Whether street hustler, alien being or Indian chief, Dwight York will be judged in a federal trial due to begin today simply as a man accused of molesting children.
In a prolonged and often bizarre case, the 58-year-old native of Brooklyn, N.Y., has been portrayed in various guises, from an extraterrestrial on an earthly mission to save a select few from a coming apocalypse, a Native American with an intensely devoted tribe, and a con man who created his own religious sect as a front for various illegal activities, including the molestation of children.
With the commencement of jury selection today in U.S. District Court in Brunswick, York's long-delayed trial will have finally begun.
Almost as expected, in a case where the unexpected has been routine, York on the eve of his trial last week fired four members of his defense team. Left standing was Adrian Patrick, an Athens criminal defense attorney with much experience at the local courthouse, but who has never handled a high-profile case such as York's.
Patrick filed his appearance as York's attorney with the court on Dec. 16, which means he has had only a few weeks to familiarize himself with the case on which the dismissed lawyers had spent nearly two years.
Still, the 36-year-old attorney said he welcomed the challenge of defending the self-proclaimed leader of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors.
''It's going to be a war,'' Patrick promised on Friday. ''We're going to be prepared for battle.''
Patrick will be up against a prosecution team headed by U.S. Attorney Maxwell Wood.
''It's going to be a long trial, and we've been ready to go to trial for months,'' Wood said.
Originally scheduled to start Aug. 4 in U.S. District Court in Macon, York's trial has been continuously delayed, for reasons that include psychiatric testing of the defendant, the recusal of a judge, and a change of venue from Macon to Brunswick. The change had been sought by the defense because of the intense media coverage the York case has garnered.
From the time the first potential juror is questioned today until a verdict is reached, the courtroom will be closed to all but the media. The prosecution feared disruption of the trial by York's intensely devout followers, already chided by U.S. District Judge C. Ashley Royal of possibly tainting the jury pool by passing out pro-York fliers in Brunswick.
Wood and Patrick said they expected the trial to last three to four weeks. Wood said he planned to call on more than 30 witnesses to testify.
One of those witnesses will be a woman who accused York of molesting her both at York's house in Athens and at a sprawling Nuwaubian compound in Putnam County.
In a July interview with the Athens Banner-Herald, the woman, now 18, told of how she had accompanied her mother and a younger sister from their home in New York City to live on a sprawling compound in Putnam County York bought in 1993.
The woman, who chose to use the name ''Stacey'' for the interview, told the Banner-Herald that after working in York's house for a period of time, and after she turned 11, an adult member of the Nuwaubian leader's ''inner circle'' informed her '''something wonderful'' was going to happen that would have ''deep significance for her spiritual development.''
That meant, according to Stacey, that by having sex with York, she would be included among the 144,000 believers who would be spirited away to safety from the coming apocalypse by the mother ship from the planet Rizq from the galaxy Illyuwn.
In addition to the Putnam County property, York in 1998 bought a $528,000 mansion on Mansfield Drive in Athens, where Stacey said she was sometimes taken for more sexual abuse.
It was at about that time she said she began to rebel against York's authority, and upon being sent back to the Putnam compound in 1999, Stacey called her father in New York and asked him to get her. He did, but it wasn't until the next year that Stacey confided in a sister about the sexual abuse she had endured. When the sister told their father, he in turn contacted authorities.
York was arrested in May 2002 on state and federal charges. He subsequently pleaded guilty to 74 state counts of child molestation, and as part of a plea agreement pleaded guilty to a single federal count of transporting children across state lines for sexual purposes.
The plea bargain was rejected earlier this year by U.S. District Judge Hugh Lawson, who said the agreed-upon sentence of 15 years in prison would be too lenient a penalty for York. Lawson then told attorneys he would agree to a 20-year prison sentence, which prompted the defense's motion for Lawson to recuse himself, saying he had lost his impartiality by becoming an unwitting participant in plea negotiations. The judge removed himself from the case on July 18.
With the plea agreement rejected, and suddenly faced with the prospect of a trial, defense attorneys asked for psychiatric examination because they said York was unable to assist in his own defense, as he now claimed to be a Native American tribal chief over whom U.S. courts held no jurisdiction.
Two days after the request was granted, a new addition to York's defense team filed a motion asking that the order for the psychiatric exam be rescinded. That attorney, Frank Rubino, claimed that after spending two hours with his new client, he determined York was able to assist in his own defense.
In denying the motion, Royal said he was relying on the report that resulted from York's first examination, which concluded that York was possibly suffering from a ''mental disease or defect'' that could render him incompetent to stand trial.
The United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors has at various times claimed to be Christian, Muslim, Freemasons and Native Americans. It would appear from recently filed court documents, as well as the Nuwaubian's Web site, that York will be appearing in court for the trial as Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle. On the Web site, the group now calls itself the Yamassee Native American Moors of the Creek Nation.