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FLDS: Town reaches uneasy peace with polygamist sect

The Dallas Morning News, USA
June 15, 2006
Karen Brooks
www.dallasnews.com

ReligionNewsBlog.com • Friday June 16, 2006

Neighbors can’t relate, but don’t live in fear

ELDORADO, Texas — Fugitive polygamist leader Warren Jeffs‘ driver’s license picture hangs in post offices across the nation — but not the one in this little West Texas outpost.

“Distributing the FBI fliers is not really a priority,” said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran. “Everyone here already knows what he looks like.”

Even before Mr. Jeffs landed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list in May, the 1,900 people in this two-stoplight town were familiar with the Utah native purported to have 70 wives. After all, his group lives next door.

Long before the nation awoke to the saga of plural marriages, racism, child brides and other accusations against Mr. Jeffs’ breakaway fundamentalist Mormon sect, the folks in this town south of San Angelo were well aware of the self- proclaimed prophet of the 10,000-member Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Two years ago, the polygamist sect he leads constructed a giant, reclusive compound just outside of town, turning Eldorado upside down with scary stories and a flood of reporters and investigators. But now, the isolated Yearning for Zion ranch is neither novelty nor nightmare for the people of Eldorado — even though only a handful of them have ever been inside its gates.

Residents no longer worry about the safety of their children. They’re educated on the religion enough to know that believers don’t try to convert outsiders. They admire members’ skills and work ethic, even as they abhor the polygamist way of life.

They pray earnestly for the compound’s children. And they carry a nagging fear of a possible violent showdown should Mr. Jeffs make a stand here.

Eldoradoans have also been reassured by the fact that — so far, at least — charges of welfare fraud and tax evasion that drain county resources in other states have not accompanied the sect’s arrival in Texas.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite, according to Schleicher County appraisals: Last year, the members paid about $116,000 in property taxes on about $8 million worth of property. This year, appraiser Scott Sutton doubled the value after the temple was built. This year’s tax bill is estimated at more than $400,000.

Sect members at the Yearning for Zion ranch have a temple valued at $8 million as the hub of their 1.600-acre facility. Church members have two weeks to appeal, and they’ve asked for information about possibly designating a tax-exempt religious status on the temple for next year.

Mr. Sutton said the temple, appraised at $8 million by itself, is far and away the most valuable piece of property in the county.

Despite how their nerves have calmed, residents remain divided on how to relate to the 70 or so people living permanently at the YFZ ranch. Do they live and let live or bust down the door?

And the townspeople haven’t turned the other cheek to their concerns about the church members’ psychological and personal safety.

“Every time I pass by it,” resident Roxanne Rangel said, “I think, ‘Lord, what can be going on in there?’ ”

Much of what is known about life on the YFZ ranch was gleaned through the contacts of a handful of locals, as well as tracing their roots in polygamist communities, long split from the mainstream Mormon church, along the border of Utah and Arizona.

Members in Texas still answer to Mr. Jeffs, who is wanted on sex-crime charges. An on-site leader, believed to be the sect’s preacher, is in charge.

Only the sheriff, some deputies, and a few county and government regulators — along with the occasional city utilities worker — have gotten past the locked gate and guardhouse on County Road 300.

Sheriff Doran has toured the compound several times, enough that he has become the de facto liaison between the church and town. And with an endless stream of reporters coming to Eldorado from around the globe, he’s the group’s accidental public spokesman.

Church members have built a grain silo, a community garden, a meeting hall, a commissary that authorities believe stocks basic supplies, several large log cabins, a dairy and a chicken coop. The ranch also has a refrigeration truck and a large cold storage unit, probably used for meat bought in bulk, below the cafeteria in a log cabin.

‘Old World’ lifestyle

The YFZ ranch has an estimated 15 dairy cows and a milk processing plant, and members keep the chicken operation “immaculately clean,” Sheriff Doran said.

Teenage boys are seen working in the gardens, and the sheriff believes they also labor in the chicken house and the dairy.

Women work in some operations but maintain “traditional, Old World roles” of caring for children and households, Sheriff Doran said. The men oversee construction and development and deal with authorities. Member Merrill Jessop serves as the church’s lead liaison with Eldorado and the state. He doesn’t speak to reporters.

The church strongly fights publicity and interaction with the outside world. In front of the appraisal office, two men who said they lived at the YFZ declined to talk about it and asked not to be photographed.

“Please respect our privacy,” one of the men told a photographer.

They guard it well — if a vehicle circles the ranch, a truck scrambles atop a large lookout hill near the members’ massive temple. From there, one can see for miles.

Nobody but church members has ever been inside the temple. It’s considered sacred ground.

Yet in spite of their reclusive ways, YFZ residents are growing more accustomed to life with the locals. The children, who used to hide whenever Justice of the Peace Jimmy Doyle’s plane buzzed overhead, now wave up at the sky.

Mr. Jessop even took a ride, asking Mr. Doyle to show him what the compound looked like from the sky. Mr. Doyle recalled that they talked about the plane Mr. Jessop once used to ferry former prophet Rulon Jeffs, Warren Jeffs’ father, to his homes and communities up north.

Mr. Jessop remarked lightly that the property looked junky from the sky, and that members probably should clean it up if people were going to be flying over it.

The men never talked about religion.

Unsettling neighbors

Despite the contact, Eldorado residents are still unsettled by their neighbors. They worry about the safety of the women and children at the compound and the men and boys who are cast out and stripped of their homes and families, with wives and property reassigned to other men. They also see the specter of a Jonestown or Waco-like confrontation if Mr. Jeffs is found.

“I don’t have the fear of them anymore,” said Kay Creek, a preschool teacher at First Baptist Church and director of the vacation Bible study for kids. “It’s knowing what’s going on with those children. We’re right here, four miles away, and we can’t do anything for them.”

She and the other teachers jokingly daydream of flying over the compound and dropping pamphlets for the women and children to read, coaxing them into the arms of First Baptist.

“Sometimes, I envision our fellowship hall looking like the stadium in Houston after Katrina,” said teacher Shea Politte, 27, whose husband, Sylas, is the youth minister at First Baptist.

She doesn’t worry about her safety, comparing the compound to an “ant pile — you don’t mess with them, and they won’t mess with you.”

In Eldorado, the sect’s presence is largely silent, but constant. Reporters still blow through town occasionally, and the Baptist church added the compound to its regular prayer list. Every once in a while, a truck with Utah plates clatters through town, or a man with peculiar Little House on the Prairie clothing stops in at Duckwall’s, a general store, to pick up supplies.

Eldorado resident Mary Nolan, 57, still wonders whether the compound will eventually grow big enough for its members to start voting and “take over” the town leadership — as they have in two towns on the Utah-Arizona border.

The water and sewage infrastructure on the YFZ ranch can accommodate 2,000 people, even if that might seem crowded on the 1,600-acre ranch, said Randy Mankin, the former city manager and publisher of the weekly newspaper, the Eldorado Success.

Sheriff Doran doesn’t think members plan to take over, but “they plan for growth, no doubt.”

Residents are, indeed, getting used to their neighbors. It’s easy once again to find books about Mormonism in the local library. Two years ago, librarians couldn’t keep them in stock, but by now, everyone in town has read them all.

In fact, for many, the compound is largely ignored — until they drive past on their way to run errands in San Angelo and catch a glimpse of the temple’s gleaming white dome peeking over the scrubby hills.

“That’s what you see when you drive through town,” Ms. Creek said. “It’s not forgotten.”

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