Cult leader's molestation trial could create circus

Monday, January 5, 2004

EATONTON, Ga. -- After months of protests by followers dressed as Egyptian pharaohs, mummies and birds, the leader of a quasi-religious cult is headed to trial today on charges he molested young followers.

Dwight "Malachi" York leads the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, a mostly black sect whose neo-Egyptian compound on a Georgia farm includes pyramid-like structures. Hundreds of supporters have turned out for his hearings, sometimes dressed in American Indian garb, beating drums or handing out anti-government literature.

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 members of the cult in court. "They cannot stand being told no, and they cannot stand being ignored."

U.S. District Judge Ashley Royal ruled last week that York's supporters won't be allowed to demonstrate outside the courthouse during the trial, which was moved 225 miles from Macon to Brunswick because of pretrial publicity.

York, also known to his followers as "Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle," faces 13 federal counts of molestation and racketeering. He reached a state and federal plea bargain that would have given him 15 years in federal prison and 14 years in state prison, but the federal judge rejected the agreement.

The Nuwaubians, founded in New York in the early 1970s, once claimed 5,000 members but now are down to a few hundred.

York moved the sect to a 476-acre Georgia compound in 1993, and the group has gone through several transformations since. They've dressed as cowboys and American Indians, claimed to be Muslim and Jewish, and York has said he is from the planet "Rizq."

Prosecutors maintain 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.

One of his wives, Kathy Johnson, was arrested with him in May 2002 and implicated in child molestation involving at least 13 children, including her son. She pleaded guilty to a federal charge of failing to report a crime, but the state case against her is on hold.

York, 58, maintains he's being unfairly prosecuted because of a vendetta by small-town authorities who dislike his cult's unusual practices and compound. He has also argued he has American Indian heritage and shouldn't be judged by the U.S. court system.

In November, York filed a lawsuit against state and federal law enforcement officials claiming he was kidnapped and has been tortured since his 2002 arrest.

During hearings, he once refused to stand when the judge entered the courtroom, and he has responded to the judge's questions with answers such as "I accept this for value."

At a Christmas parade in Brunswick, Nuwaubians wore bird and cow masks, dressed as mummies carrying parasols, and depicted the Egyptian pharaoh Rameses.

It's not York's first brush with the law: He spent three years in a New York prison in the 1960s for assault, resisting arrest and possession of a dangerous weapon. He joined the Black Panther Party and in 1967 formed a black nationalist group in New York.

York's attorney, Adrian Patrick, said he didn't expect demonstrators to cause any problems at the trial, 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."

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