Peek at polygamists’ haven

ELDORADO, Texas – Folks around here couldn’t be more dumbfounded if a flying saucer buzzed the county courthouse and spooked all the sheep this side of Abilene.

But polygamists?

Being invaded by a colony of secretive Arizona and Utah men with two, three or more wives apiece wearing ankle-length, gingham pioneer dresses while working the fields under a scorching western Texas sun?

Now that’s a whole ‘nother matter.

“When I first heard they were out there, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’ ” said Randy Mankin, city administrator, hospital board member and editor of the local weekly newspaper.

“It might as well been a UFO setting down. I mean, we’re talking about polygamy and things that were supposed to be over and done a long time ago,” Mankin said.

Over and done in most places, but just coming to the rolling hills of Schleicher County.

In November, a representative of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints quietly purchased 1,691 acres of rocky ranch land off Rudd Road, a narrow turnoff just north of Eldorado, the county seat, population 1,951.

The FLDS is believed to be the largest polygamist community in the nation. With headquarters in the twin cloistered communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, the church has an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 members, whose ancestors have practiced plural marriage for more than a century.

But a rift among church elders and mounting legal pressure from the attorneys general in both states apparently persuaded Warren Jeffs, head of the sect to build a refuge in this mostly isolated swath of cotton and cattle country.

“It’s kind of frightening,” said Kelley Conn, 34, a stay-at-home mother of two pre-teen girls. “We’re a small enough town that if they wanted to, they could just take us over.”

Conn lives near the intersection of Texas 277 and Rudd Road and says she hears tractor-trailer trucks turning off “all hours of the night.” But like most people in and around Eldorado, she has yet to see one member of the polygamist sect.

The FLDS land is hidden from view at the bottom of a deep draw several hundred feet off Rudd Road, accessible only by a narrow dirt easement through neighboring property protected by a padlocked gate and a not-so-deftly disguised infrared camera.

Such secrecy doesn’t sit well in these parts of Texas, where passing drivers are expected to wave to one another and gentlemen always nod to women and strangers.

Possibly the only person to develop any kind of relationship with the new neighbors is Schleicher County Sheriff David R. Doran, a polite, soft-spoken man who preaches patience and understanding.

“The Number 1 priority here is I’ve got to communicate with them,” said Doran, sitting beneath a 48-star American flag at his desk just five miles, but a world away, from the ranch. “Those folks out there are aware of that. They want to continue talking because they don’t want any problems.”

No hunting haven

Doran became the point man in an emerging community crisis in March when local pilots flying over the FLDS property photographed three giant dormitories under construction.

David S. Allred, a Colorado City business executive and confidante of Jeffs, purchased the land. Allred told the sheriff he was building a corporate hunting retreat.

“For the most part, people bought that,” Doran said. “But this is a small town. It doesn’t take long for anything to get around.”

What quickly got around was that Allred hadn’t told the truth. The church wasn’t building any hunting retreat.

In fact, about the time local pilots spotted the curiously large buildings, Texas game officials were called to investigate allegations someone was shooting all the white-tail deer on the ranch – not exactly good for a budding hunting retreat.

A day after a game warden investigated, William Benjamin Johnson, 28, of Hildale, Utah, paid a $253 fine for hunting without a license.

Still, Allred insisted for more than another month that the buildings were part of a corporate hunting lodge. Not until early May did he and three other church officials call Doran and admit they fabricated the story to avoid publicity.

That turnaround, coupled with the fact that almost no one in western Texas knew anything about the FLDS, kindled fears of a replay of the kind of tragedy that took place just 260 miles away in 1993 when about 80 members of David Koresh’s Branch Davidian sect and four federal agents were killed in a fiery standoff near Waco.

“I think just about everybody in the state of Texas, that’s the first thing that comes to mind,” said Doran’s chief deputy, George Arispe.

Doran, though, is quick to downplay those fears.

“When they first came here, that’s naturally the first thing that popped into my mind,” Doran said. “That’s why I did some diligent research. We got on the Internet. We talked to everybody we could in Arizona and Utah. We went up to Colorado City and met with officials.”

