“Threshold,” by Maury Gortemiller
The Road to Tama-Re
By Asher Elbein
An Enigmatic Ex-con, His Improvised Religion, and the Georgia Town That Watched It Fall
On April 12, 2010, my friend and classmate Iasia Sweeting disappeared. The spring semester at DeKalb School of the Arts was drawing to a close, and as the last classes ended that day, a torrent of students poured down the white cinder-block halls, heading out to the idling school buses or to nearby fast-food places. Iasia stood against the wall, a short girl with serene brown eyes, hair braided with cowrie shells, and a face that swung between solemn and smiling. Her best friend leaned in, talking in a conspiratorial undertone. I passed them and exchanged a word or two with Iasia, a quick good-bye. She smiled. Then the crowd swallowed her up and swept me out the door.
The arts magnet high school was small, around three hundred students packed into the two-hallway annex of another Atlanta high school, and everyone knew each other. Iasia was part of the 2012 class, a year younger than me, and we had the casual friendship that comes of sharing a few classes and an interest in writing. Her talent ran toward poetry, which she delivered with an easy flow honed by constant practice at open mics. People said bigger things were on the way for her: recording deals, producers. When she didn’t show up in class the next day, I thought nothing of it.
But as the week went on, the awareness of her absence crept up on us, ate at us. Worried conversations broke out in clumps of students in the hallways. Rumors spread: that Iasia, the cheerful poet, had not been as cheerful as we thought; that she and her mother had been fighting; that she had run away; that she had been kidnapped. The days stretched to weeks—April turned to May, the semester racing toward its end—and no answers came. Her friends tried desperately to contact her. The police marked her as a runaway. Her family kept searching, convinced that she’d been abducted. It came to nothing. Iasia Sweeting was gone, as completely as if she’d fallen out of the world.
ALMOST FIFTY YEARS BEFORE, a young man named Dwight York walked out of a New York state prison and slipped into the throngs of Harlem. His age at the time is a mystery. In later years, he would go out of his way to elide his origins, claiming at times to have been born in 1935 or 1945, in Boston or New York or New Jersey. Certainly he looked young: a handsome dark-skinned man with a slim, strong face and sleepy eyes. He’d served three years for assault, possession of a weapon, and breaking probation in an earlier charge for the statutory rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. Now he was free.
There was turmoil on the streets of Harlem. Long a center of black culture and art, the neighborhood was now a hotbed of rent strikes and school boycotts. Malcolm X had been assassinated in 1965, while York was still in prison; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed the year after he got out. With the struggle for civil rights raging, many black Americans saw promise in the profusion of black nationalist movements in Harlem. The Nation of Islam and the Black Hebrews thrived beside more esoteric disciplines such as the Moorish Science Temple, which claimed African Americans were “asiatic” descendents of African moors. “In response to systemic racism, these groups sought to explain the ‘true identity’ of black people,” said Dr. Julius Bailey, a scholar of black spirituality and new religious movements. “Because African Americans are not meant to be proud of their heritage in American culture, many look outside of it.” According to Bailey, most of these groups agreed on one thing: the black race might have been taken from Africa, but their history springs from deeper, hidden roots.
York assimilated easily into this theological tumult. He worked as a street peddler with the Nation of Islam, while preaching his own material on the side. He later claimed to have undertaken pilgrimages to the Middle East and Africa, where he said he studied at the American University in Cairo, the University of Khartoum, and with the Ansar—a Sufi sect of Sudanese Muslims following the teachings of the “Mad Mahdi,” Muhammad Ahmad. York apparently became an American ambassador for the group, but his penchant for self-mythology has muddled the record. (York declined to speak to me for this story.) What is certain is that in 1972 he gathered a small congregation and moved them into Bushwick, a poverty-stricken neighborhood in Brooklyn.
Initially called the Ansaaru Allah Community, York’s group grew rapidly throughout the 1970s. They soon occupied twenty-some communal apartment buildings, ran bookshops hawking York’s pamphlets, and opened stores selling clothing and groceries. Though York established side ministries under Christian and Jewish titles, his disciples practiced an ascetic, mystical form of Islam, one that preached black self-empowerment and demanded utmost devotion and service to York. They gave up their possessions, slept in gender-segregated barracks, and labored for free. Money rolled in from small chapters in Washington, Baltimore, London, and Trinidad, and by the early 1980s, York had purchased an eighty-acre vacation property in the Catskills. He started a side career in music, hobnobbed with hip-hop artists, including Afrika Bambaataa and MF Doom, and threw his weight behind young MCs—Tariq L., Scienz of Life—who incorporated his teachings into their music. (A portrait of York dressed in white robes appears in the music video for “The Originators,” an early Jay Z collaboration.)
York’s protean nature was the root of his success. He assumed a dizzying array of names and titles, crafting a belief system that drew on monotheistic religions and fringe conspiracies with equal enthusiasm. By the 1990s, his Abrahamic leanings fell away, replaced by something stranger. His followers asserted that these doctrines—what soon came to be known as Nuwaubianism, or Nuwaupu, or “Right Knowledge”—were not religious but a way of thought. They were correct: A religion requires a concrete ideology, and York was not so constrained. As a trickster and a teacher, he could represent anything. And his followers would follow him anywhere.
They soon had to. York’s popularity had attracted scrutiny from unwelcome quarters. The Nation of Islam pushed against the Nuwaubian presence in Brooklyn; mainstream Islamic clerics like Bilal Philips, author of The Ansar Cult in America, raised serious questions about their practices. The NYPD and FBI poked into allegations of arson, organized bank robbery, and welfare fraud. And there were darker suspicions, many of them centering around rumors of child abuse and murder.
