Las Vegas offers economic outlet for polygamous sect followers

LAS VEGAS (AP) – A new family moved to Gilbert Lane early last year, a family unlike any other on the quiet street in northwest Las Vegas.

The women and girls wore long dresses and bonnets. The boys wore overalls.

“It looked like ‘Little House on the Prairie,’” said Lukey Corral, who lives next door. “We were back in the 1800s.”

When a neighbor talked to one of the women at the house, the woman said: “We are just Mormons. Well, we are different Mormons,” neighbor Judy Donahue recalled.

The neighborhood eventually learned the new inhabitants were members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the Mormon church that believes polygamy is the key to the celestial kingdom of heaven.

For decades, FLDS members have lived in an isolated enclave on the Utah-Arizona border, insulated from the outside world and able to practice polygamy without government interference. That has changed in recent years as authorities have prosecuted several FLDS members, including the sect’s self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Steed Jeffs, on charges related to sexual abuse of teenage brides.

FLDS

The FLDS is also considered to be a cult of Christianity. Sociologically,the group is a high-control cult.

Amid the scrutiny FLDS members have left their homes in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., about 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas, for anonymity and the booming economy of southern Nevada. Many work in the construction industry for companies in Las Vegas, Henderson and Mesquite.

“They have made a lot of money down there,” said Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County, Ariz., attorney’s office who has probed allegations of underage marriages and rape within the FLDS community.

Besides economic opportunities, some of the estimated 8,000 church members on the Utah-Arizona border may be heading to southern Nevada to dodge increasing pressure from authorities in Utah and Arizona, he said.

“They probably fit in better there in Vegas than in those small towns because people don’t pay attention to them,” Engels said.

On Gilbert Lane, residents watched as several prebuilt homes popped up and residents who sometimes mingled with neighbors grew more reclusive.

“You used to be able to see one little girl who used to come up to the glass window and wave at you,” Donahue said. “Then they immediately put paper up over the windows so she couldn’t. It was a little creepy.”

The home’s residents wrapped a green mesh fence around the property, blocking what had been a clear view of the backyard, neighbors said.

Donahue recalled stepping outside one night and seeing a man at the house loading a pickup.

“The minute he saw me, he closed all the doors on the truck, ran in the house and turned off all the lights,” she said. “It’s like they don’t want you to see what they are doing. All very mysterious.”

FLDS teachings say anyone outside the faith should be avoided.

Still, FLDS followers have set up several businesses in southern Nevada.

Jacob Jessop, who owns the Gilbert Lane house, incorporated JNJ Engineering in Las Vegas in 2002. Engels, private investigator Sam Brower and others identified Jessop as an FLDS member. He visited Jeffs in the Clark County Detention Center after his arrest, according to visitor logs. Jessop did not respond to requests for comment.

The company has earned millions of dollars in Las Vegas, including $11.3 million in contracts with the Las Vegas Valley Water District. All but one of the 16 workers on the water district projects used mailing addresses in Hildale or Colorado City, according to payroll records.

JNJ was awarded the contracts because it was the lowest bidder, water district spokesman Scott Huntley said.

Another major business owned by FLDS members in Las Vegas is NewEra Manufacturing, which was called Western Precision before moving from Utah to Nevada in July 2006.

“Before they moved to Las Vegas, it was the biggest employer in Colorado City,” Brower said. “They have a lot of government contracts.”

The company’s founder, Wendell Nielsen, is one of Jeffs’ closest confidants, and company President John C. Wayman owned the Cadillac Escalade Jeffs was riding in when he was arrested, Brower said.

A person answering the phone at NewEra refused comment.

Bruce Wisan, who was appointed by a Utah judge to oversee an FLDS trust known as the United Effort Plan, has sued Western Precision immediately after his appointment, alleging the company bought its building and land from church leaders for far less than market value. The building in Hildale was auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the trust.

“Warren has his hand in all these businesses,” Wisan said, naming NewEra Manufacturing and JNJ Engineering, among others.

Brower works for a law firm that is suing Jeffs and the church on behalf of women who allege they were sexually abused within the church, and on behalf of young men who were kicked out of the church.

He and Engels identified a Henderson-based company that made lanyards for Snugz, a Salt Lake City company. A lanyard is a cord that hangs around the neck to display security badges and event passes.

Jon Clave, 24, who worked for another company in the same warehouse in Henderson, recalled going into the factory to ask for the return of a borrowed forklift.

Clave said he walked in on a room full of kids. Four or five boys, three girls.

“They just sat there in dead silence. No one said anything,” he said.

A few months later, the business closed and the workers disappeared.

Snugz owner Brandon Mackay said FLDS workers were manufacturers for some of the company’s products when he bought it in the spring of 2005. He ended the relationship last year for business reasons, he said.

In Mesquite, FLDS members have run several companies, including Dagrow Truss and Cozy Log Homes, Engels said.

Former Mesquite Mayor Bill Nicholes noticed a wave of FLDS workers in his city about two years ago. Most appeared to be men who worked for Dagrow or other construction-related businesses, he said.

They rented houses and packed them with workers, who stayed the week and returned to Colorado City on the weekends, he said.

Nicholes said activity at Dagrow Truss slowed after Jeffs’ arrest last year, and FLDS workers have all but disappeared from Mesquite.

An unidentified woman who answered the phone at Dagrow Truss said no one would comment. A phone message to Cozy Log Homes went unreturned.

One of the managing members of Cozy Log Homes, Kelly Fischer, was the first FLDS member to be tried in Mohave County on charges related to underage brides. He was convicted last year of sexual contact with a minor and sentenced to 45 days in jail.

The charges against Fischer and seven other FLDS men were hailed as the first step toward ending abuses of women and girls within the community.

Jeffs is on trial in St. George, Utah, on charges of rape as an accomplice. Authorities allege he ordered and performed a marriage in Caliente between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin and commanded the girl to have sex with the teen.

The 51-year-old faces similar accusations in Mohave County, Ariz., after grand juries indicted him on charges of arranging marriages between two minor girls and older men. Each indictment charges Jeffs with two counts of sexual conduct with a minor as an accomplice and two counts of incest as an accomplice.

Jeffs’ capture spurred U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to call for a federal task force, led by the U.S. attorney general, to investigate polygamous communities. A year later, Reid said he is still waiting.

“Ignoring polygamy all over the West doesn’t speak well about what our standard of morals should be,” said Reid, D-Nev., a practicing Mormon. He said polygamy demeans women, and is associated with child abuse and domestic violence.

The Mormon church tolerates the FLDS, as it does all religions, but doesn’t interact with the polygamous offshoot, said Ace Robison, southern Nevada spokesman for the church.

“We don’t say or do much about it,” he said. “It is what it is.”

After Jeffs’ arrest, then-Nevada Attorney General George Chanos committed an investigator from his office to look into FLDS activities in the state. Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen said he could not reveal results of the investigation, but prosecutors never received a referral to press charges.

The family on Gilbert Lane was ordered by city inspectors late last year to remove three small houses that appeared on his property. They were gone by January, but serenity hasn’t returned to Gilbert Lane.

“Everybody’s moving because no one wants to be around the polygamists,” Corral said.

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