Everybody he spoke with, Doran said, assured him the church has never had a history of violence.

But church members do have a penchant for privacy and secrecy, and that has the people of Schleicher County wondering about the ongoing construction.

“From my understanding, it’s going to be Warren Jeffs and his most faithful followers, who are going to be allowed to come out here and retreat for a period of time,” said Doran.

“They said at any given time there shouldn’t be any more than 200 people.”

Jeffs took over the group and inherited the mantel of prophet in September 2002, when his 92-year-old father, Rulon Jeffs, died.

Since then, the FLDS has gone through tumultuous times. Jeffs, 48, rarely is seen in public and never grants interviews, but his pronouncements on church matters often are leaked to the public.

Earlier this year, while still living in a compound behind 8-foot walls in Hildale, Jeffs excommunicated 21 longtime elders of the tight-knit religious community. He also imposed assessments of $500 to $1,000 above usual tithing for church members.

Both moves came after months of increasing pressure by Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff of Utah and Terry Goddard of Arizona, who have spent months investigating a wide range of allegations against Jeffs and other church leaders. No senior church members have been charged. “The pressure is mounting up there in Arizona and Utah,” Doran said. “It’s definitely getting tough for him. I know this is sort of like a safe haven for him. It’s got to be.”

Pressure is mounting in Texas, too.

For the most part, people around Schleicher County consider private property to be just that. The county doesn’t require building permits or restrict zoning. And if someone puts up a ‘No Trespassing’ sign, everyone generally respects it.

So aside from Doran and his deputy, about the only folks invited onto the ranch have been workers from the local electrical co-op.

But Texas has powers the county doesn’t. And the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has begun trying to ensure the ranch is meeting air, water and sewage standards.

Apparently it’s not.

TCEQ spokesman Glen Greenwood said inspectors found several violations ranging from failure to file a stormwater abatement plan to operating illegal equipment and improperly constructing a 10,000-gallon septic system. Each of the violations is punishable by fines of $10,000 a day.

“We need to have a follow-up visit,” Greenwood said. “We’ve asked for access to do that. We haven’t been told no, but we have tried twice without success. If we continue to have trouble gaining access, we have statutory authority to get a search warrant.”

No one knows for sure if Jeffs is living at the ranch, but Doran said he is sure the prophet has visited.

Buildings rise

Allred paid $800 an acre for the property, nearly twice the going rate for comparable land in Schleicher County, and promptly renamed it the YFZ Ranch. YFZ reportedly stands for “Yearn For Zion,” after an audio tape Jeffs once recorded.

The three buildings that local pilots originally spotted have long since been completed. Each is three stories with 21,600 square feet of living space, more than 10 times the size of most single-family homes in Schleicher County.

In addition, several other structures are nearing completion, including a large vehicle shed, a giant barn and a massive meeting hall.

A local pilot who regularly flies over the ranch agreed to take a reporter and a photographer from The Arizona Republic up earlier this month. From 1,000 feet, the scale of construction was impressive. The compound features its own rock-crushing equipment, a cement facility, numerous RVs and trailers for construction workers, and four large mobile homes with cement foundations and permanent electrical hookups.

Mankin, the city administrator who also runs the weekly newspaper, the Eldorado Success, said speculation is the mobile homes will be used as “honeymoon suites” for church faithful who want to come to Texas and be bound in “celestial marriage” by the prophet.

Celestial marriages go to the core of much public controversy about the FLDS. According to church teachings, men must have at least three wives to reach the celestial kingdom. Women are property and only get to heaven if their husbands take them.

The mainstream Mormon Church once held similar beliefs but abandoned polygamy in 1890 under pressure from the federal government. Fundamentalist followers believe that was a mistake.

But many in Schleicher County think perhaps the FLDS made a bigger mistake coming to western Texas.

“They don’t know how to get along with people,” said Juanice Orr, 64, a part-time librarian whose main job these days is figuring out who’s next on the waiting list for the county’s two books on polygamy.

“Those folks just stay out there and avoid you, then lie about what they’re doing. The more you hear about them, the more scared you get.”

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