FLDS influx concerns small town in Texas

Washington County Sheriff travels to Texas to reassure law enforcement

ST. GEORGE — To residents of Eldorado, the small western Texas town where everybody knows everybody, the gated construction site with motel-like houses looks every bit foreign, mystic and alarming.

As men from a polygamist group dined in town or stopped for gas, said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, some residents feared another Waco, where David Koresh and 85 of his Branch Davidian followers died in 1993.

But the worry was not necessary, said Doran’s counterpart here in Washington County, Sheriff Kirk Smith.

“There is no indication that it will happen,” said Sheriff Smith, who met with 22 local officials during a visit to Eldorado last week. “This group has never shown any propensity for violence.”

FLDS

The FLDS is a cult, both sociologically and theologically. Theologically, it is a cult of Christianity. Sociologically, the movement includes many cultic elements, including an abusive authority figure and a high-control environment.

The group is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the largest polygamist group in America based in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

After the church’s self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, excommunicated at least 30 men earlier this year, some anti-polygamy activists forecasted a mass exodus and violence erupting in the community with 10,000 residents. But the men quietly went into hiding, and the reclusive Jeffs remained elusive to state investigators, his followers and even his attorney, Rodney Parker, who said he “assumes he’s down there” in Texas.

The five three-story buildings — two are still under construction — are intended as a residential building and retreat for “the select few, the most chosen ones” of the FLDS church, said Sheriff Doran, who met with four FLDS representatives last Wednesday for about 2 1/2 hours, including land investor David Steed Allred, registered owner of Dave’s Builders on Bluff Street in St. George.

At any given time, Doran said he was told by the FLDS members, about 200 people will live on the Eldorado property. Constrained by water supply and environmental regulations, he said, the property wouldn’t be able to sustain several thousand people as Colorado City does. With their own garden, orchid and cement plant, he said, the self-reliant group is not expected to boost Eldorado’s economy, except for the $5,000 per building in tax revenue.

“They want to, basically, be left alone,” Doran said. “They didn’t mean any disruption.”

But for a town with 2,000 people, the 200 FLDS members will also mean a population boost of 10 percent. And some residents and county officials are worried about the impact of a potential block vote in local elections, an influx to the public school system, a possible strain on the local health care system and the impact on the welfare system, Sheriff Smith said.

“They don’t understand the group. They don’t understand polygamy. They are just concerned,” Smith said. “I kind of put them at ease.”

Invited by Doran, Smith and his undersheriff, Pete Kuhlmann, flew to Eldorado via Las Vegas and San Angelo, Texas, last Wednesday and came back on Friday at an expense of about $500 to Washington County taxpayers, not including hotel costs. The Eldorado sheriff and his deputy will fly to St. George on Sunday, followed by visits to Hildale and Colorado City.

Parker, the FLDS church’s longtime attorney, said Eldorado residents were scared by the “lies” of anti-polygamy activists like Flora Jessop. Jessop, who grew up in Colorado City, held a news conference in March to expose the FLDS’ outpost in Eldorado, calling the group “American Taliban.”

“An average person in St. George knows that’s an exaggeration,” Parker said. “They are part of our heritage.”

The FLDS church traces its roots to Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After the LDS church officially denounced polygamy in 1890, some polygamists moved to Short Creek and founded the FLDS church.

The decision to move to Texas, Parker said, was pressed by prosecutors in Arizona and Utah, especially Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and the state’s polygamy investigator, Ron Barton.

“One way to solve the problem is to leave,” Parker said. Jeffs already tried the other way, building 8-foot walls around his compound in Hildale.

Mostly a Christian town, Doran said residents are largely in the dark about the FLDS church and its beliefs. The FLDS group, though “very respectable, very nice people,” he added, invokes curiosity and fear.

“It’s got the community up in arms,” he said. “It’s got everybody concerned.”

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