'This little town didn't back up'
Eatonton feels relief as nearby cult wanes
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/January 11, 2004
By Bill Torpy
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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
"With the king bee gone, [the followers] will scatter like
ants," she said.