On May 8, 2002, 300 local and federal law enforcement officers in rural Georgia raided the Egyptian-themed compound of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors. The cult’s founder, Dwight “Malachi” York, had been arrested hours earlier — accused of molesting dozens of his follower’s children.
The police operation marked the beginning of the end for York, a pseudo-religious leader who eluded justice for decades while amassing a nationwide following for his bizarre blend of religion, mysticism and claims about alien life.
He was finally exposed by former followers, including his estranged son, and was later convicted in 2004 of transporting minors across state lines for sexual purposes and sentenced to 135 years in federal prison.
“Malachi York saw himself as a channel between God and the world,” cult expert Rick Ross tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue, on newsstands now. “It was horrific what happened.”
The case will be featured on People Magazine Investigates: Cults, airing Monday night on Investigation Discovery and exclusively previewed above.
The story of York and his cult, which ended in Eatonton in 2002, began in New York City in the ’70s. It was there, in Brooklyn, where he first launched a sect called the Ansaru Allah Community. Preaching black supremacist ideas and mystical Islam, the ex-con and street peddler also claimed to be a descendant of the prophet Mohammed and a member of the Sudanese royal family.
At his Brooklyn headquarters, York’s followers dressed in traditional Islamic clothing and adhered to his anti-white teachings. According to former follower Niki Lopez, who later testified against York in court, children were forced to live separately from their parents and were beaten with wire hangers and broom sticks and sometimes starved by York’s concubines.
Over time, York’s need for control over his cult’s members grew more sinister and sexually depraved, according to law enforcement sources as well as previous news accounts and those of ex-followers.
• For more on the abuses of Dwight “Malachi” York and the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, watch Monday’s People Magazine Investigates: Cults at 9 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery.
Under York’s guidance, his concubines groomed the children to be his sex slaves.
“He would allow the children to watch cartoons and feed them ice cream,” says Tracey Bowen, a lieutenant in the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office, the agency that eventually arrested York in Georgia. “It was a progression, a complete grooming process he did with these kids.”
In 1993, amid mounting investigations in N.Y.C. — including probes of alleged bank robberies and counterfeit checks — York moved his group to Eatonton, Georgia, about 75 miles southeast of Atlanta. That’s where he built a compound he called “Tama-Re,” complete with two 40-foot plywood and stucco pyramids and a Sphinx on a former 476-acre game preserve.
It was, he said, a tribute to the group’s ancient Egyptian ancestors.
“I just thought of him [York] as this magical being,” says Lopez, who joined the group at age 11, with her mother. “I was taught he was a man of miracles and everyone had to be loyal to him.”
All along, York’s teachings grew stranger and stranger. He adopted the name “Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle” and announced he was the leader of a lost Native American tribe that fought early European colonization. He then declared that he was an extraterrestrial from the planet Rizq.
York eventually morphed into the leader of what he called the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, based on a philosophy that revolved around Egyptology and UFOs.
He came to believe that Tama-Re was a sovereign nation and “advocated they weren’t subject to our laws,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills tells PEOPLE.
“They would meet the building inspectors with guns,” he says.
By 1998, whispers of York’s sexual depravity reached law enforcement when Sills learned about a rash of underage girls giving birth in local hospitals. “The girls weren’t allowed to speak,” the sheriff says. “All the speaking had to be done through the men and they would take the placenta with them when they left. I suspected it was from keeping us from matching DNA to York.”
The criminal investigation into York renewed in earnest in 2001 when his estranged son, Jacob, told Sills about York’s decades of child sexual abuse.
Soon afterwards, dozens of other victims — including Niki Lopez — came forward to give investigators additional details of sexual and physical abuse in the group.
• For more on the rise and fall of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, subscribe now to PEOPLE or pick up this week’s issue, on newsstands now.
Law enforcement entered York’s compound in May 2002, taking five children into protective custody. After a search, investigators found a “census” book with names, pictures and birthdates for close to 100 of York’s children.
Also found “hanging on hooks in the hot tub area were little white dresses for little girls,” says lawyer Frank Ford, who represented Putnam County in its legal disputes with York.
Ford says he “immediately thought” the dresses were for wedding ceremonies wedding dresses to be initiated.”
York, now 73, remains in prison at a federal facility in Colorado nearly 15 years after his convictions. Although his cult largely collapsed after his arrest, some of his loyal followers still maintain his innocence.
Those who dealt with York feel differently.
“I classify him as an indiscriminate sexual predator,” says former FBI agent Jalaine Ward. “His power and money along with his demented personality created this monster.”
The People Magazine Investigates: Cults episode on the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors airs Monday (9 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.