ELDORADO, Texas – With the legal heat rising against its leader in Arizona and Utah, a splinter group of polygamous Mormons is hurriedly building a new community in sparsely populated West Texas.
But the arrival of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – marked by a temple tower rising out of the rocky terrain and prickly pear cactus – has been about as welcome among locals as a new species of rattlesnake.
“I think there’s reason to be apprehensive, but they’ve done nothing to warrant any kind of great fear,” Schleicher County Judge Johnny Griffin said. “But it’s the unknown. … It’s the secrecy that bothers most people. I just hope nothing happens.”
The congregation, known as FLDS and led by reclusive prophet Warren Jeffs since his father’s death in 2002, is one of several groups that split from the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the decades after it renounced polygamy in 1890.
The FLDS began migrating 77 years ago to a remote area along the Utah-Arizona state line, where its members live in almost complete seclusion in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Members are not allowed newspapers, radio, TV or the Internet – and are forbidden to speak with outsiders.
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Taking a break?
The sect, which may have as many as 10,000 members, has a history of polygamy that’s long been an open secret in Utah. In civil suits filed recently by former members there, Jeffs is accused of sexual misconduct and of assigning young girls as wives to older men.
But authorities say the accusations aren’t sufficient to produce criminal charges because they can’t get anyone to talk about Jeffs.
“For three years now, he’s been doing everything he can to keep people from cooperating with us and to take steps to avoid our efforts,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who recently held a town hall meeting on the church with Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.
For Larry Donaldson, who has a ranch just up the road from the FLDS site in Texas, Jeffs’ move stirs memories of the fiery demise a decade ago of David Koresh and his followers at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco.
“That’s just the thing I thought of,” Donaldson said from his pickup truck, a rifle resting on the seat next to him to take care of predators coveting his livestock.
The new complex just north of Eldorado, about 160 miles northwest of San Antonio, includes roughly a dozen concrete and log apartment buildings plus other structures around the fortress-like temple, about 80 feet tall, that’s nearing completion.
The main entry to the property is a dirt easement blocked by a locked metal gate. A quarter-mile down the path there’s a small guard shack, and someone equipped with binoculars has been spotted atop a construction tower that has a bird’s-eye view of the 1,691-acre tract.
The Rev. Joseph Vathalloor, whose small Roman Catholic church is at the intersection of the road leading to the FLDS site, said he and other clergy in town have talked about trying to say hello to Jeffs.
“But what I’m told is he’s not seeing anyone,” Vathalloor said.
The number of church members in Eldorado is unknown, and while they’ve been seen only sporadically, they’re easily spotted in the town of just under 2,000.
Men and boys wear buttoned-up long-sleeve shirts. Long, loose-fitting pastel-colored dresses are worn by women and girls, who also have long braided hair.
“They don’t say much,” said Tammy McGinnis, 28, who works at a Shell convenience store not far from the compound where some church men have purchased gasoline. “I said hello to one. He just looked down.”
Randy Mankin, editor of the 1,100-circulation Eldorado Success – the town’s weekly, said his newspaper has been following the construction of the compound for about year. That’s when Mankin took a call from a woman named Flora Jessop inquiring about a local land purchase; she heard it was related to the FLDS.
Five months earlier, a company called YFZ Land LLC spent nearly $700,000 for a former exotic game ranch, prompting chuckles from locals who figured some greenhorn got snookered into paying about twice the value of the place. The buyer’s representative initially told real estate agents and police he planned to operate the property as a hunting retreat.
Then pilots using an airstrip nearby reported buildings under construction that looked like something else entirely.
“They told a great big lie,” said Jimmy Doyle, the county’s justice of the peace.
Jessop, who said she escaped from the church nearly two decades ago and devotes her life to helping others to do so, showed up in Eldorado a week later. She claims she still has contacts within the church, and worries that the congregation’s fierce loyalty to Jeffs might one day result in violence.
Yet George Arispe, the Schleicher County sheriff’s chief deputy, noted that none has been reported at the site, and that the people he’s seen are “hardworking folks” and “awesome contractors, great at what they do.”
People who have watched from afar say much the same.
Within two months, the temple foundation was in, steel and decking four floors high was up, the exterior was wrapped in plywood and circular towers like castle lookouts stood at each corner. Now, cream-colored limestone from an onsite quarry is being attached to the temple walls.
Only a handful of “nonbelievers” have been allowed inside the compound. One woman died last July of breast cancer and her death had to be confirmed by Doyle.
“It was not elaborate, but it was very nice,” Doyle said of his visit to the quarters of Barbara Barlow Jeffs, believed one of the 50 to 70 wives of the church leader.
In Texas, where bigamy is a misdemeanor, church men get around the law by declaring only one legal wife. The others are known as “celestial” wives, Doyle said.
Griffin, the county judge, is torn between what is viewed by many as a threat to his county and his respect for the rights of privacy and religious freedom. And Doyle said he can’t see any criminal charges “until one of the girls comes into my office and raises her hand and swears they’ve been molested by so and so, and that’s never going to happen.”
Associated Press reporter Travis Reed in Hildale, Utah, contributed to this report.