On January 15, 1993, York bought a 476-acre property in rural Georgia. Shortly afterward, he legally changed his name to Malachi Z. York. He told the Nuwaubians that they were headed south; they would make their own nation.
IN THE YEARS AFTER HIGH SCHOOL, I did the things I was supposed to do: went off to college to pursue journalism, graduated, and began hustling as a freelance writer in Austin, Texas. In November 2014, I was home visiting my parents when my mother left a copy of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on the table for me, folded to frame an item in the Local News section headlined “Starvation Death.”
According to the article, a burly forty-four-year-old man named Calvin Mcintosh had brought an emaciated toddler into an Atlanta emergency room, where the child was pronounced dead on arrival. Police hastened to his address, an extended-stay motel northeast of the city. Inside they found Mcintosh’s daughter Najlaa and three malnourished children, all of them fathered by Mcintosh, two of them with his own daughter. The apartment contained an assortment of books and pamphlets that identified Mcintosh as a member of the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, a black sovereign organization thought to have been largely defunct since 2004. And wrapped in a blanket on the floor, fifty-nine pounds and barely alive, was Iasia Sweeting. The dead toddler and one of the living children were hers. She had been missing for four and a half years.
In the following days, I read more accounts, staring at the repeated photographs above the newsprint: her yearbook portrait, grinning, lively, happy, and beside it a picture of flesh drawn tight over bone, hospital tubes in the background, eyes dull and vacant. Between the photos was a senselessness, an irreconcilable void. We hadn’t been close, really. But I couldn’t make sense of this news, of the chasm separating our experiences. The whole time I’d been at college, Iasia had been locked behind the door of a Gwinnett County motel room, subjected to a nightmare.
I began following Iasia’s case, eager to understand the context of what had happened to her. We reconnected and talked intermittently while she made the difficult, surreal transition back to public life, moving into an apartment with her sister, reenrolling to finish high school, and working through the Department of Human Services to get custody of her daughter. Meanwhile, I kept returning to the subject of the Nuwaubians, unable to let it go. Even a cursory amount of research showed that the group was a strange phenomenon of the modern age—a true American religion, sworn to a proto-hip-hop preacher sworn to nonsense, that attempted a takeover of a small Georgia town in the late 1990s before a joint federal-local raid brought down its leader. Beneath that historical account was a tangle of details bizarre and bottomless. Calvin Mcintosh, it appeared, embodied the lingering influence of a cult that had been thought inactive for a decade. For the past year and a half, I followed that influence back as far as I could—back to the place where twin pyramids rose above the sun-draped Georgia fields, where the shape-shifting Malachi Z. York built a kingdom and then saw it come crashing down.
The city of Eatonton lies seventy-eight miles southeast of Atlanta, amid the gentle hills and long lakes of Putnam County, down country highways lined with cattle farms, past roadside fruit vendors, old gas stations, and stretches of neglected, verdant forest. It’s dairy country, down-home country: a place that produced both Joel Chandler Harris, the white writer of the Uncle Remus tales, and Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple. The city contains museums dedicated to both, and tricky Br’er Rabbit dances on billboards at the edge of town. Amid the fast food stops and antique stores of downtown Eatonton stands a main square dominated by the massive county courthouse and a small monument to the Confederate dead. This is not the sort of place where a large, organized band of strangers goes unnoticed.
They arrived suddenly and without fanfare in the spring of 1993, a procession of black strangers a few hundred strong, the men dressed in Stetson hats, shiny belt buckles, and cowboy boots. “Like they came from Texas or something,” said Tracey Bowen, a lieutenant in the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office. The residents of Eatonton did not know what to make of them. “It was just really odd. You don’t really see people dressed like that here.”
They might have blended into the demography of the city—around sixty percent of Eatonton’s nearly 7,000 residents were African-American—but most churchgoing folks in Eatonton were Protestant, and these people were something else. An unplaceable strain of Islam, perhaps, or some Afrocentric theology. The group came from New York and seemed unprepared for the realities of life in Putnam, attempting to walk into the city in the summer heat and demanding that the county build them a subway. “Everyone laughed their asses off at them,” said Sheriff Howard Sills. “But you’ve got to understand, most of those people never went anywhere without a subway. . . . Why would you think it’d be foreign that they’d want one?”
Today, it’s somewhat difficult to find people willing to talk about the Nuwaubians in Eatonton. I visited the city several times, wandering the sidewalks of the main square and haunting the records room of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, trying to piece the events together. One woman interrupted me as soon as I said the word Nuwaubian. “I went through a horrifying experience with them,” she said, voice flat over the phone, “and there are still some around, so no. No. Good-bye.” The librarians at the Eatonton Putnam County Library spoke in hushed voices, leaning over the circulation desk and requesting their names not be used.
Those who did talk recalled that, at first, the strangers seemed basically harmless. The newcomers settled on a former game ranch eight miles from town, throwing up trailers for housing and coming into Eatonton on buses for groceries. Otherwise they kept to themselves, out on the property they called Tama-Re—which they claimed meant “Land of the Sun” or simply “The Land.” By far the strangest thing about them was the constant changes to their identities and dress. One day they were Native Americans. The next they were ancient Egyptians, or Masons, or alien worshippers. If there was a pattern to it, nobody in Eatonton could figure it out.
In fact, the Nuwaubians were following the transformations of their enigmatic leader. In Brooklyn, Dwight York had been the Rabboni Y’shua Bar El Haady and As Sayyid Al Imaam Isa Al Haadi Al Mahdi. Now he was Dr. Malachi Z. York-El, Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle of the Yamassee Native American Moors of the Creek Nation; the angelic Yaanuwn, an Anunnaqi from the eighth planet called Rizq; and Pharoah Neter A’aferti Atum-Re of the Ancient Egiptian Order; among dozens of other aliases. “These are distinct personalities of people or beings,” he wrote in his book The Man from the Planet Rizq, one of many that established his syncretic belief system. “I possessed a number of eight distinctive personalities. . . . Each one of them represents a certain amount of information that must be conveyed in these last days and times.” By his own account, York was both a man channeling the divine and a teacher providing cultural immersion courses for his followers.
