On a 1,300-acre ranch just outside the small West Texas town of Eldorado, there are three big new buildings, a concrete plant and a plowed field. Is this a hunting retreat, or the newest outpost of one of Utah’s largest polygamous groups?
That question has unsettled Eldorado, population 2,935, where word has spread rapidly that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints bought the ranch and are moving in.
“There are rumors swirling everywhere,” said Randy Mankin, editor of the Eldorado Success, a weekly newspaper. “Everything from whether this is another Waco to whether this is another Jonestown, or the FLDS, or a group of Mennonites. It’s basically the fear of the unknown.”
One person seems to have no doubt who they are: Flora Mae Jessop, an advocate for children she believes are being mistreated in polygamous communities, is holding a news conference in Eldorado today to “call attention” to the ranch’s new occupants. Jessop says she has no doubt the newcomers are from the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., in search of refuge from turmoil there.
If so, it comes at a time when FLDS church leader Warren Jeffs has expelled several prominent members from their homes in Hildale and Colorado City, forcing them to leave their families behind. Some have said such “corrections” are intended as a lesson in faith; others say Jeffs is consolidating power over followers who consider him their prophet.
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran plans to be at today’s news conference with a less alarmist message perhaps than Jessop’s.
“I am also aware of concerns that she has regarding the construction on the YFZ Ranch and I take her concerns very seriously,” Doran said in a statement Wednesday. “However, at this time I have seen no evidence of wrongdoing or anything else that would make me think that the project is anything other than a hunting retreat.”
Doran told The Salt Lake Tribune that even if FLDS followers have moved into Eldorado, “they are going to have to break some laws for us to get involved. At this point, there is nothing we’re interested in.”
And FLDS attorney Rod Parker of Salt Lake City said Wednesday that while he had just learned of the developments, he could not envision that the “entire [FLDS] community would move to Texas. They’re too invested in where they are.”
Parker said he and other attorneys are working now to protect FLDS leadership’s rights to control the property in Hildale and Colorado City, which is held in trust by the church, against legal challenges by some ousted followers.
“I can’t reconcile that the [Utah and Colorado] property would be abandoned,” he said. “They do consider that to be a sacred place.”
Eldorado began to buzz a few months ago when residents became aware of a large construction project on what was once the Red Cheek Ranch.
Located just off County Road 300, the ranch was bought in November by YFZ Land, which lists David S. Allred as its manager on state incorporation papers. (Warren Jeffs had at one time recorded a CD, “Yearn for Zion,” according to former Hildale resident Richard Holm, and he speculated that the song could be the inspiration for the company name.)
Allred told several residents that he was a builder who was creating a corporate hunting retreat to entertain his customers in Utah and Nevada, according to a story in today’s Eldorado Success.
Allred, according to several sources, is also Jeffs’ right-hand man, often serving as his secretary, driver and one of the church’s main financiers. Allred owns Alco Co., one of the FLDS community’s most prosperous businesses, which employs many residents of the twin cities.
“If he bought land somewhere it was directly at the direction of Warren and his council,” said one man who was kicked out by Jeffs earlier this year and fears that being identified would jeopardize his family.
The ranch bought by YFZ Company was formerly owned by the Isaacs family, which had stocked it with exotic wildlife such as black-tail and red deer, Doran said.
The ranch is not far from a small airstrip used by private pilots, who told the sheriff about a month ago of major construction at the site.
Aerial photographs taken by the Sheriff’s Office show the new construction and a row of mobile homes that are apparently being used to house the construction crew. Another photo shows the field being tended by women in clothing typical of members of the FLDS church.
Holm, exiled from his Hildale home by Jeffs in November, said there have been “a lot fewer construction workers” around the twin cities in recent months. “Some 30 to 40 people have been disappeared for quite some time,” he said, adding that with one or two exceptions, the men left their families behind.
There has been much speculation in the twin cities that the reclusive Jeffs is preparing to relocate somewhere else, with Mexico usually topping the list. Many residents believe that is why he began requiring his followers to pay extra tithes, said to range from $500 to $1,000.
Mankin said few if any people at the ranch have been into town. Doran has been unable to reach Allred. But a title company representative who handled the sale told Doran that Allred planned to develop it as a hunting retreat in rolling hills that harbor white-tail deer, javelinas, squirrels, turkeys, quails and doves.
Jessop said she received several calls from Eldorado residents after she was featured on ABC’s “Primetime Live” several weeks ago. The callers, Jessop said, figured there was a connection between the new residents and the FLDS church because “of the way the people were dressed.”
Jessop said in a news release Wednesday that she hoped the public would respond “with appropriate outrage” to what she called “a growing and alarming form of terrorism and child abuse” she linked to the FLDS church. She also excoriated Utah and Arizona authorities for failing to prosecute those in violation of the law.
But in an interview in Phoenix, Jessop took a far milder stand.
“I just want to make sure that people don’t jump the gun,” Jessop said. “Yes, it is a concern, but at this point they need to leave it to the officials to do their job and have confidence they will.”