A controversial sect’s arrival upsets neighbors in West Texas
The men are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, one of the largest religious sects adhering to polygamy in the country. They have come from Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., twin communities of about 6,000 people on the border of the two states. Their 1,691-acre ranch here in the center of Schleicher County, between San Angelo and Sonora, is called Yearning for Zion Ranch.
The few men who have spoken to outsiders say they are building a religious retreat, a haven for as many as 200 of the most faithful selected by their leader, Warren Jeffs, a man they refer to as the prophet. Jeffs and two of his brothers have been accused in a Salt Lake City civil court of ritually sodomizing a male relative between the ages of 4 and 6 in the 1980s when he was a pupil at a Fundamentalist Church academy where Jeffs and his brothers taught.
Jeffs is also the target of investigations by the attorneys general in Utah and Arizona. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he is investigating Jeffs for allegations of sexual abuse within the sect.
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“I’ve said it before, and I’ll continue to repeat it,” Shurtleff said. “I am coming after Warren Jeffs.”
The official spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church, Rod Parker, has denied the allegations on behalf of Jeffs, who declines to give interviews. Parker has repeatedly stressed that regardless of the investigations, Jeffs has not been charged with a crime.
Parker, a Salt Lake City lawyer, says Jeffs and other church leaders prefer not to discuss their plans for Yearning for Zion Ranch. The people of the Fundamentalist Church who have come to Texas want nothing more than to be left alone, he says. The allegations of sexual abuse and criminal activity have made that impossible in Eldorado.
Some here are hostile toward the way of life of their new neighbors. Others are suspicious of the group’s privacy. And still others worry that a committed group of believers voting together might take over Schleicher County, with 3,000 people one of the least populated counties in Texas.
For 23 weeks straight, aerial photos of the Yearning for Zion Ranch with long accompanying stories have been at the top of the front page of the weekly newspaper, the Eldorado Success. Randy Mankin, the editor and publisher, admits he’s riding the best story he’s had or might ever have. But Mankin has another motive: He is Eldorado’s city administrator.
“We’ve got a sheriff’s race coming up in the fall, and this is going to be the issue,” Mankin said last week. “Folks here are split on what ought to be done.”
“A lot of folks here think we ought to just run ’em out of town. You can’t do that,” said Robert Bybee Jr., a retired state trooper who is running for sheriff of Schleicher County against incumbent David Doran in November. But Bybee says Doran, who made a trip to the Arizona-Utah border a few months ago, returned telling people they had nothing to worry from the Fundamentalist Church.
“He come to us in Lions Club one day saying they was good old people,” Bybee said. “I don’t think that’s true.”
Doran speaks for those in Eldorado who are treating the newcomers as neighbors with a right to do what they want on their own property. Doran says he has publicly expressed his concerns about the church all along, but has counseled tolerance because no one has done anything wrong.
The resistance has shown itself in the opposition of some to selling water to its new neighbors, said Cindy Cawley, who heads Eldorado’s water district. Church leaders still have not indicated whether wells on the ranch property can serve the needs of the people who eventually will settle there.
The ranch is also on the verge of being fined, as much as $10,000 a day, for sewer and water health issues, said John Steib, deputy director for compliance and enforcement for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Austin. Construction crews made up of church members have been in violation of state environmental codes since May for practices such as dumping sewage on the ground, maintaining unsafe drinking water and operating a concrete plant without a permit, Steib said. The patience of inspectors has been tested by being denied access to the property on several occasions to do routine inspections, Steib said.
“I am growing increasingly concerned with practices that put the people using those facilities at risk,” Steib said. “They continue to be in violation of a number of the original complaints, and we have taken the necessary steps for action to be taken. That action includes fines.”
People in Eldorado remain curious why the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints picked this area of West Texas to settle.
Scott Sutton, the Schleicher County appraiser, said it might simply be that the price was right. Sutton found what he thinks was the only advertisement for the property, which ran in September on the Internet edition of Livestock Weekly.
David Allred, a Fundamentalist Church and business leader from Colorado City, Ariz., bought the 1,371 acres of land last November, according to Schleicher County records. A short time later Allred bought an adjacent 320 acres, records show. The total price was not revealed but Sutton estimated the church paid between $1.3 million and $1.4 million for the tracts, or between $800 and $850 an acre.
The church began moving construction crews from their home area in January, Doran said. In March, local pilots noticed three 40-foot-by-60-foot, three-story buildings side by side. The locals refer to them as dormitories, although the church has not said what they will be used for. At the center of the development is what appears to be a meeting hall larger than the three dormitories combined.
