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Cult Leader Ignored His Own Rules

By Bill Osinski, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Staff Writer
Originally published in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 7, 2002

EATONTON — For more than three decades, Dwight York was a god to his people.

But the way he lived as a man was decidedly unholy, says a group of his former followers.

It didn't matter whether he assumed the trappings of an Egyptian-style deity—as the leader of a group based on a former cattle farm in Putnam County and called the United Nation of Nuwaubian Moors—or whether he claimed to be a descendant of a legendary Muslim warrior prophet leading the Ansaru Allah Community, a group based in a collection of apartment houses on Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The contradictions between what York claimed to be and what he was were the same. The former followers say:

  • While he restricted and controlled the sexual relationships of most of his followers, he practiced total sexual freedom, with any woman, girl or boy he chose, fathering 100 or more illegitimate children over the years.

  • While he demanded his followers give him unquestioned loyalty and obedience, plus all or most of their possessions, and work long hours without pay, he held them in contempt and considered them fools for believing in him.

  • While he publicly claimed he was the victim of racial discrimination because he is black, he privately preached racial hatred toward whites.

  • While most of his followers lived in squalor, he lived in luxury.

York's own arrogance, and a few of the children he sired, are what finally brought his Wizard of Oz-like charade to an end. He now sits in a jail, indicted in both federal and state courts on charges of sexual abuse of children. The 116-count state indictment, which is expected to be expanded in the months ahead, represents perhaps the largest prosecution of its kind in Georgia courts.

Some of those closest to York—the children he exiled, the women he discarded after they bore him babies—played pivotal roles in building the government's case against him.

York's attorney, Ed Garland, was unavailable to comment for this article. However, in a previous court argument, Garland has suggested that witnesses who participated in the York investigation may have been pressured or coached, either by their relatives or by law enforcement agents.

The former followers interviewed for this article include:

  • A son of York's who broke with him after learning his father was having sex with his 14-year-old girlfriend.

  • A daughter of York's who was shunned from the community after she refused his sexual advances.

  • A woman who was expelled from the community while she was pregnant with her third child by York.

  • Two victim-witnesses in the child molestation charges and the father of one victim.

  • A young man who lived at the Putnam County farm for about two years.

All of them asked that their names not be used. Some of them made that request because of their participation in the case, while others said they are concerned for their safety.

During York's bond hearing, an FBI agent testified that at least two of the witnesses reported they have been threatened, either by York or by his supporters.

The followers tell the story of a man who used the promise of salvation for a select 144,000, whom he would choose, mixed in with an ideology of racial pride and pseudo-religious doctrines, to create a cult of followers who had near-fanatical loyalty. But all York was really interested in was the money and the sex, they say.

York's son recalled his father once saying he would dress up like a nun for the kind of money he was getting.

The early years

Just who, then, is Dwight York? Not an easy question to answer, even if all one wants is the man's name.

Among York's aliases are Isa Abdullah, Isa Muhammad, Imam Isa, Imam Isa Abu-Bakr, Imam Isa Al-Hadi Al-Mahdi, Rabboni, Yashuah, Melchisedek, Yanuwn, Nayya, Dr. Malachi Z. York, Chief Black Eagle, the Lamb and Baba.

His group has been called Nubian Islamic Hebrews, Ansar Pure Sufi, Nubians, Ansaru Allah Community, Washitaw Tribe, United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, Lodge 19 of the Ancient Order of Melchizedek and, most recently, the Holy Seed Baptist Synagogue.

He was born in New Jersey in June 1945. When he was 19, he was convicted of assault, resisting arrest and possession of a dangerous weapon and he spent three years in a New York state prison.

According to his son and daughter, York told of a relative having molested him as a child and of being raped while he was jailed.

After his release, York became affiliated with the State Street Mosque in Brooklyn in the late 1960s, during the peak years of the Black Power movement. He started his own group, first on Coney Island, then in Brooklyn.

The group settled into a headquarters on Bushwick Avenue in Brooklyn. Though it professed to be primarily a religious group, it also promoted the doctrines of black racial superiority and hatred of whites, according to the report of a 1993 investigation of the group by an FBI domestic terrorism unit as well as to Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, a Muslim scholar who studied the group.

The original vision for the group, then called Ansaru Allah Community, was that of an orthodox Muslim community, where the brightest of the children would be raised to become skilled professionals, according to York's son. This son is the fifth of six children of York and Dorothy Mae Johnson, also known as Zubadah Muhammad, who is believed to be York's first and only legal wife.

