ELDORADO — It’s been a difficult spring for Warren Jeffs, the reclusive leader of a secretive polygamist sect that is building a large settlement and an imposing stone temple a few miles outside of town.
In Texas, the governor recently signed into law measures aimed directly at the polygamists, including raising the age of consent to marry from 14 to 16 and outlawing “stepfather marriages.”
In Utah, a state judge in late May removed the trustees — including Jeffs — who had controlled the multimillion-dollar trust that owns most of the land, homes and businesses used by sect members.
In Arizona, officials two weeks ago seized control of the public school district in Colorado City — Jeffs’ former stronghold. The district, which had been run by the polygamists, is heavily in debt and assets are missing.
And on June 10, in the first fruits of a long-running criminal investigation into underage marriages within the sect, a grand jury in Kingman, Ariz., indicted Jeffs on two felony charges.
The accusations stem from his alleged arrangement of an illegal marriage three years ago between a 16-year-old girl and a 28-year-old man. Arrest warrants have been issued for both men.
“This isn’t about religious persecution. This has nothing to do with polygamy,” said Matthew Smith, the Mohave County Attorney, who said 10 more polygamist men may be charged.
“It has to do with underage marriage. It has to do with leaving these young girls alone so they can have a little more maturity and make their own decisions.”
While Smith said he has no idea where Jeffs is, he added, “If I was a guessing man, I’d think he was in Texas.”
Jeffs, 49, is the self-described prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, which split from mainstream Mormons seven decades ago.
Numbering between 8,000 and 10,000, members of the sect are based in a remote community that straddles the Arizona-Utah border.
While Mormon leaders officially disavowed polygamy more than a century ago, sect members continue the practice, believing plural marriages are necessary for salvation.
Within his group, Jeffs’ authority is unchallenged. He has the power to arrange marriages, evict people from their church-owned homes and excommunicate members who don’t measure up.
Sect members arrived surreptitiously in Texas early last year after buying nearly 1,700 acres near Eldorado.
The so-called Yearning for Zion Ranch now has 14 huge log structures, four large metal buildings and the temple.
Gardens, orchards, a dairy, a chicken house, a rock quarry and a concrete batch plant also were visible in a recent flyover, although the settlement appeared almost deserted.
Work on the temple was suspended, and only a couple of women, in typical ankle-length dresses, and some children were seen working in a garden.
The dominant feature is the massive, stone-sided house of worship capped by a small dome. The first temple ever built by the sect, it rises from the West Texas scrub oak and mesquite like a mirage.
“If anyone had told me two years ago that we’d have a Mormon temple in the pasture that adjoins us, I would have said they were crazy, but there is one now,” said a neighboring landowner, who asked not to be named.
“Yes, I want them out of there. Lord, it would be awesome if they were gone, but there is a $20 million compound over there. And it’s not going to disappear,” she said.
Jeffs, who does not speak to outsiders, has not been seen publicly for almost 18 months. All signs indicate he has abandoned his high-walled compound in Colorado City, Ariz. If he turns up in Eldorado, he will be detained, the local sheriff said.
“He could be anywhere from Mexico to Canada. We don’t even know if he’s been here,” said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran.
The story has played repeatedly on national news, and Doran now deals regularly with out-of-town reporters and concerned local residents. He also hears complaints about his go-slow attitude from anti-polygamy activists.
“I’m taking flak for taking the calm approach but my first priority is this community and keeping it safe,” Doran said.
Perhaps alone among law enforcement officials, Doran maintains regular civil contacts with the polygamists. In a visit last week to the compound, he invited Jeffs to surrender without media attention.
“We requested to speak to Warren Jeffs. They said he wasn’t on the property but they’d get the word to him,” Doran said.
“We told them that if he’d turn himself in, we’d do it in a discreet manner. Get him in and out, if at all possible,” he said.
In Eldorado, a town of fewer than 2,000, news of the polygamists plays almost weekly on the front page of the local paper and last week was no exception. A banner headline read: “BREAKING NEWS: Arrest Warrant Issued for Warren Jeffs.”
In far-off Colorado City, Ariz., and neighboring Hildale, Utah, the sect’s adverse legal developments of recent weeks have increased anxiety and paranoia among Jeffs’ followers.
“It has all the makings of coming apart,” said Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County Attorney’s Office. “People are scattering all over the place. Most of Warren’s faithful are moving on to somewhere else, where there is less focus on them.”
Engels developed the case that led to Jeffs’ indictment and is working on several others, but he said the ultimate goal is not criminal prosecutions.
“It’s my hope and dream that this place comes back into America, where these people have the same rights as anyone, and where the government isn’t run by religious organization. You feel you are in a third-world country here,” Engels said.
One Colorado City polygamist who is now an outcast, said peace will not come while Jeffs is in charge.
“I left voluntarily because Warren Jeffs wasn’t doing things like Christ said. It was so obvious to me things were wrong, so I couldn’t follow a man like that,” he said.
“I think Warren is going down, and when he’s gone, people will slowly get their minds back. It wasn’t always like this. We’re not the same religion we were,” he said.
In Texas, the sect’s neighbors monitor developments at the Yearning for Zion Ranch with worries ranging from water quality to child welfare.
“I don’t consider them to be good neighbors. I had one neighbor but now I have a thousand,” said Chip Cole of San Angelo, who owns an adjacent ranch.
Cole, who visits his property several times a week, said he is most concerned about potential pollution caused by the group’s proposed sewage treatment plant. It is designed to handle 1,000 to 1,300 residents.
“Whether it’s sewage or industrial runoff from the cement plant or construction, any pollution on top of the ground is going into that draw that runs past me,” he said.
Another neighbor believes the tense situation will not persist, but doubts there will be a bad or violent outcome.
“I think eventually something will happen, maybe not tomorrow. I think perhaps Warren Jeffs will be taken out of power, and a new, more moderate prophet might come,” she said.
Most disturbing to her are the circumstances of the men, women and children working just across the fence line, but out of reach.
“The whole thing nauseates me, that these children are not educated, that these women get married so young, that these men work 20 hours a day, and they are all so brainwashed that they don’t know any different,” she said.
“It breaks my heart,” she said. “At 14 you’re going to be married to a man who could be your grandfather. Someone chose him for you. You’re going to be his fifth wife.”