PRINGLE, S.D. — On a cold, blustery day last month, one of Bob Hadlock’s neighbors knocked on his door to ask if he would like his driveway plowed.
Moments later, a road grader began pushing aside nearly two feet of snow from a morning storm.
The grader came from a nearby compound, built surreptitiously by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints over the past 2 1/2 years. The gesture illustrates how the FLDS have settled into this secluded spot in South Dakota’s Black Hills. Members of the polygamous sect remain reclusive. But they also have shown Western neighborliness — offering wood furniture as an apology for construction lights and noise, grading and spreading gravel on a public road and checking on a home after a burglary.
Each new outpost of the sect generates wide interest because its prophet, Warren Jeffs, is a fugitive — wanted in Utah on charges filed Thursday of being an accessory to rape; in Arizona for his role in facilitating the sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl; and on a federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
The compound outside Pringle, first publicly reported in March, is the most recently revealed colony, with other known communities in Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; Eldorado, Texas; Mancos, Colo., southeastern Nevada; and British Columbia.
The FLDS began fanning out to Texas, Colorado and South Dakota in 2003, not long after Jeffs announced God was done with the community in the Arizona strip.
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Ken Boggs, who owns 40 acres adjacent to the Pringle property, said its residents duck behind brush as he and his wife walk by with their dogs. But when they’ve spoken with him, they’ve been friendly, he said.
“If a guy ever had any trouble or anything, that would be the first place to go,” Boggs said.
Four million tourists visit Custer County every year, officials estimate, drawn by a state park, a national forest, the mammoth Crazy Horse memorial, nearby Mount Rushmore and annual Sturgis motorcycle rally. The county is named for Gen. George Custer, who found gold in the Black Hills before he died at the Battle of Little Bighorn. The main street in Custer, the county seat, is lined with motels and souvenir shops selling Black Hills gold jewelry, hides and T-shirts.
But people are sparse in the county’s southwest corner, sprinkled with homes and farms. Pringle, pop. 124, has a post office, a bar and a general store. The 100 acres linked to FLDS leaders are 10 miles outside town, about five miles from the nearest pavement.
No buildings are visible from a dirt public road that bisects the property, dotted with pine trees and surrounded by a barbed wire fence on each side. Four new, green livestock gates stand on each corner; a no trespassing sign hangs from each gatepost.
However, aerial photographs show large buildings that appear to be housing and outbuildings behind hills and brush. The photos, taken by author Jon Krakauer, who is investigating the sect, also have shown heavy construction equipment.
“‘It’s unbelievable how hid it is,” said neighbor Hadlock. “They went to a lot of trouble.” Locals are wondering why FLDS members are in Pringle and whether they are practicing plural marriage. Most of the residents seen by neighbors are young men in their 20s.
Custer County Sheriff Phil Hespen said he has no evidence of laws being broken at the compound. He has not spoken to its residents, and points out property owners in his county include the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang.
“There’s a bunch more felons in that Hell’s Angels than there are in that FLDS,” Hespen said. “But why isn’t anybody yelling about the Hell’s Angels owning property here?” He continues: “I’m not going to invade anyone’s privacy. I’m not going to be curious. I’m not going to be peeking in windows I shouldn’t be peeking into.” The county’s planning department said the compound’s permits are up to date and it passed its one required inspection — a septic inspection. A state electrical inspector plans to review the property later this spring, as will a county tax assessor.
Building a retreat
Driving near the compound site in 2003, Odean Borgen stopped when he saw pick-up trucks parked along the road. One of the men introduced himself as David Allred, from St. George, Utah. Allred, a high-ranking church member, had purchased the properties in Pringle, Colorado and Texas.
Allred told Borgen he was building cabins for a corporate retreat – the same explanation he had given in Texas. Another resident gave Boggs a similar account, telling him the hunting retreat would have a fence and modular homes. Borgen said he twice visited the compound while it was under construction, seeing carpenters at work or men pouring concrete, “to be neighborly and nosey.” Each time, Borgen was met by a man as he arrived.
“He wasn’t real mean about it, but he let it be known he didn’t want me there,” Borgen said.
Borgen contacted the sheriff and said he called the FBI twice in 2004, each time receiving similar responses: The residents aren’t known to have broken any laws. Construction seemed to be underway for about a year, with the hum and roar of generators and heavy equipment heard day and night, Hadlock said.
Semi trucks came and went in the dark.
One nearby couple became frustrated, complaining about the noise and spotlights shining at night, Hadlock said. While he was visiting the pair, a man from the compound stopped by with a peace offering: a large, stained wooden bench. He offered one to Hadlock, too, and it sits on his family’s patio.
The day after news broke about the FLDS in Pringle, Boggs opened his door to a surprise guest.
Jerald Williams, the compound’s current owner and apparent leader, had been visiting about every six months, chatting and sometimes accepting coffee. On this day, he was upset, and Boggs was left with the impression Williams felt the media were picking on his people.
“The poor guy. I felt sorry for him,” Boggs said. “He was about ready to cry.” The FBI has warned Jeffs might be traveling with armed bodyguards.
Williams said the claims being made about Jeffs weren’t true, Boggs said, and he said specifically that Jeffs isn’t violent.
“He made the comment Jeffs doesn’t want the kids to throw snowballs because that’s not love,” Boggs said. Williams also claimed there were no guns on the Pringle property.
Boggs said he asked Williams if he knew where Jeffs was. Williams said no. In past conversations, talk had ranged from a hailstorm that destroyed the FLDS garden to why Williams’ people hid one day as they passed by in a car. Boggs took Williams’ answer to mean that “whoever was in that car grew up not to trust anyone.”
“They don’t bother us.”
Last November, after a burglary at their home, the Hadlocks hopped a fence one evening to ask their new neighbors if they saw anything. They startled a woman in a long dress. She led them to a group of men, who said they had heard the family’s dogs barking but didn’t investigate. “They seemed like they felt pretty bad because all they had to do was walk over the hill,” Hadlock said.
A day later, a man zipped over on a four-wheeler when he heard the dogs barking again, he said.
Hadlock is more concerned about methamphetamine addicts, like those eventually arrested for burglarizing his home.
“These people I don’t worry about,” Hadlock said in his wood-paneled living room, adorned with deer and elk anters. He nodded toward the FLDS property. “They don’t bother us. We don’t bother them.”