Television and newspaper reporters–some from as far away as Sweden–descended upon a tiny west Texas town Tuesday, the day before a reclusive polygamous sect and its dictatorial leader were scheduled to celebrate the church’s most important date.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose estimated 6,000 to 10,000 members dominate the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., has for months been constructing a ranch on about 2,000 acres near Eldorado. Joining a fortress-like temple about 80 feet tall are roughly a dozen concrete and log apartment buildings.
Church members lead secluded lives–without television, radio or the Internet –and are forbidden to speak to reporters. But word filtered through investigators by excommunicated and disaffected church members is that prophet Warren Jeffs plans to dedicate the temple in Texas on April 6–the 175th anniversary of the Mormon faith.
It’s unclear just how many members are going, but Jeffs is reported to be leaving with his most devout supporters. That has authorities in Utah and Texas on high alert, as rumors of apocalyptic cult activity coinciding with the date swirl.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff toured Hildale and Colorado City again Tuesday, and ordered his staff to assess the likelihood of a disaster, including suicides. He declined to specify what they found, but said his office determined the risk was greater than 10 percent.
“We heard there was a mass exodus, but there are still a lot of people here,” he said.
Shurtleff said his office shared its findings with authorities in Texas and Arizona, though he’s aware the Schleicher County Sheriff’s Office in Eldorado doesn’t expect any problems.
Sheriff David Doran said his office has negotiated with members inside the sect he didn’t want to identify, and will be let inside for a few hours Wednesday to dispel any concern.
“We have good communications with everyone at the ranch–have since they came out here,” he said. “We do not get any indication of a problem tomorrow.”
Investigations into the sect have intensified on Shurtleff’s watch but haven’t produced wholesale criminal charges–despite allegations of forced child marriages, sexual and physical abuse and welfare and tax fraud.
Shurtleff and other officials blame the fact that Jeffs and other church officials haven’t been prosecuted on the culture of secrecy surrounding the sect. Jeff hasn’t been seen in more than a year, but still reportedly dictates the lives of every church member–including where they work, who they marry and whether they get to keep their own children.
Jeffs, who has a reported 50-70 wives, has stopped defending himself in Utah lawsuits accusing him of sexual abuse and the church of excommunicating young boys so older men don’t have competition for young wives.
In Texas Tuesday, police and reporters were camped outside the Texas complex, where the main entry 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 entire tract.
Residents outside are trying to understand their new neighbors. Though FLDS church members lived in seclusion in Utah, their faith is based on the mainline Mormon church, which heavily populates the state and once condoned polygamy. The practice was abandoned in 1890 as a condition of statehood.
Some in Texas even seem to appreciate the FLDS influx as a novelty. The weekly Eldorado Success newspaper hosts a banner advertisement for “Texas Polygamy Merchandise” –hats, stickers featuring a spoof of the Olympic rings tweaked to include one male “sign” and four female signs, and a fake marriage license calling Eldorado “the Polygamy Capitol of Texas.”
“They’re pretty calm over the situation,” Doran said of Eldorado residents. “There certainly was a fear of the unknown at first. Now we’re at a point where, yeah, there’s some concerns, but they’re ready to accept them as our new neighbors.”