EATONTON, Ga. (AP) - A sect founded by an ex-convict has built two 40-foot pyramids and a giant sphinx amid the pines and red clay of middle Georgia, alarming some with its armed guards and prophecies of deliverance by spaceships from another galaxy.
The sheriff and the sect had an armed confrontation in April when he tried to escort a building inspector onto the property, and tensions are running so high that mediators from the U.S. Justice Department were called in earlier this summer.
The members call themselves the Yamassee Native American Nuwaubians and claim to have created a utopian society on their 476-acre compound of Egyptian-style architecture.
Many people in and around Eatonton - a rural community that was the birthplace of Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple,'' and Joel Chandler Harris, creator of the Uncle Remus tales - fear the Nuwaubians are similar to Heaven's Gate, the cult whose 39 members committed mass suicide in 1997 in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., and the People's Temple followers of Jim Jones.
"This group here has a combination of all those schools of thought,'' Sheriff Howard Sills said.
About 100 Nuwaubians live in trailers on the compound. An additional 300 to 400 reside elsewhere in Putnam County. The Nuwaubians, most of whom are black, claim to be descended from the Egyptians and the Yamassees, a tribe of Indians indigenous to this part of Georgia.
Past the armed guards at the compound's entryway, Nile River Road stretches between two rows of statues of Egyptian royalty. A gold pyramid serves as a mini-mall, with a bookstore and clothing store. A labyrinth leads to the black pyramid, which serves as a church. Inside, an Egyptian-like chant hums over speakers 24 hours a day.
The group's lodge houses busts of King Tut and Queen Nefertiti and a glass tomb holding an alien-like creature with a huge head and bulging eyes.
Members say they pay no dues and are free to come and go. And they insist that suicide is not in their plans.
The group's founder, Dwight York, who calls himself Malachi Z. York, served time in New York in the 1960s for assault, resisting arrest and possession of a dangerous weapon.
York has claimed to be from a galaxy called Illyuwn and has said that in 2003 spaceships are going to descend from the sky and pick up a chosen 144,000 people for a rebirth. Most recently, York has referred to himself as Chief Black Eagle, a reincarnated leader of the Yamassee Indians.
"It's a constantly opportunistic evolving ideology,'' the sheriff said. "We've gone from an extraterrestrial to a Christian pastor to an Indian leader with willful and wanton resistance to legal authority time and time again.''
The group's spokeswoman, Renee McDade, and Marshall Chance, who is referred to as the Nuwaubians' leader, distance themselves from the space prophecies of York, who lives on the compound and refuses to give interviews.
"We're all awaiting the coming of the real Messiah,'' Chance said. "We are a biblical people. If it's not in the Bible, then we're not concerned about it.''
The group moved to Georgia in 1993 from New York, where it had operated under other names, including the Ansaru Allah Community. A 1993 FBI report linked that group to a myriad of crimes, including arson and extortion.
Until recently, the Nuwaubians pretty much kept to themselves. Then last year, the county rejected a request to have the property rezoned from agricultural to commercial. Since then, the Nuwaubians have been at odds with county officials.
Shortly after the building inspector was denied access, the sheriff and his deputies tried to enter.
"The armed guards literally stood in front of my car,'' Sills said. "It was obvious to me that this was provocative and they wanted to provoke some sort of armed confrontation, so I decided to leave.''
When the sheriff returned two months later, "we were served with this cockamamie lawsuit that said we'd be fined $5 million if we went onto the property,'' Sills said.
The Nuwaubians said they have met all the permit requirements. "We feel they're trying to impede us from our progress here. It feels like they're trying to put us out of our land,'' Chance said.
Mediators from the Justice Department's Community Dispute Resolution unit were asked to get involved after the Nuwaubians leveled charges of racism against officials in Putnam County, which has about 17,000 people, more than one-third of them black.
"The Nuwaubians felt they were being harassed, the county officials said they were being harassed,'' mediator Ernie Stallworth said. "Everyone was pointing a finger and that has lessened, but I still believe we have work to do.''
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