EATONTON, Ga., - They called him "The Love Man," and his followers hung on his words as prophecy. Dwight York, or Malachi York-El, the spiritual figurehead of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, was more than just a cult leader from Brooklyn.
He was a self-professed teacher and philosopher, a man of many faces and names. He dabbled in writing and music promotion and fancied himself a sort of new-age Marvin Gaye with his female singer-backed outfit, "Dr. York and She."
He threw Nuwaubian celebrations at Athens' Classic Center, and thousands flocked to his Savior's Day rallies in Eatonton each summer.
Now, Mr. York, 56, is in federal custody on child sex charges, suspected of molesting girls as young as 11 at his rural Putnam County compound. His followers, more than 100 in all, watched Wednesday as federal agents raided the quasi-Egyptian camp, carting out a trailer full of evidence yet to be examined. The future of Mr. York's group is in question.
"If he is found guilty, it would be a significant blow to the organization," said Monticello attorney Ronny E. Jones, who represented Mr. York in a land dispute with Putnam County and now says Mr. York owes him some $15,000 in legal fees. "If he's really taken out of the picture for a significant amount of time, I think it would just dissolve."
Mr. Jones has a case pending in Clarke County Superior Court against Mr. York, who lived for a time in Athens in a $528,000 home off Timothy Road. His is one of three civil suits filed against Mr. York in Clarke County over the past three years.
Two women claimed Mr. York failed to pay child support for three children he fathered. One case was closed by the custodial parent, while the other was transferred to the Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit in Putnam County because deputies were unable to serve Mr. York with the suit in Clarke County.
"(According to a) housekeeper, Mr. York does not live here anymore because so many people are looking for him," reads a note written by a Clarke County sheriff's deputy on one child support claim that went undelivered at Mr. York's listed address.
"He's a slippery person," said Mr. Jones, who said he suspects Mr. York knew he was under investigation.
In 1996, according to Mr. York's former lawyer, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation paid Mr. York a visit to make sure he wouldn't cause any trouble during the Olympics.
"They were interviewing any group that might cause a problem during the Olympics," Mr. Jones said. "He assured them that they were a peaceful group."
Mr. Jones added that while he heard rumors of weapons being stockpiled at the Eatonton compound, he saw no such evidence.
The latest allegations are said to be the result of a four-year inquiry. They might have their roots in an anonymous whistle-blower within the Nuwaubian sect. In 1998 or 1999, an anonymous person who claimed to be a former member of Mr. York's group sent letters to various people in Putnam County accusing him of child molestation.
Eatonton attorney Frank Ford, who represented Putnam County in several legal battles with Mr. York, received one such letter, which he described as a cry for help.
"I could see these were very serious allegations," Mr. Ford said. "It basically said he was having sex with 11-, 12- and 13-year-old girls and in some cases impregnating them."
Mr. Ford said it was claimed in the letter, which he turned over to law authorities, that parents of the children "were just offering them up" to Mr. York.
A grand jury has yet to convene in Eatonton to consider bringing state charges of child molestation, which is not covered under federal law. Currently, Mr. York faces federal charges of the transporting of underage girls across state lines for the purpose of sex.
In Athens, the most visible sign of Mr. York's influence is the faux-Moorish structure at the corner of West Broad and Church streets. Originally envisioned as a lodge for the Nuwaubians, it is now intended to be a bookstore with an office and break room, according to public documents.
After six months without any work done on the site, workers have been seen in recent weeks doing masonry work on the exterior.
Mr. York's former legal nemesis Mr. Ford said this week's criminal charges could bring real upheaval among the true believers. In the past, he said, anyone charged with a crime was immediately cast out from the group.
"What will their reaction be now?" he asked.