To read the pamphlets and books York produced is to confront an ideology so slippery and inconsistent it would be impossible to plainly state its tenets. Acid words about social injustice mix with grumblings about hip-hop and disco, musings about science, and conspiratorial speculations: on the bestial origins of other races, the occult foundations of the world’s countries, and the workings of the demonic Leviathan known as both Satan and the United States government. A menagerie of biblical giants, aliens, reptilians, and the reanimated fetuses of aborted children appears in different manuscripts. Across his writings and sermons, York imposes his particular twist on English. In his invented “Nuwaupic” dialect, “television” becomes tell-lie-vision, the “gospel” is a ghost spell, and where the ignorant merely “understood,” enlightened folk overstood. “History” is ourstory. For the Nuwaubians of Tama-Re, conventional reality was broken down and remade at the level of language itself.
Under York’s influence, the land changed, too. Behind a main gate carved with vivid figures, down a winding road bordered by Egyptian deities, Tama-Re stretched in a series of gentle slopes decorated with obelisks, sphinxes, and stone heads. A sculpture of black Jesus hung crucified atop an ankh, his head decorated by an Indian war bonnet. Concrete buildings painted in bold primary colors held Masonic lodges and various arcane secret societies. Beneath a forty-foot-tall black pyramid built of plywood and stucco stood a temple; its golden twin housed a bookstore called All Eyes on Egipt. Modified hieroglyphs adorned the outer walls. An ambient hum was piped across the campus on loop. Toward the back of the property lay rows of double-wide trailers, the barn, stage, recording studio, and York’s two-story residence. Not that just anyone could see this: Tama-Re was a sovereign nation, York claimed, the ancestral home of a people who had walked across Pangaea. The laws and codes of the United States did not apply there. The Nuwaubians issued their own passports, license plates, and constitution, while visitors had to obtain a visa, pay upwards of $50, and be escorted at all times. Armed guards stood at the gate.
As Tama-Re grew, York built links to the wider community. While the Nuwaubians maintained a toehold in Brooklyn—the bookstore there changed its name to All Eyes on Egipt in keeping with the branding—York established new shops in cities from Atlanta to Milledgeville, where his followers held free lessons on Nuwaubianism and sold pamphlets, lecture tapes, and plastic dolls of York. He established himself in the Atlanta music scene and made connections with local politicians, encouraging Nuwaubians to take jobs in the police departments of nearby counties and turning his followers out to vote in local elections. C. Jack Ellis, the mayor of Macon—about forty miles south—began to drop by; so did State Representative Tyrone Brooks from Atlanta. York’s precise number of followers was never entirely clear, and he worked to keep it that way. The annual celebration of his June 26 birthday—“Savior’s Day”—opened Tama-Re to the public, drawing thousands of visitors from across the nation. At its height in 1998 and ’99, around five thousand a year attended. Some were devotees; many were the families of those living with the Nuwaubians; others were simply curious. But York brandished the numbers as a symbol of his support—not only did the gatherings make his following seem larger, one former Nuwaubian said that the weeklong celebrations netted York around $500,000 at a stroke.
The people of Eatonton watched this activity with mixed feelings. By the mid-1990s, the country had witnessed a string of new religions combust in messy, highly public ways. There was the mass suicide of Jim Jones and his followers at Jonestown in 1978; the 1982 takeover of Antelope, Oregon, by Osho’s red-robed Rajneeshees; and, most disastrously, the 1993 siege of David Koresh’s Branch Davidians compound in Waco, Texas, which left more than eighty people dead. By the time the Nuwaubians arrived, gatherings of fringe groups with singular leaders routinely drew suspicion by the media, the public, and law enforcement. In Eatonton, that meant Sheriff Howard Sills.
Sills is a beefy man with white-blond hair, a neatly trimmed mustache, and the honey-slow accent of a stereotypical Southern lawman. He seems to enjoy playing to type: When I drove out to Eatonton to interview him at his house in November 2015, we sat in a wood-paneled room off the garage, the sheriff smoking a cigar and thumbing a glass of brandy. In 1993, Sills said, he had recently returned from a law-enforcement job in Atlanta and was working as chief deputy in a neighboring county while living in Putnam. He occasionally fielded calls from parents up north, who told him that their children had joined the Nuwaubians and that officials in Putnam wouldn’t talk to them. “This was alarming, but it wasn’t my county. I was considering running for sheriff, so I knew it was going to be a problem,” he said. “You can’t have one of these cults and not have a problem.”
In 1997, the same year Sheriff Sills took office, the Southern California UFO millenarian group Heaven’s Gate calmly committed mass suicide in expectation of the arriving Hale-Bopp comet. Residents of Eatonton who watched the news couldn’t help but eye the Nuwaubian settlement down the road.
THE ROOM IN THE PUTNAM COUNTY sherrif’s office that holds the Nuwaubian case files is cool and dusty, with flickering fluorescent light that plays over the rows of long cardboard boxes. The Nuwaubian archive is stacked up in the back; there are several containers, each bursting with records, printouts, old photographs, and Xeroxed memos. Lieutenant Tracey Bowen—who’d worked closely with Sills on the Nuwaubian case—put the boxes in front of me faster than I could open them. She plucked up a yellow memo, scanned it, and shook her head. “I haven’t looked at these in a while,” she said. “I’d forgotten how much there was.” Then she put the last box down and retreated to her office, leaving me alone with the papers.
