In July 1999, Time magazine ran a 635-word item about an influx of black strangers who had descended on a plot of rural Georgia farmland, built "40-ft. pyramids, obelisks, gods, goddesses and a giant sphinx," and, in the process, drummed up quite a stir.
“Space Invaders,” read the headline of a piece that noted the cosmic-gone-country leanings of a religious-slash-”fraternal” group. These ostracism-claiming outsiders had dubbed themselves Nuwaubians.
Of course, locals had long known of them by the summer the national magazine blurb came out. They were “the pyramid people,” ones who, according to some of them, were followers of a leader who’d come to earth from another planet and settled, of all places, in Putnam County.
The tone of that breezy write-up in Time nearly eight years ago — and its understandably limited perception of what was truly transpiring in the pyramid pasture — persists even to this day. Even after the horrors that took place there have come to light.
The man from planet Rizq, or, as Dwight D. York is now known, inmate No. 17911-054 at the supermax federal prison in Florence, Colo., was such a master manipulator that his most despicable acts are sometimes glossed over in memory.
We tend to remember the pyramids, then the perversion and only then the imprisonment. And it hasn’t been that long. If you ask, most folks don’t know how many years York was sentenced to serve in prison. Or that he is now living under the same roof as Terry Nichols, Eric Robert Rudolph, Zacarias Moussaoui and Theodore Kaczynski. Or that he was sent there for 135 years for molesting 14 boys and girls as well as for racketeering.
Or, necessarily, that he was, as author Bill Osinski’s new book refers to York, the target of “the largest child molestation prosecution … ever directed at a single suspect.”
In “Ungodly: A True Story of Unprecedented Evil,” Osinski probes York’s diabolical underbelly, one that for the longest time too many overlooked. We laughed at York’s spaceship hooey and flea-market architecture. York and his cult were akin to the image of those who hawk pamphlets at urban traffic-light intersections. For an instant, we often wonder “what’s their deal?” before rolling by.
Though York and his followers often claimed they were not a religious sect, it was freedom of religion, which Osinski duly notes, that in some ways afforded York carte blanche.
Osinski, who covered the Nuwaubian saga for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and came to know many of its key players, chronicles York’s early days as a pimpish New York hustler who deifies himself to reap riches under the guise of religion and communal purity.
As a GBI administrator, in hindsight, tells Osinski, “When someone wraps themself in the cloak of religion, law enforcement can sometimes become cautious.”
“What (York) came up with,” Osinski writes, “was called the United Nation of Nuwaubian Moors, a concept composed of an extra-large dose of Egyptian schlock, served with a side dish of intergalactic mumbo jumbo.”
Osinski writes that his book is, in part, “a story about how our society deals with, or fails to deal with, issues of race and religion.”
It is also about what happens when we look the other way, how York made us do that, and, further, how he fooled his followers into turning over their lives and their children “to the whims of a demented character.”
Osinski writes that York “was the director and star of his own blue movie of a life, except that, unlike most garden-variety porn, his performers were children essentially powerless to refuse his casting calls.”
Osinski explains that York’s philosophies “found a receptive audience among those who had good reason to believe they’d been shut out economically from access to the American Dream.”
The author relates how, in essence, York’s beleaguered devotees, a core group of African-Americans — the tired, the poor, the everyday adherents yearning to breathe free — were, under York’s wing, exhausted, starved, culturally asphyxiated and granted increasingly squalid living quarters in a compound built on their own backs.
“All (York) wanted from the people who bought his books and tapes,” Osinski writes, “was their unquestioned loyalty, their free labor, sexual submission, and all their money.”
So why did so many buy what York was selling?
Osinski explores several possible answers. And he is careful to point out that York’s followers were often anything but “misguided dupes.”
“As tawdry as the reality was,” Osinski writes, “many of the Nuwaubians sincerely believed that they were part of something noble, that they were building something good.”
Interviews with those who worked closely with York, some of the most revealing parts of the book, shed light on the psychological hold York had over some of his followers. One says, “York made evil seem fair.” Another Nuwaubian, though disillusioned, admits still having a fondness for York “even though I know it was all fake.”
York’s grip was similar to the gravitational pull of an abusive marriage. Once you’ve chosen to share your life with someone, as aberrant and abrasive as their behavior may be, getting away may not be so easy.
Bob Moser of the Southern Poverty Law Center tells Osinski, “Once you accept Dwight York is special, then you automatically have to subordinate yourself to that authority.”
Moser calls York’s cult “definitely a black supremacist group,” and he says race was another factor that kept followers flowing in. And their allegations of harassment by predominantly white law enforcers assured them a place in the all-important publicity-stirring spotlight. (Howard Sills, the Putnam sheriff who is among the book’s heroes, says that in reality “the only racial issue was that every victim York preyed upon was black.”)
While not one of those sweep-you-away narratives, the book does what most newspapers stories fail to do. It condenses a complex swirl of decades worth of events and accusations — ones prosecutors actually worried were “too bizarre to be believed” — and presents them beginning to end.
In doing so, Osinski fashions a definitive documentary.
He is critical of the Georgia press, this paper included, for playing the early “Nuwaubian story” as if it were “a rural Georgia sideshow.” The author contends that there wasn’t much digging into York’s background or what was really going on at his make-believe Egypt outside Eatonton.
Osinski also delves into how some high-ranking officials in state government may well have played roles in catering to York, thus hindering authorities who might have brought York’s transgressions to light years sooner.
The book notes, too, how the Nuwaubian shtick drew high-profile black leaders — the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton among them — to hear claims of perceived racial injustice. Macon Mayor Jack Ellis even had his picture taken, with Jackson, at York’s property in 2001.
In an interview with York’s son, Malik, the author gets to the heart of what turns out to have been a scam perpetrated by a heartless soul. Malik York says his father once told him, “I don’t believe any of this (expletive.) If I had to dress up like a nun, if I had to be a Jew, I’d do it for this kind of money.”
As York is said to have told someone close to him, “It’s all about the packaging.”
The man was so “out there,” at least to the casual observer, that his weirdness somehow still reigns. So much so that even in hindsight it is hard to grasp the nefariousness he wrought.
Maybe, in the end, it was whack-job discountability that York sought, a smokescreen behind which to run his game.
Perhaps it was York’s persona, clownish and hokey to the hilt — scoffed at and written off as cuckoo by the masses — that greased the way for him to soil the innocence of so many.
Osinski adroitly quotes Flannery O’Connor, who once wrote, “Whenever I’m asked why Southerner writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one.”
But are we?