“From the air I see a town being built,” Mankin said. “They’re putting in a power grid, laying out streets. Are they going to incorporate? Will we all of a sudden be competing with a town our size for community services? I’m the city administrator, and they won’t talk to me.”
When first asked by Doran, the designated spokesman for the construction crew told him the project was a hunting lodge, Doran said. When pressed later, the spokesman said the hunting lodge was a story made up so as not to alarm the neighbors. Instead the spokesman told Doran the crews were building a retreat for the church’s true believers, chosen by the prophet, Warren Jeffs.
Parker has repeatedly declined to discuss the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
“I really don’t have anything to say. I’m not at liberty to share,” Parker said in a telephone interview recently. “Because of privacy, I don’t think the church is inclined to share its intentions.”
All of this attention is unwanted by people who believe they have long been unjustly marginalized for a faith outside the mainstream in America, Parker said. Polygamists have fled attention and reprisal from the start, he said.
The first Mormon, Joseph Smith, was shot to death by a mob in 1843 in Nauvoo, Ill., not long after he proclaimed that the taking of several wives was central to eternal salvation. Smith’s followers divided into opposing camps, some renouncing polygamy. The eventual prophet, Brigham Young, preserved the practice of polygamy by leading Mormon church members to the Utah territory and becoming its first territorial governor.
The Mormon Church officially renounced plural marriage as a concession to Utah’s statehood in 1890. When church leaders began excommunicating members who refused to abandon the practice, dissidents fled to the hinterlands of Utah and neighboring states.
Those believers first came to the area where Hildale and Colorado City are now in 1911, according to “The Polygamists,” a history written by excommunicated area resident Benjamin Bistline. The Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, as it is now known, commands the religion, the politics and the economy of the area.
Sects who hew to polygamy comprise perhaps 40,000 to 50,000 members nationwide, 35,000 in Utah alone, according to Shurtleff, the Utah attorney general. The Fundamentalist Church is one of the primary strongholds, two joined communities on Highways 59 in Utah and 389 in Arizona, just south of a craggy band of ochre, tan and rust-colored cliffs and 65 miles north of the Grand Canyon.
There, 800 miles west of Eldorado, Warren Jeffs directs a religious, political and economic engine that feeds the construction of the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
Reportedly 48 or 49 years old, Jeffs is tall, quite thin and gangly with a boyish face. He is invariably described as charismatic, even by church members he has excommunicated.
Jeffs assumed the mantle of leadership in 2002 after telling followers he had been blessed by his father, the prophet Rulon Jeffs, on his deathbed. By the standard set by the most recent prophets, including his father, Jeffs has been particularly severe with his membership, according to several men who claim Jeffs has excommunicated them. He has expelled dozens of men, at least eight of them in the past month, 21 of them in a single purge about the time of the Eldorado land purchase, according to Richard Holm and other former members of the church. Holm was excommunicated in fall 2003.
Many of those who claim to have been driven away were rivals for Jeffs’ unquestioned authority at the time of his father’s death, said Holm, Bistline and Ross Chatwin — who was also expelled from the church.
A Mojave County, Ariz., Superior Court judge recently granted Holm visitation of his seven children in a custody case filed by Holm’s wife Lorena, according to a clerk of Mojave County courts. Several newspapers have reported that the children live with Holm’s brother, Ed, by order of Warren Jeffs. Jeffs reassigned two of Richard Holm’s wives and children to Ed Holm for indiscretions Richard Holm says Jeffs never explained, according to the reports and interviews with former church members.
On a recent visit, Richard Holm drove up to a house with a front gate bearing the initials “RLH” on Richard Street, named for him when he was a successful businessman and a favored member of the Fundamentalist Church. Holm said the home that he built has been reassigned to another church member by Warren Jeffs. Bistline and Chatwin confirmed Holm’s account of the reassignment.
“This is worse than death,” Holm says quietly in the manager’s quarters of his small motel on the Utah-Arizona border. “Life holds no joy. The subtlety and cunning of Warren couldn’t hit me any harder.”
Holm’s description of Jeffs’ power is corroborated by several others who have been driven away from the church and by Jon Krakauer, who has been researching polygamous sects for more than five years. Krakauer chronicled the church in his book, “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
Without at least three wives, a man cannot enter the celestial realm of heaven, and without any wives he is condemned to damnation, according to Fundamentalist Church doctrine, Krakauer said.