How Eatonton’s war with the Nuwaubians began is still a matter of opinion. Before there was actual conflict, a mutual resentment seems to have smoldered for some time under the surface. Locals told me that the Nuwaubians who came into town demonstrated an arrogance that set people’s teeth on edge. Articles from the property’s heyday quote Nuwaubians complaining of their neighbors’ unwelcoming and intolerant attitudes. Sills recalls that police who stopped Nuwaubians for speeding found cars packed with bootleg videotapes and CDs, which they suspected were manufactured at Tama-Re to sell in York’s bookstores. In many such encounters, the Nuwaubians claimed immunity from American law. “We started encountering Nuwaubians on traffic stops, and they refused to roll down their windows,” Lieutenant Bowen told me. “They would refuse to comply with the deputy’s instructions. It started affecting all sorts of facets of law enforcement in other areas. They would buck the system just anywhere they went.” Sills said: “You go from a speeding ticket to a felony assault in about two seconds because some sumbitch wants to fight with you over his driver’s license.”
In 1997, York decided to fully refashion Tama-Re into a commercial property, possibly to establish a casino. This led to some minor wrangling with the county, which denied his requests to rezone the land. About a year later, County Commissioner Sandra Adams noticed a flyer in her hairdresser’s office advertising the new Rameses Social Club. Spritely and sardonic in conversation, Adams told me she was taken aback by the sign—she hadn’t heard anything regarding permits for a nightclub. When she dispatched the building inspector to have a look, armed guards refused to let him into Tama-Re. This struck Adams as needlessly belligerent: Hadn’t the commissioners issued permits for the pyramids, the bookstore, and other buildings? “We were very amenable to them,” Adams said. “You want to make this your home, fine—come in here and live amongst us in peace, everything is good. . . . But you have to follow the law.”
After a year of lawsuits and mounting fees, a Superior Court judge authorized Sills to go with the inspector and sort the situation out. When they arrived at Tama-Re in May 1999, armed guards again blocked them at the gate. After a brief, tense standoff, the sheriff managed to talk their way onto the property, where they found the Rameses Social Club: an empty storage barn wired with electricity and outfitted with catering. The Nuwaubians argued it was simply a social spot for the community. Either way, it wasn’t up to code and they didn’t have any permits. A month later, county officials shut it down and Sills padlocked the doors.
The reaction was swift. Angry Nuwaubians began following Sills with video cameras. They wrote and passed out pamphlets accusing Sandra Adams and other black community officials and activists of miscegenation, of being “house niggers.” County workers received death threats. Bands of York’s followers regularly appeared in city offices to demand permits, Adams said, harassing and intimidating the clerks. This became routine enough that Sills himself regularly drove over to try and convince them to leave. He always dispatched himself on calls relating to any Nuwaubians—the last thing he wanted was for one of his deputies to haul off and shoot somebody over a zoning dispute. “I was always nice to them, always,” Sills said, “no matter what the fuck they did. I mean, I did point a gun at a couple of them—but nicely.”
As the tussle escalated, lawsuits flew back and forth, and the county locked five additional buildings, including both pyramids. At the end of the month, when that year’s Savior’s Day brought in thousands of visitors, many of them remained in Eatonton in protest. Soon afterward, York appeared in court, but only after a bench warrant was issued. On the day he came before a judge—June 29, 1999—crowds of followers streamed into Eatonton’s main square. Adams claims one Nuwaubian warned her that if they didn’t get what they wanted, “Blood’s gonna roll down the streets of Putnam County.” Mediators from the Justice Department transmitted similar threats to Sills, who stationed one hundred and thirty-five deputies in hidden spots around the courthouse. The alternative, he said, was sending them out in riot gear, which would only have further inflamed matters.
After York was released, he told his followers that peace had been made. But Nuwaubians continued to monitor Sills, even accosting him on the street during a family trip to Atlanta, the sheriff said. He became convinced that the Nuwaubians were trying to bait the police department into violence. “I think [York] wanted a Waco-type incident, but he didn’t want to be around when the bullets started flying,” Sills told me, his voice taut with old frustration. “They did every fucking thing they could to start an altercation.”
As national media attention turned toward Eatonton, a parade of oddities trooped through. Members of a white supremacist group, the Montana Freemen, offered their services to the Nuwaubians as fellow sovereign citizens. In 2000, actor Wesley Snipes and his brother expressed interest in purchasing property adjacent to Tama-Re to house The Royal Guard of Amen-Ra, a bodyguard academy. (Denied permits, they ultimately decided not to buy.) In a particularly strange turn of events, an amateur paramilitary organization called the Georgia Rangers—“a klavern of frigging convicts and hoodlums,” Sills said—showed up claiming to represent the governor’s office. They attempted to pick a fight with Sills where the Nuwaubians could film it, but the sheriff kept his head.
Though many in Eatonton felt their officials weren’t doing enough to police the Nuwaubians, Adams said, some townspeople, both black and white, felt that the city needed to leave them alone. Meanwhile, York’s followers appealed to state and national figures for relief, convinced that the root of the conflict was racial and religious intolerance. Governor Roy Barnes began pressuring Sills to lay off; Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton made trips to Tama-Re to extoll the nobility of the Nuwaubian experiment. “Racial profiling is when you look at one group that buys land to practice their religion, and you profile them differently than another group,” Sharpton thundered, according to a pamphlet handed out by Nuwaubians later. “If Janet Reno can check out what happened to folks in Waco, Al Sharpton is going to see what’s happening with his own people right here . . . when I was growing up, [people] wanted Black folks to stay off by themselves. Now y’all done that: it seems like they still ain’t satisfied.”
