("WABC," February 7, 2003)
Tonight, an insider's story about a bizarre, Brooklyn-based religious sect and allegations of widespread child molestation by the group's leader. The leader of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors pleaded guilty to scores of sex abuse charges and will spend years in prison. Now his victims finally feel it is safe to speak out. One insider talked exclusively with The Investigators' Sarah Wallace.
How could someone get away with abusing countless children- allegedly two generations of victims for nearly 30 years? Tonight, we have an incredible story from within and a warning about what can happen when an entire community gives over their collective lives to one person.
For most of her life it was all Habiba Washington ever knew. The 27-year-old was born into the communal world of the Ansaru Allah community in Bushwick, Brooklyn. The outside world was shunned.
Habiba Washington: "Because the community is basically blocked from the outside world, you don't know anything but what you know there."
What she could not know is how wrong it all was.
Washington: "The abuse go beyond, further beyond child molestation. It's the fact that families were separated. People were physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually abused for years."
Girls and boys, separated from their parents, housed in two buildings on Bushwick Avenue. Every move of every one dictated by their leader Dwight York.
Washington: "He would fill you up with his information, with his indoctrination... Take away from you, everything that you know. Tell you that this is what the white man has been teaching you and it's not the right way... it's the wrong way of thinking, it's the wrong way of living. That everything I am teaching you is the right way."
His religious teachings changed with whatever doctrine he thought would attract followers. First they were Muslims, then Hebrews. When York moved the group to rural Georgia in 1993 he decided on an Egyptian theme. And there, in the center of the Bible Belt, several hundred followers became Christians. But the ultimate "god" was Dwight York, who staged an elaborate "Savior's Day" every June on his birthday.
Sarah Wallace, Eyewitness News: "It was clearly a cult, correct?"
Washington: "Clearly a cult. When you're in it, you don't see it, you don't see that you're a cult, because you really, really believe you're doing something for your people. It's like, 'No, we're not a cult. We're helping black people. Like he'll say something like, 'your average cult, tell us how many black cults do you know?' And it's like, 'OK we're not a cult because we're black.' Every cult the government has busted has been a white cult."
York promised empowerment, instead he enslaved and abused. Female followers living on the 400-acre, heavily guarded compound were kept separate from the men. Usually, York victimized little girls, but sometimes boys as well.
Washington: "He raised us. He had a garden. It was like a garden, and he was the gardener and he picked us like flocks.
Wallace: "To do what ever he wanted?"
Washington: "To do whatever he wanted. It started off with girls my age, 13, there was like a group of us that it started off with and then it was the younger age and then it became younger. And when he got comfortable with the fact that he was doing it, like I said, no limits. And because everybody had been so afraid of opening their mouths for years, so afraid, he also realized that nobody was going to speak against me, because he's made comments. Comments like, 'If you ever open your mouth, I'll have you killed.'"
Habiba finally left the compound a year and a half ago, returning to New York. Only then, from the outside, could she truly see the truth within.
Washington: "You watch the news, you hear about people who rape people. You hear about child molesters and it's like, 'OK, but this is how I lived my life.'"
The turning point: A reunion with several ex-followers. Habiba and other victims agreed to tell their story to federal and state authorities.
On January 24th, Dwight York avoided a trial by pleading guilty in a Georgia courtroom to 77 sex charges. He'll spend at least 13 years in a federal prison. Habiba would have been one of the witnesses. Now, she's rebuilding her life, plans to go to law school and become an advocate for children.
Washington: "That community took the most important part of our lives away from us."
Wallace: "Which is?"
Washington: "Which is our childhood, when we were the most vulnerable."
We spoke with a number of women and teenage girls who had been scheduled to testify against York. Many of them are disappointed that he pleaded guilty and avoided a trial. The victims wanted to face York in court and tell him to his face he can't hurt them any more.