York’s arrest.
Two groups of people claiming to be York supporters came forward saying they were the actual owners of the property.
Royal held a hearing June 30 to hear claims that York had deeded the Putnam County property to three of his followers and that ownership of the Athens house had been transferred to a family partnership.
“We’ve said all along that Dwight (Malachi) York has always been in control of these properties,” Wood said Wednesday. “This was just a ploy to create confusion … which has become their usual tactic.”
Royal’s decision Thursday comes just two weeks after saying he would delay making a decision until he determined whether York would get a new trial. York founded the Nuwaubian group in the late 1960s in New York and moved its headquarters to Putnam County in 1993.
Royal’s ruling Thursday did not explain why he decided to allow the government forfeiture to proceed, and the judge’s staff said he does not publicly discuss his rulings.
“I don’t understand it, because the U.S. attorney did agree to (the delay),” Ratliff said of Royal’s decision.
Wood said he would probably meet next week with representatives from the U.S. Marshal’s Office and other agencies to determine when they will take possession of the property in Putnam County and the home in Athens.
“I understand their lawyer will move to reconsider, and we’ll take that into account,” Wood said. “There is no need to rush in there. We will act methodically.”
Both sides said that if the appeals fail and the government does take possession of the property, they expect a peaceful hand-over.
“The group will exercise every legal option – and there are several – to prove their title to the land,” Ratliff said. “But if it came down to brass tacks, they would turn it over peacefully.”
Wood said he expects no physical resistance from the Nuwaubians.
“I don’t anticipate any problems,” Wood said. “We’ve never had that type of trouble with them before.”
The group’s Putnam County headquarters contains a church, fellowship hall, offices and is home to about 50 people. The grounds are decorated with Egyptian-style monuments, including two pyramids and a replica of the Sphinx.
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.