The accusations of racism infuriated Eatonton residents, Adams said. She and other black community leaders were particularly incensed: Nuwaubians had recently begun to pack the membership rolls of the local NAACP and criticize the black population for passivity, often resorting to racial slurs. As far as she was concerned, the city was standing its ground against dangerous fanatics. “It was uncovered by the FBI that Dwight York had put a contract out for Sheriff Sills and myself. That was very sobering,” Adams told me in a phone interview. “Here I am, working to keep this community safe. This man has put a contract out on my life. And you people are talking about black and white? Get out of town.”
Aware that a flash point of some kind was coming, Sills and his staff began keeping a database of the Nuwaubians they ran into. The list swelled to more than 1,400 names. Among them was the teenage Ismaaiyl Brinsley, who more than a decade later, in 2014, would murder two Brooklyn cops in what appeared to be revenge for police brutality in Ferguson, Missouri. Another, logged in 1999, was a twenty-nine-year-old with priors for obstruction and resisting arrest who ran the All Eyes on Egipt bookstore in Albany, Georgia, and was thought to also work beneath the golden pyramid in Tama-Re. His name was Calvin Mcintosh.
When Iasia and I met again, in the spring after she’d been found, she was still physically recuperating, a twenty-one-year-old who moved slowly and carried a medical device. Her gaze was worn and wary. We drove out to a coffee shop in Decatur where she’d performed poetry years before and sat by the stage, warming our hands on hot chocolates, catching up. Mostly we talked about the future—about her writing goals, about her reborn faith in Christ, and her new desire to become a midwife. Occasionally, offhandedly, she mentioned disturbing memories: of giving birth alone in the bathtub; of being stuck with only Nuwaubian scrolls to read and taped sermons to watch; of Mcintosh forcing her to compose poetry honoring him, then crumpling it up, telling her it wasn’t good enough. She thought she might write a memoir. But until she did, she said, she wanted to tell the world her story. She wanted to talk about the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors and what Calvin Mcintosh had done to her—what might now be happening elsewhere. She agreed to sit for a formal interview.
It never happened. Iasia was busy with her last year of high school, with the legal investigation against Mcintosh and her struggle to get custody of her living daughter from foster parents, who Iasia’s family said were determined to keep her. The last time I saw Iasia was in April 2016, a month before a graduation delayed by four years. We were sitting in the new apartment she shared with her sister, out on the western edge of Atlanta. I’d just begun the interview when, in a bizarre turn of events, Iasia’s mother interrupted to inform us that Oprah Winfrey’s producer demanded exclusive rights to the story. She couldn’t pass up the chance, Iasia told me—the exposure and publicity could help get her daughter back. (Representatives from Oprah’s production company did not return calls for comment.)
Outside the apartment, buildings stretched away, angular rooftops sharp and black against the green gloom of the pines, and fireflies flashed like distant stars in the dusk. By this point I’d had several sources ghost on me. Mcintosh refused to speak to anybody but his lawyer. Iasia loaned out her story for a segment that might never make it to air. The attention-loving York had spoken so much over the years that his words melted together into an ever-shifting cloud of noise, drowning out meaning but saying nothing.
I knew, roughly, what had happened to Iasia. I still didn’t understand why.
Unbeknownst to the people of Eatonton, Sheriff Sills had kept a secret about the Nuwaubians. In 1998, he said, a local medical professional came to him and told him that adolescent girls were giving birth on Tama-Re. Others from a hospital in nearby Milledgeville reported that Nuwaubian men sometimes brought in laboring girls, forbade them to speak or accept pain medication, and vanished with both child and placenta after the birth. The reports were made to Sills anonymously. The medical staff members “were terrified to tell anybody anything about it,” he recalled. “They’d been told not to say anything.” He began to suspect that York’s crimes might go further than a lax attitude toward zoning. But Sills didn’t have hard evidence, and he worried he’d look like he was persecuting the man. He decided to wait.
Then, in early 2001, Sills got a call out of the blue from a man who identified himself as Jacob York, the estranged son of the Nuwaubian leader. Jacob had followed his father into the music business and built a career as a self-identified “entertainment industry executive,” managing acts like Lil’ Kim and cofounding the Undeas label at Atlantic with music producer Lance Rivera. York asked to meet Sills. Curious, Sills arranged a face-to-face at the FBI office in Atlanta. As they sat in an interview room, Jacob explained that he’d left the Nuwaubians in 1990, before the relocation to Georgia. His father had long been using the group as his personal harem, Jacob York said, raping young women for decades and sometimes abusing multiple generations of the same family. Jacob told the authorities that he had women willing to come forward. Asked where they were, he answered, “I’ve got one down in the car right now.”
The FBI and the Sheriff’s Office opened a secret joint investigation into Malachi York for child molestation. Sills tapped Lieutenant Tracey Bowen to work the state side of the case; Special Agents Jalaine Ward and Joan Cronier, FBI investigators out of Macon and Atlanta, respectively, would handle the federal angle. When witnesses needed to be interviewed, they would do it together. Since York had planted Nuwaubians in neighboring hospitals, courts, and police departments, they couldn’t tell a soul.
Bowen had been with the department since 1992 and had plenty of experience working child abuse cases. She and the FBI agents spent the next year tracking down and interviewing as many people as they could between Atlanta and New York. One fourteen-year-old girl they spoke to escaped Tama-Re with the help of her family; York began molesting her when she was seven. “All my cases bother me—when I have a child sitting there, telling me things that have happened to them,” Bowen said. “But [when I got home that night], I lay down in bed and cried.”
