July 19, 2009

Fall of the Nuwaubian empire?

Athens Banner-Herald
January 25, 2003
By Stephen Gurr

Doctor, reverend, master teacher, rabbi -- Dwight ''Malachi'' York has used all those monikers almost interchangeably. But as he prepares to assume a new title -- inmate -- the future of his empire hangs in serious doubt.
Most believe the religious sect York founded some 10 years ago on 400 acres of Putnam County farmland -- the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors -- peaked in the late 1990s, when thousands would attend the group's Savior Day celebrations each June. Flush with the success of his movement, York bought a $550,000 home in a quiet Athens subdivision and spent another $385,000 on a commercial property on West Broad Street.
His followers, dressed in their colorful, quasi-Egyptian garb, were welcomed warmly in the Classic City, where they participated in city parades and were feted as honored guests at the fall 2000 local NAACP banquet.
But today there are few signs that the Nuwaubian movement continues to thrive. Work has halted on the faux-Moorish building at the corner of West Broad and South Church streets, first proposed as a lodge then licensed as a bookstore.
York's store at an Atlanta Highway strip mall, ''All Eyes on Egypt,'' was closed Friday, the same day he pleaded guilty to 77 counts of child molestation and related charges. No one answered the door at York's mansion on Mansfield Court.
Reached earlier in the week, Nuwaubian members declined to comment.
While the government seized $400,000 in cash and numerous guns found in searches of his Putnam County compound and Athens home, federal and state prosecutors have no plans to take any of York's other assets.
But others have claims against York. The father of one victim has filed a $1 billion civil suit against the Brooklyn-born sect leader.
''There will definitely be some people coming after him,'' said Manchester attorney Ronny Jones, who says York still owes him $15,000 in unpaid legal fees. Last month Clarke County Superior Court Judge Lawton Stephens issued a judgment against York for the bill, which was accrued when Jones was assisting York in a Putnam County zoning dispute.
''I'm trying to collect on the judgment,'' Jones said.
It may not be easy. While York's mail-order business selling Egyptian-themed jewelry, clothes and books was apparently thriving, he eventually had them incorporated in other people's names, according to former Putnam County Attorney Frank Ford, who had frequent clashes with York over zoning.
As for the properties still in York's name, including the home and building, Ford doubts they have much equity.
''Once payments stop being made, they will probably revert to the lender for foreclosure,'' Ford said.
Athens-Clarke County officials will move next week to rescind York's building permit for work on the Broad Street store, formerly the location of Ideal Amusements. Director of Building Inspections Ken Hix said officials can cancel a building permit if a project goes six months without significant progress.
''We have not had any inspections there since May,'' Hix said.
The aura surrounding York seems to have faded among his followers, as well. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills described a ''noticeable exodus of sorts'' at the Putnam County compound.
''I can say a lot of them disappeared from around here after his arrest,'' Sills said.
While as many as 200 followers have packed court hearings for York in the past, only two supporters were present for his guilty plea Friday. Ford believes York put the word out for them to stay away.
''They didn't know this was going on,'' Ford said of the negotiated plea. ''He kept them out of the courtroom while he was making these admissions.''
''Based on what I saw today, (the group) has definitely weakened,'' said Putnam County Assistant District Attorney Dawn Baskin. ''I would seriously doubt they would continue as a community in Putnam County.''
Others aren't so sure. Jones believes York's daughter, Hagar York-El, could step into the void left by York.
''She could definitely speak for her father and continue his teachings,'' Jones said.
In Athens, it's harder to gauge the Nuwaubians' continued presence. But the predominantly black group has won friends in the African-American community and been praised as hard-working, self-sufficient people.
''They're people who go to work every day, pay rent or own homes,'' said local activist Thomas Oglesby. ''They bring entrepreneurship to this town. You've got brick masons, carpenters, locksmiths, bakers, all of them have something going.''
Oglesby doesn't think York's conviction will lead the group to dissolve.
''That's not going to happen,'' he said. ''This group is not a small group, this group isn't just in Georgia -- it's nationwide and worldwide.''
Said Walter Allen Jr., who runs the local African-American magazine ''Zebra'' and has employed some Nuwaubians, ''this case has been going on for eight months, and they've still been functioning.''

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