York's son recalled that his father was fascinated with sleight-of-hand tricks. York used to extend his hands over his favored followers, adding a dramatic poof of dust, but the son discovered the "dust" came from trick pills secreted in his father's pockets.

In its early years in Brooklyn, the group was given credit by police and in New York newspaper articles for cleaning up what had been a drug-infested neighborhood. The group expanded to a collection of about 12 buildings and a mosque that York built, and affiliated branches were opened in about a dozen U.S. cities and in Canada, Britain, Trinidad and Jamaica.

York's son recalled that one of his duties when he was an adolescent was to take suitcases full of cash to York's trusted female aides.

According to the FBI intelligence report, however, the expansion was fueled by criminal activity, including extortion, arson and welfare fraud. For example, the report stated, when York's group wanted to buy another building and the owner was reluctant to sell at the price offered, the building was firebombed.

The men in the group were mostly sent out to peddle group literature and items such as incense on the streets of New York, while the women maintained the community and cared for the children.

York was never indicted for any of the criminal activity described in the FBI report. That report was not completed until 1993, and by that time, the days of Ansaru Allah were already growing short.

Leaving New York

By the late 1980s and early 1990s, York had started spending much of his time at a rural property in Sullivan County, N.Y., that he called Camp Jazzir.

It was during this time, York's son said, that he started seeing his father's dark side.

There was a select group of girls who seemed to have special access to York, said the son, who was about 14 or 15 then. One day, he said, he discovered a videotape in his father's bedroom that showed his own 14 year-old girlfriend performing sex acts with toys.

The girl admitted that she had been having sex with the older York. After that, the son said, he started to speak out against his father's sexual practices within the community.

York's daughter also had a falling-out with her father.

When she was 18, in the early 1990s, she said, a woman in the community came to her and told her that she was to prepare to have sex with York. At the time, the daughter said, she was a virgin who had been raised by the cult's strict religious codes.

She refused and was soon banished from the community, after being married by York's order to a man hired to teach Arabic to the community's children, she said. York forbade her mother to participate in the wedding, she added.

Soon, York's son and his mother joined the daughter in exile. The daughter recalled having to make trips back to Ansaru Allah to smuggle out some of her mother's clothing and possessions.

The son said his mother became despondent after learning that York had been molesting the children. He said she told him: "We set them up like lambs to be slaughtered by the wolf." She died in 1995.

By 1993, the pressure on York was increasing from the outside, as well as from within.

Besides the FBI investigation, Philips wrote a book on York's group titled "The Ansar Cult." Philips, now a teacher in the United Arab Emirates, described Ansaru Allah as a "heretic, pseudo-Muslim sect."

The book includes interviews Philips conducted with about a dozen former members of the group. They described Ansaru Allah as a place where the ordinary members had insufficient food and slept in overcrowded rooms, often on the floor.

York slept with whomever he chose, while husbands and wives in the community were not allowed to sleep with each other, they said. York mated men and women as he saw fit, and he determined when and where they could have sexual relations, they said.

The Philips book included a Muslim cleric's decree that no true Muslim should be associated with York's group.

About that time, York dropped all Muslim religious practices and costumes and moved to Georgia.

The Georgia years

In 1993, York paid approximately $1 million for a 400-acre farm in rural Putnam County.

At first, York sought to claim identity with Native Americans. His group's tracts said he had chosen to move to Putnam County because of the county's Native American historic site at Rock Eagle.

Soon, though, the group changed identities again, this time going all-out with an Egyptian motif. York had pyramids, obelisks, and statues of ancient Egyptian deities built, mostly along the part of the land that fronts on Ga. 142. The group assumed the name United Nation of Nuwaubian Moors, and it called the farm the Egypt of the West. There were never more than 100 to 200 people actually living on the farm property, although an undetermined number of people affiliated with the Nuwaubians has moved to Putnam and surrounding counties since the farm was established.

York tried to claim status as a sovereign government for the Nuwaubians. He said he and his followers should be allowed to run their own affairs because of the racial discrimination he was being subjected to.

Inside the cult, things went much the same as they had in Brooklyn, according to the former members. About four years ago, child welfare officials received an anonymous complaint that children were being molested on the Nuwaubian farm.

But no one stepped forward to make an official criminal complaint.