The investigators put together a clearer picture of life inside Tama-Re. York had largely lost interest in the property, they discovered: he had moved out to a mansion in Athens, encouraging Nuwaubians to settle elsewhere in the region and return to Tama-Re on special occasions. During his visits, according to several women the investigators interviewed, York stayed in the main house—the only one equipped with air-conditioning—a grand building with painted molding, a marble floor, and a throne. From there, he and his inner circle managed every aspect of life in the settlement, down to the rations. If York was angry, he denied requests for everything from food to tampons and doctor’s visits. He controlled who got married and how often the spouses saw each other. Wives were separated from husbands; children from parents. York himself allegedly had numerous concubines and many children, enough that he kept a scrapbook of their names and photographs. The witnesses also described York’s predatory methods in stark detail. When certain children—girls or boys—caught his eye, he groomed them, showering the chosen children with sweets and gifts. He brought them into his bedroom, had older women “instruct” them using toys like a stuffed Pink Panther complete with a plush penis. Eventually he raped them.
As the case against York mounted, Sills and the FBI began planning for a raid on Tama-Re. For three months in the spring of 2002, the government prepared in absolute secrecy, keeping 24-hour surveillance on the property and gathering a staff of three hundred people, including deputies from neighboring counties and eighty FBI SWAT. Sills made quiet arrangements to take as many as one hundred children into protective custody. But he began to believe that the FBI, gun-shy after Waco, was dragging its feet in green-lighting the raid. He delivered an ultimatum—he’d move in two weeks whether they came or not. Reluctantly, he said, the Feds agreed. Slowly, silently, the lawmen closed around the property.
On the morning of May 8, 2002, the gates of Tama-Re opened and a black Lincoln Navigator crunched out onto the road, headed south. Eyes in the forest watched it go; high helicopters tracked it, and unmarked vehicles followed discreetly behind. When the car parked in front of a Milledgeville Kmart, York and his driver—Kathy Johnson, a “senior wife”—climbed out. Moments later they were in FBI custody. The radio signal shot back across the pines and fields to Sills. One by one, the phone and power lines leading into the property were cut, some by a brush-hook-wielding Sills. Beneath the blazing afternoon sun, a fleet of government vehicles swept down on Tama-Re: county police cars, two light armored personnel carriers, and a Huey helicopter roaring just overhead. The stunned guards never fired a shot.
The police rammed through the gates and fanned out through the pyramids and shabby trailers. Far from the hundreds they’d expected, they found only around one hundred people, most of them children. Sills took five kids into protective custody, along with a few of the women in York’s inner circle, and seized financial records subsequently used in the federal structuring case. “We had that compound surrounded in less than thirty minutes and nobody was hurt,” Sills said. While describing the raid, an air of excitement crept into his voice, his eyes alternately popping open to emphasize the scale of it or crinkling into satisfied slits. “One person had to have medical attention that day: me. I got dehydrated at the end of the day, had to have a bag of fluids.”
If the raid had gone smoothly, the legal process was anything but. A series of setbacks and reversals dogged the prosecution over the next two years. The hundreds of Nuwaubians remaining throughout Central Georgia—including those who’d been allowed to stay on Tama-Re—filed a blizzard of paperwork accusing every possible person of malfeasance in the case. Nuwaubian groups like “Concerned Citizens of Eatonton,” which had previously published tabloids warning that Sheriff Sills was attempting to start a race war, now protested court hearings, littered car windshields with flyers, and put out interviews with children who claimed that deputies had menaced and intimidated them. York and his followers argued that he was a Liberian diplomat and had immunity, while at other points claiming he was a Yamassee Indian and must be tried by his own people. After withdrawing an earlier guilty plea, York warned the court that he was a “secured party” and that anyone speaking his name—which, he maintained, he had trademarked—would be fined.
In the end, a federal jury convicted York on five counts of racketeering and structuring, and six counts of transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes. He was sentenced to one hundred and thirty-five years in prison. Within three months the government seized York’s property under forfeiture laws and evicted the few Nuwaubians who remained on it. The mansion in Athens, along with Tama-Re and its statues and icons, were auctioned off for a combined $1.7 million, which was split up among the agencies that pursued and punished York. Sills personally drove a bulldozer through the Egyptian gates of Tama-Re. A photograph from the day shows him leaning out of the yellow cockpit, grinning, a cigar clenched between blond mustache and white teeth.
For Lieutenant Bowen, the raid remains with her—after the investigation, wandering through the marble floors and carved plaster deities of York’s house was a bizarre experience. “For a couple of years I’d gone around interviewing these children, and they’d described to me what it was like inside, where everything was,” she said. In York’s bedroom, she recovered a scrapbook of his “wives” and eighty-eight children. (Law enforcement later estimated that he fathered around a hundred and twenty-five children.) She also found a plush Pink Panther with male genitals, just as the victims had described. A photo of it was later passed to me. It is not the sort of thing that’s easily forgotten.
GEORGIA’S LAST FUNCTIONING ALL EYES on Egipt sits on a quiet, sunlit square in Monticello, about twenty minutes west of Eatonton, beside a payday loan lender and Miss Fancy Plants Flowers and Gifts. Pass the building on a warm spring day and you might miss it—one more brick storefront, distinguished only by the cardboard sarcophagus in the window. But beyond the two-paneled door, the air is as sluggish and dead as the inside of a tomb. A thick shag carpet muffles all sound. Faint light pours through the dusty glass, illuminating walls painted to resemble stone blocks. Empty tables and a television are pressed into one corner; in the opposite stand the muscular figures of Anubis and Thoth, animal-headed death gods, clutching scrolls and spears in their black claws. Between them is a giant teddy bear sitting like a king enthroned. Ostensibly a bookstore, the building holds no books. It gives every impression of being forgotten, a relic swept thoughtlessly aside by some great catastrophe, too small to be noticed. In a sense, it is.
