B R U N S W I C K, Ga., Jan. 8, 2004 -- Former members of the so-called Nuwaubian cult told jurors at a trial of their former spiritual leader that he groomed them for sex when they were just young girls.
As the trial of Malachi York got under way this week, a series of former female cult members shared disturbing allegations of molestation.
One former member, now 18, told jurors that York, 58, began molesting her when she was just 8 years old.
York, once a Muslim cleric in Brooklyn, is on trial for molesting up to 13 girls and boys and bringing them to the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors compound in rural Putnam County, Ga., for sex.
York faces 13 federal counts of child molestation and racketeering for using his power as leader of the Nuwaubians to have sex with children between the ages of 5 and 17.
The trial could last up to three weeks. If convicted, York could be sentenced to up to 40 years in prison.
Leader Allegedly Lured Girls with Privileges
Another unnamed witness, now 28, alleges York methodically broke down girls' inhibitions as he prepared them for sex with him.
The former Nuwaubian cult member said York would first give the girls special privileges, such as soda, pizza and TV. Then the girls would be moved on to pornographic movies and sex toys in preparation for sex with York, she charged.
The alleged victim, who was then just 13 years old, left the Nuwaubian compound in Georgia in 2000 and later helped her sister escape.
The witness said the girls were told it was traditional for members of the group to have sex with the leader of the group so they could learn about intercourse and later please their husbands.
'Seen as God-Like Figure'
Attorneys for the self-proclaimed "messiah" say he is simply being persecuted for his group's troubled history with local authorities.
"What I feel the government is trying to do is indict the organization and not the individual," said York's defense attorney Adrian Patrick. Prosecutors say they plan to make a case that York used his status as a religious leader for sex and money, enriching himself, marrying several women and abusing young boys and girls who were part of his sect.
Members of York's religious sect, who are mostly African-American, live on the group's Egyptian-like compound in the middle of rural Georgia. The compound holds 40-foot pyramids, statues and monuments built by cult members.
Rick Ross, founder of the Ross Institute for the Study of Destructive Cults, Controversial Groups and Movements in Jersey City, N.J., says some of the cult members who decided to come forward to testify did so at the urging of their parents.
"Some the children in the cult had parents who lived outside the cult. When reports of molestation reached them the parents took action" Ross said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
Meanwhile, Ross says other parents have not responded to the reports of molestation and support York 100 percent.
"This is the plight of many children in cults," Ross said. "He [York] is seen as a god-like figure and to go against him is to go against God."
Sheriff: 'Damned Right I'm Concerned'
Nearby residents say they were frightened when the Nuwaubians declared themselves a sovereign nation and gave machine guns to the guards who patrolled their gates.
York told his followers that they would be better off when they were completely separated from the rest of the world. "I'm talking about a real nation. Our own nation right here … with our own passports and our own tax system," York told followers during a taped speech in 1999.
The local sheriff in Putnam County, Ga., said he understood the fears of the local residents.
Sheriff Howard Sills compared the cult to the branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, and the Heaven's Gate cult of California.
"Every incident involving every one of these groups ended in some sort of tragedy, did it not? So am I concerned as a sheriff? You're damned right I'm concerned," Sills said.
For years, the group claimed to be waiting for a spaceship to come and deliver them from the Georgia corn fields.
They now claim to be Native Americans, and York calls himself "Chief Black Thunderbird Eagle."
York has tried to argue he has American Indian heritage and should not be judged by the U.S. judicial system.
His supporters have demonstrated at previous hearings, dressed in American-Indian garb and beating drums, but just a few cult members appeared at the courthouse in Brunswick during recent proceedings.
Ross says he believes the Nuwaubian cult will fail to continue without its leader. "I think it's a personality driven group driven by York," Ross said. "It changed from Egyptia, spaceship to Native American … the group will probably disintegrate," he said.
Steve Osunsami reported this story on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.