About that time, York's son said, he learned York was continuing to have sex with underage members of the community. Some of the children were ones he remembered from when he was growing up in Ansaru Allah, he said. Some of those children had grown up and had children by York, he said.

He came to Georgia to confront York, and he said York admitted that he was sick, but he thought he could control his sexual predations, he said.

But the son was not satisfied with his father's explanations, so about two years ago, he moved to metro Atlanta. His home soon became a sort of halfway house for people leaving the Nuwaubian community.

He recalled a time about a year ago when he told the young people staying with him about the hard times he'd had after leaving Ansaru Allah. Some of the girls in the group started to cry, he said, because they'd been told he and the others who left had deliberately abandoned them.

Then the girls started to tell him about the extent of the sexual abuse, York's son said. At that point, he called Putnam Sheriff Howard Sills and said he had some information about his father.

The next day, the son met with Sills and FBI agents in Atlanta. He brought with him a young woman who has become one of the key witnesses in the investigation.

At about the same time, York called several of his children together for a meeting in New York, according to the daughter. She said she thought he wanted to make peace, but it turned out that he just needed money.

She said York thought the children, especially his sons, should want what he had, that is, power, money and women. He said he never believed his own rhetoric and that he considered those who did to be fools or idiots, she said.

In a related development around the same time, two women filed separate paternity suits against York in Clarke County.

One woman said she was expelled from the group while pregnant with her third child by York. She said she had been sick during that pregnancy and was charged with malingering, but part of the reason she was expelled was that York knew the child would have serious birth defects and, thus, not be worthy of being claimed. The child, a boy now about 10 years old, is profoundly retarded and has several major medical problems. He is a ward of the state of Florida and lives in a nursing home.

The other woman said she had one son by York when she was 18. But she has also told investigators about molestation by York while she was under age.

These two women and York's son said 100 would be a conservative estimate of the number of children York has fathered.

The followers

The former members of York's groups interviewed were all asked why they, and people like them, would give so much to a man who, by their own accounts, gave them so little in return.

Some cited York's charisma, his ability to transmit absolute conviction in his arcane, ever- changing ideologies. Whatever York says became part of what they call "Right Knowledge," and everything and everybody else is simply wrong, they said.

There is also a racial undercurrent to some of York's appeal. In a tape showing him speaking to a group of his followers, York calls white people "devils." He advocates the religion he concocted, rather than what he called the secondhand religions passed down by white people.

In much of York's literature, he claims only 144,000 people will be allowed into heaven. Since he is the leader, anyone who wants to be part of that group must follow him.

And since he sets himself up as a god, no one can question him, the followers say. That is how he gets people to accept the miserable conditions and the forced breakups of their families, they said.

It is also a line that he has used to get children to agree to have sex with him, according to one teenager who has testified to the state grand jury. She said in a recent interview that York told her submitting to him in sex was the way she'd get to heaven.

Experts from agencies that monitor cults and hate groups say they have seen these patterns before.

Recently, the Nuwaubians were placed on a list of hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"It's definitely a black supremacist group, a mirror image of white hate groups," said Bob Moser, a senior writer for the center who is preparing an article on York and the Nuwaubians for its magazine.

Moser said he has interviewed former members of the group and has viewed tapes of York speaking privately to groups of his followers.

York gets his followers to follow him blindly because they accept him as a god figure, he said. "Once you accept that Dwight York is special, then you automatically have to subordinate yourself to that authority," he said.

"But instead of giving his people opportunity, he takes it away, essentially getting free labor from his followers."

Despite all the religious trappings of York's group, "for him, the bottom line is the money," Moser said.

'Caricature of a cult'

Phillip Arnn, senior researcher for Watchman Fellowship Inc., a Texas-based Christian anti-cult organization that maintains files on 5,000 cult-related organizations, said his group has characterized the Nuwaubians as "almost a caricature of a cult."

The group's files on the Nuwaubians included reports of gatherings where cartoonlike figures representing manifestations of beings from outer space were projected around a room, he said.

But there was also a darker side to the group, he said, particularly the often-stated beliefs of the Nuwaubians that only 144,000 people would be allowed to go to heaven and that York would be the one to do the selection.

"That is a classic anti-social, apocalyptic scenario," Arnn said.

Now, the scenario York faces is the prospect of spending many years in jail.

And there is an even sadder legacy for some of the children York is accused of molesting.

Of five children taken into protective custody by the state, four have been found to have sexually transmitted diseases.


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