Fortune was not kind to the Nuwaubians in the years following the destruction of Tama-Re. The web of influence York had constructed in Georgia evaporated: In 2004, seven Nuwaubian police officers demanded that the city of Macon intercede on York’s behalf and resigned when their demands were not met. Four Clarke County deputies were fired (a fifth resigned) in 2006 for proselytizing Nuwaubianism in the county jail. Others were sporadically arrested over the years, often for real estate fraud, a common crime among sovereign groups. The loose followers and affiliates, the thousands of people who’d driven in for Savior’s Day—they vanished. Most of the remaining believers keep a low profile; I reached out to several for this story, nearly all of whom either declined to participate or insisted on financial compensation. (Kathy Johnson, York’s former wife and the only other member of his inner circle to get prison time, demanded that the Oxford American promote her book in addition to paying for her testimony. Then she hung up on me.) One by one, the Nuwaubian businesses went dark, often abruptly; a Decatur store that had been decorated with faded carvings appears to have been abandoned suddenly in 2015. Yet the Monticello location remains. It has nothing on offer for sale and sees very few visitors. Instead it contains the broadcasting office of Georgia Gossip Inc. and its radio host, the flamboyant, opinionated Don Nicoleone.
Nicoleone is a tall woman, with a husky voice and eyes that are at once languid and intense. She briefly tried to hustle me for money over the phone, but when I turned up at the shop in March 2016, she led me directly into her office, a well-lit room with a big desk and posters of York in his various guises on the walls. She sat behind the desk and idly fiddled with her radio equipment as she spoke. York had been her mentor for years, she said: he’s the father of her older half-brother and was involved in booking her and her siblings for entertainment acts. After the raid, York summoned her down from Atlanta to report on his trial for the Nuwaubian tabloids, before asking her to run the Monticello store. “He needed someone that’s not a fanatic,” Nicoleone said. Asked why York drew so many fanatics, Nicoleone said, “Black people are so under the spell of religion that they turn everything into you can and you can’t.”
She paused, warming to her topic with gleeful disgust and continuing before I could unpack her prior statement. “The fanatics are the ones that was like, ‘He’s from another planet,’ and all that.” Since the eighties, Nicoleone explained, when York had a radio show, he insisted he wasn’t a holy man. “He said, ‘I’m not a religious man. I’m not your messiah. Stop looking at me like that. I’m your friend. Stop telling these people I’m some holy man. I’m not. I’m a teacher.’ But like I said—that’s what most people do, is turn you into something to worship,” Nicoleone said, infuriated. “Hell, they did Jesus that way.”
Nicoleone does not converse so much as declaim in long, looping paragraphs and digressive tangents, moving from topic to topic with such speed and blanket assurance that it’s difficult to keep up. A subject she returned to often was the true tenets of Nuwaubianism, something she insisted the media had widely mischaracterized. What York taught was not religion but “Right Knowledge,” Nicoleone said, a process of “sound right reasoning” and cultural examination aimed at ferreting facts out of the world’s lies. True adherents—unlike fanatics—question everything and accept nothing. This process of inquiry has led Nicoleone to many truths. The most remarkable of them: the raid was staged, and York is still free.
The evidence is inescapable if you look for it, Nicoleone maintained. With unblinking confidence, she laid out a torrent of claims casting aspersions on the investigation, the raid, and the trial. No footage of York’s arrest exists, she said, and not one thing was taken from Tama-Re when it was “so-called raided.” (York was apprehended quietly, law enforcement said, so as not to arouse a violent reaction from his followers; documents recovered in the raid were later used by the prosecution.) As far as Nicoleone is concerned, the simple truth of the matter is that the government and the Nuwaubian elites executed a convoluted plan to frame and discredit York and to divide his followers among themselves—to replace him. As for York himself, he disappeared from Tama-Re long before the raid and is still out in the world, untouched by the petty machinations of his followers. She and her husband are in contact with him, Nicoleone told me coyly. She said she could arrange for me to speak with “the teacher.” I never heard back from her.
This evasion and vagueness is typical of the Nuwaubians. (It drove Sills crazy: “I’ve stood there with a building behind me and had the Nuwaubians say it wasn’t there.”) But while Nicoleone’s particular perspective is not a common one in the community, it is not unprecedented: wander through the bramble of fan sites, Facebook groups, and forums run by the Nuwaubians and you will find all manner of theories, some even stranger than hers. But the majority agree that the raid occurred and that York is in prison. (He is. Federal records have him listed as Inmate No. 17911-054, serving his time at United States Penitentiary Administrative Maximum Facility in Colorado.) Precisely who put him there, though, is up for debate. Some blame the government for persecuting York. Victoria Broussard, one of York’s lawyers, offers another common explanation—that “Doc” York was framed by his estranged son Jacob. Angry that his father would not fund his music career, the story goes, Jacob colluded with the government to cover up his own crimes: “[Jacob] wants to be at the Grammys and at the MTV, BET music awards, sitting on the front row with Beyoncé. He’s about that life,” she said. “Whereas his father was not, even though he had been in that life. His father was about the doctrine and the need for knowledge.” It’s vital, Broussard said, that York’s name be cleared.
But that won’t happen anytime soon; with more than a hundred years left to serve, York’s influence is now limited to the occasional rambling and disjointed letter from prison. Despite Broussard’s claim that “the community is strong,” all signs indicate the remaining Nuwaubians are splintered beyond repair.
The vestiges of Sills’s struggle with the Nuwaubians are everywhere amid the piles of paper littering his office: a painting of a pyramid over a star field taken from Tama-Re; pictures of the investigators Bowen, Ward, and Cronier smiling; and a York doll dressed in a vest and black fez, its plastic hands locked in tiny plastic handcuffs. When Sills talks about the “Nuwaubian War,” he’s by turns smug, sober, and incredulous. He’s still confused as to how it all got so out of hand, how so many people clustered around York. He spoke of Nuwaubianism as something completely inexplicable, an obvious charade that wasn’t worth the time he’d spent trying to grapple with it. “There was this constant question of why?” he recalled when I pressed him on this point. “With the victims, the members, everything. It was always a why? to me. And to be honest with you, I spent too much time trying to figure out why.”
