Nuwaubians targeting sheriff with lawsuits

The Macon Telegraph/July 12, 2004
By Gary Tanner

Eatonton -- Within the past month, at least a dozen lawsuits have been filed in at least two courts against Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills by people affiliated with the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors religious sect.

Sills calls it harassment.

For example, he said Nuwaubian litigants have in the past requested to take his deposition in a Chinese restaurant.

"They have asked me questions like, 'Do you like popcorn?' and 'Have you ever played baseball?' " Sills said.

An expert on "sovereign citizen" movements says that kind of strategy is common among members of some extremist groups and could be motivated by a number of reasons.

"Harassing litigation is a common tactic used by people with sovereign citizen beliefs," Mark Pitcavage of the Anti-Defamation League said. "I would classify the Nuwaubians as a Moorish group, which has a lot of ties to the sovereign citizen movement."

People who believe in sovereign citizenship reject government control over them and most laws.

The one plaintiff successfully contacted by The Telegraph declined to comment. Telephone numbers could not be located for most others.

The recent civil complaints against Sills allege he was informed of possible child molestation at the Nuwaubian property in rural Putnam County in 1998 and did not act promptly. Some complaints have been filed in U.S. District Court in Macon and others have been filed in Fulton County courts.

After a four-year investigation, the group's leader, Malachi York, was charged with child molestation and racketeering. He was convicted in U.S. District Court and sentenced in April to 135 years in prison.

Some of the complaints against Sills allege molestation took place, but was committed by former group members who testified against York at his trial.

Members of the group have been touting that several prosecution witnesses have recanted their stories, which they say proves York is not guilty. Prosecutors have said group members have been pressuring witnesses to change their stories.

Pitcavage said retaliation against the group's perceived enemies in the government, or a desire to clog the court system or a deterrence of further actions against the group could be factors driving the recent flurry of complaints.

Putnam County lawyer Frank Ford, who has represented the county in Nuwaubian lawsuits, called the most recent actions "frivolous."

All of the complaints were filed without lawyers representing the plaintiffs. Pitcavage said people who believe in sovereign citizenship believe lawyers "are illegitimate, or not even citizens."

Sills said the latest actions are not the first time affiliates of the group have targeted him.

"One of them filed a bogus lien on my property," he said. "I had to pay to have that straightened out."

The same group member, Tommy Lee Cox El, in 2002 filed a "court of common law," action against Sills.

Attempts to reach Cox El were unsuccessful.

Pitcavage said both tactics are used commonly by extremist groups, but fell off when "in the 1990s a lot people got arrested for it."

Sills said he hopes judges will put an end to the complaints.

Pitcavage said in most cases, if a judge decides a complaint is "malicious," the judge can prevent the individual from filing further actions.

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