Nabbing the man from outer space

Putnam County vs. Dwight York

FBI agents rolled into a Kroger parking lot in Milledgeville on the afternoon of May 8, catching Dwight York off guard. York’s arrest was four years in the making. An investigation that started with a 1998 letter to the Putnam County sheriff had recently come together in enough detail to nab the leader of an Egyptian-themed religious sect on charges of sexually abusing children.

Within an hour of York’s arrest, a row of unmarked FBI cars trailed by black-and-white county patrollers crept ant-like up Highway 142, from Eatonton toward Covington. When the FBI SWAT team reached the entrance of York’s compound, says Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, they rammed a vehicle straight through the locked metal gate.

Referring to maps of the 460-acre plot, which is replete with alien statuettes, ankh-adorned obelisks and 40-foot pyramids, agents started loading evidence into a 30-foot truck.

The next day, a federal grand jury indicted York on four counts of transporting minors across state lines for sex. Within a week, a Putnam County grand jury indicted him on 116 counts of child molestation and other sex-related charges. The indictment alleges the abuse took place on York’s compound from 1993 to 2001.

Having lived near the Nuwaubians for years — and having known about the child molestation allegations — the sheriff says the experience has taxed his wafer-thin patience for York, with whom tension has long been brewing.

What started with bickering over the compound’s structures not being up to zoning code escalated into lawsuits and threats against Sills and other county officials, Sills claims. All the while, Sills was piecing together his investigation into York’s alleged abuse of children.

“It would just eat me up every day,” he says.

But the Nuwaubians, as well as their friends in high places, claim the sheriff has had it in for them all along — and that York’s arrest is but the latest in the sheriff’s attack on a system of beliefs he doesn’t accept.

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks, D-Atlanta, says he has visited the Nuwaubian compound numerous times. Brooks also says that before York’s arrest, he and Sills met to discuss the sheriff’s treatment of the Nuwaubians.

Brooks, a Baptist, says he has reached the conclusion that the Nuwaubians are being persecuted solely because of race and creed.

“I can’t speak to these specific allegations that are being brought against the Nuwaubians as it relates to the arrest last week,” Brooks says. “But I can speak to the kind of harassment and threats and just absolute violation of their rights that I’ve witnessed over the past four years.”

He claims deputies have been profiling Nuwaubians and that the sheriff is dead-set on intimidating them so that they leave the county.

Ten years ago, Putnam County, with its rolling pastures and dairy farms, was best known as the birthplace of Joel Chandler Harris, creator of Br’er Rabbit and the Tar Baby tales.

But in 1993, the Nuwaubians came to town, claiming they wanted to be close to the Indian burial mounds in the Oconee National Forest, which abuts their compound. Now Putnam County’s notoriety comes from the Nuwaubians, who are waiting for a UFO to land and pick up those chosen for “rebirth.”

It’s difficult to pin down the ideology of York and his followers, who claim to be descendants of the ancient African nation Nubia (modern-day Sudan). The Nuwaubians’ website describes York as a former Muslim cleric, a self-professed Native American chief, a Christian, a rabbi and a traveler from another universe. The Nuwaubian’s doctrine appears to be a conglomerate of beliefs, strained through York’s head. In flyers and Nuwaubian literature, York is called the “Grand Master Teacher” and the bearer of “Holy Seed.”

“He came giving us what we wanted so that we will learn to want what he REALLY had to give,” the website states.

On Shady Dale Road, the Nuwaubians built a shrine to their leader, Dwight York (whom they call Dr. Malachi Z. York-El), and to Egyptian and extraterrestrial icons. The compound sits alongside rusty-roofed barns and century-old farmhouses, looking about as appropriate as a Sun-Ra at a square dance.

For years, several of the compound’s structures, including the Ramses nightclub, were cited for zoning violations. Ramses, for instance, was described to county officials as a storage shed. The Nuwaubians, however, claimed the county zoning board targeted them simply for being different — and that Sheriff Sills, elected in 1997, started butting his nose into business that wasn’t his.

Sills says the Nuwaubians’ assertion that they’re being picked on and that he’s a racist are hogwash. The sheriff and county officials claim the Nuwaubians, armed with guns, wouldn’t allow zoning inspectors on the compound. And after the Nuwaubians sued the county for the right to build, a Nuwaubian named Bernard Foster was arrested in 2000 for slashing the tires of the attorney representing the county.

“I’m accused of being a racist, but there’s no evidence offered,” Sills says in his Eatonton office, lighting up a Lucky Strike every 15 minutes.

“I was asked by county officials to be the enforcement agent [in enforcing the zoning ordinance]. I would have liked to have said to hell with this zoning stuff. I wanted to focus on the child molestation charges.”

Sills says that in 1998, he got an anonymous package including detailed plans of the Nuwaubian compound and instructions pointing to where Sills might find evidence of sexual abuse of children. He also says pregnant, underage girls were showing up at a nearby hospital in labor.

Over the next four years, Sills says, he received a succession of letters. But he says they weren’t enough to take to a grand jury. Not until May 1 of this year did alleged victims and witnesses agree to talk to investigators. Sills says 20 individuals have since come forward.

Once the sheriff, DA and FBI amassed enough evidence against York, they moved agents into the compound’s vicinity — a difficult task given the middle Georgia atmosphere of everyone knowing everyone’s actions.

“Two nights before the raid, a media outlet called wanting to know why the FBI SWAT team was staying in a local hotel,” Sills recalls.

York, meanwhile, had been under constant deputy surveillance since the beginning of May, according to Sills.

Last week, York was denied bond after the U.S. Attorney’s Office brought up York’s 1980 conviction on passport fraud. In 1964, York was charged in New York for statutory rape and was convicted of an assault charge the next year.

The federal search warrant carried out at York’s compound shortly after his recent arrest turned up 20 guns, according to Maxwell Wood, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia. At least three guns were in York’s supposed home — along with “a pink panther doll that had male genitalia sewn onto it” and a metal suitcase containing $280,000, Wood says. He says victims told investigators they’d find the cash there.

The FBI also found $127,000 and seven guns at York’s Athens residence, according to Wood. He couldn’t say where the cash was suspected to have come from. Nor could he comment on the nature of videotapes taken from the compound.

“I really don’t know what’s on them,” Wood says. “I know they’re being looked at.”

York’s attorney, former state Rep. Leroy Johnson, says York no longer lived at the compound at the time of his arrest. Johnson claims the FBI found “no sordid material” at York’s house in Athens. And he says the cash came from donations from York’s followers. “They haven’t connected that money with any illegal act,” Johnson says.

Johnson also says York knows why he and his wife have been indicted in state and federal courts:

“He believes that he’s been set up,” Johnson says. “He believes that there are some forces at work who are anti-York.”

Although he didn’t elaborate, Johnson says he “would not be surprised, of course, if Sills had some hand in discrediting and trying to get him out of Putnam County.”

Sills and others scoff at the notion. And Sills, the DA and the U.S. Attorney boast of how they delicately avoided disaster while amassing a case against York.

And they are quick to draw comparisons to the Branch Davidians.

“There was tremendous planning to avoid any kind of Waco-like thing from happening,” Sills says.

“I think the last thing we all wanted was another Waco,” says DA Fred Bright.

“It really could have been another Waco thing,” according to Wood.

Wood continues: “The FBI has a lot to be proud of. If it had gone bad, that would have been the front-page news. I just would really appreciate it if you would quote me on that.”