One wet night in 2002, during the three-month surveillance, he crawled out of the foxhole and through the orange mud, all the way to the fenced border of Tama-Re. York was preaching from the stage, his voice rolling across wet fields, his congregation gathered around him. Sills watched through the chain-link fence, baffled. It was the only time he ever saw York perform live. “I don’t know if I was expecting Billy Graham or George Washington or whatever, but what I saw was a piss-poor fucking Richard Pryor act,” he said. “I thought I was gonna see some Adolf Hitler shit, somebody who mesmerized people to the fact that they would follow him. Let me tell you something: it was pitiful.” Sills had long figured that, to a certain extent, everything about York was an illusion, but now he knew. “The only thing that wasn’t a façade was York making money and fucking,” he told me. “That was the bottom line when it came to Dwight York. It was all about York. York’s comfort. York’s whim.”
From the outside it’s easy to dismiss the group as a cult; observers from Sills to the Southern Poverty Law Center have done so. But it’s worth grappling with what, precisely, that dismissal means. The mainstream has always thrown the term “cult” at religious movements on the fringe, conflating any abuses with their odd beliefs. This frustrates scholars who study new religious movements. “Nobody says, ‘I have to go to my cult meeting,’” said religious scholar Dr. Julius Bailey in a phone interview. “If you wouldn’t use [the word cult] yourself to describe your religion, then why would you use it on another religion? So I feel like it distances people from the groups and makes them seem even more weird.” After all, he pointed out, all religions believe in the uncanny by default—in gods, angels, demons, and spirits. If these are not strange, it is only because time has rendered them familiar. When placed alongside the diversity of religious belief, a conviction that your people are descendants of Egyptians, Olmecs, and aliens is not as odd as it appears. Moreover, Bailey said, at the outset the Nuwaubians offered what any religious group offers—community, spiritual fulfillment, a concrete framework for viewing the world. This can’t be discounted out of hand just because their tenets seem bizarre to outsiders.
When a new religious movement goes septic, its unconventional tenets are often blamed—but such organizations aren’t alone in producing abusive communities. Mainstream faiths and lifestyle groups have often given rise to similarly unpleasant practices. The focus on ideology seems to blind observers to the common mechanics of these outbreaks: central control, isolation, and mental and physical abuse. The Nuwaubian belief system may be inscrutable, but the nature of York’s underlying abuses is not. He was a preacher, and he preyed upon his flock.
It’s also possible to look at the system of Right Knowledge itself as a trap, one designed to snare those it encounters. In theory it places a premium on evidence and personal experience. The Nuwaubians read and study extensively, trying to draw connections and dig out nuggets of fact, but their ultimate truth lies in the mind.
“If something is right and sound,” Broussard said, “and you’ve reasoned it out to be right and sound, then it’s right.” This magical thinking infects everything it touches. It’s the double-talk of a trickster distilled into something like a science—a simultaneous embrace and rejection of every norm, a thicket of contradictions that entangles you the more you wrestle with it. The Nuwaubians insist that they are secular while demanding religious recognition with equal fervor, reject racism and make intensely racial claims, dismiss civil laws and insist that others abide by them. Every idea shifts according to convenience. No rule of law or language or thought applies to them save their own, and under York, their own rules never stopped changing. This is the gnawing emptiness at the heart of Right Knowledge—a cognitive dissonance that reconciles nothing and consumes everything. The result is a fog that can justify or hide a range of violations, from a speeding ticket to the rape of children.
Broussard and Nicoleone insist that York abused nobody and point to their own lives as evidence (both suffered sexual abuse as children). Broussard now runs a nonprofit fighting child abuse and has written a novel that draws from her experiences. “I know what a pedophile looks like. I know what they breathe like, I know what they eat like, I know what they smell like,” she said. “Dr. York is not a pedophile.” Nicoleone conveyed a similar sentiment. But even if the prosecution overstated its case, strong evidence indicates that York committed terrible crimes against the people of his community. Perhaps it is a truth his remaining loyalists cannot allow themselves to suspect. After all, there is no better cover for a predator than a conviction that truth is mutable, consensus is a lie, and only personal reasoning counts.
I’ve spent the last year and a half reading and reporting on York and the Nuwaubians, pushing through silence to try and understand what happened to my friend. Certain images stick with me, bubbling up when I least expect them. I think about a prison cell in Colorado, and a locked motel room one county over from my high school, and the way the wind chased the grass over fields empty of pyramids. I think about a plush Pink Panther. I think about Iasia writing on the motel floor, scribbling poetry, stories, things to keep herself sane.
And in those moments I glimpse the terrible shape of the thing: a road to Tama-Re, cutting across decades. It runs back through York’s conviction; through Sheriff Sills, Lieutenant Bowen, and the FBI raid; through the Nuwaubian exodus to Georgia and the rumors of abuse in Brooklyn; all the way back to the New York state penitentiary and York’s statutory rape of a thirteen-year-old girl. Iasia Sweeting’s ordeal sits as a single point in a long line of lives irrevocably altered by Dwight York’s passage, a path of scarred and shattered people flung like shrapnel from a blast. Calvin Mcintosh is not the only shard of York’s feral idea buried in the flanks of the world. York will die in prison, but down the long years he will never stop hurting people like Iasia Sweeting.
For more on Tama-Re, view Anderson Scott’s photo essay from our Winter 2006 issue.
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