The excommunications shed light on a problem that is politically difficult to attack in Utah, Shurtleff said. Although the Mormon Church long ago washed its hands of the fundamentalists, Shurtleff said the embarrassment of polygamy has caused Utah’s leaders to look the other way. Shurtleff says he is refusing to go along. Multiple marriage in Utah is a third-degree felony.
Investigators for Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard have for months been looking into alleged crimes they believe may have been committed by church members.
“We have taken a two-pronged approach: the criminal, prosecutorial issues and the safety of the women involved in these cases,” Shurtleff said. “We are looking into allegations of child abuse, domestic abuse.”
Within the past two weeks a state-funded Justice Center has been opened in Colorado City to give assistance to any women who may have suffered abuse within the religious system of the Fundamentalist Church, Andrea Esquer, Goddard’s press secretary, said. The state, she said, responded to women who have suffered abuse but had been afraid to come forward before.
When asked for specific cases of abuse, both Shurtleff and Esquer said it would be inappropriate to discuss individual incidents until criminal charges are filed.
“Polygamy is illegal here, and we have 30,000 to 40,000 polygamists here,” Shurtleff said. “We have no practical way to arrest and charge every polygamist in Utah. With my limited resources we have trouble dealing with the criminal (investigation of) the church.”
Ron Barton, the chief investigator for Shurtleff on polygamy cases, said he has found at least two birth certificates filed in Hildale bearing the signature of Warren Jeffs that indicate that he fathered children with two women 17 or younger. If true, Jeffs could face felony charges, Barton said.
Getting women in such a closed society to come forward has been the biggest impediment to prosecuting Jeffs and other church leaders, Barton said.
“I’m investigating what I consider to be human rights abuses,” Barton said. “Women in this religion are treated like property.”
Barton left the job in July after nearly four years to take on investigations for the attorney general into thefts of natural resources on state lands set aside in trust. He has been replaced by Jim Hill, a former white-collar-crime investigator for Shurtleff.
Most recently, Shurtleff has asked the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training Board to rescind certification for officers in the Hildale Police Department because they are either polygamists or have refused to do their duty by arresting fellow officers they know to be polygamists. The board is reviewing a report submitted by Barton.
Local leadership under Jeffs scoffs at Shurtleff’s accusations.
“If the people investigating us have that much, why don’t they charge someone?” Hildale Mayor and church leader David Zitting said in an interview in June in the tiny Hildale City Hall. “This is persecution of a community of good people who want to be left alone.”
The civil suit filed last month against Jeffs and his brothers presents a very different picture of this community. Representing the accuser in the sexual abuse civil suit against Warren Jeffs is Joanne L. Suder, a Baltimore lawyer who has won in civil court sexual abuse cases against the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.
The accuser, now 21, sought out Suder for help and told a story recounted in the 25-page civil suit. The suit alleges that Warren, Blaine and Leslie Jeffs repeatedly sodomized and sexually abused him over a two-year period. The men, who were all instructors at a church academy Warren Jeffs directed, called the acts of abuse “God’s work to make the boy a man,” according to the lawsuit.
The suit asks for damages, accusing the brothers of negligence and breach of financial duty, because of the control church leaders, including the Jeffses, have over members’ economic lives. The suit goes on to allege that acts of sexual abuse by church leaders is incorporated into the regimen of discipline in the Fundamentalist Church.
Parker, the spokesman for the church, denied and denounced the allegations, calling them a ploy for sympathy on the part of people who despise the church and its leaders.
In the same week Suder filed the civil suit, she and Shurtleff stood on the steps of the Utah state Capitol with 50 boys and young men who said they had been driven out of the Fundamentalist Church. Because the number of wives represents an emblem of fidelity to the church, the number of men competing for wives must necessarily be reduced, Suder told reporters.
Had the people building a new community in Eldorado been able to avoid the attention caused by the lawsuit and the investigations, concern in Eldorado might have dissipated by now, Mankin said. But residents were alarmed at the secrecy with which the church began its construction and were put off when they were misled about what was being built, he said.
“We had a press conference to tell everybody what was going on out there and one came carrying a sign that said, ‘The Devil is Coming,’ ” Mankin said. “I don’t think we’ve ever reached a level of hysteria, but there is still concern.”
Eldoradans can see development of the Yearning for Zion Ranch only from the aerial photos. The entrance to the ranch is posted with no-trespassing signs, and a surveillance camera looks out onto a road leading to the locked gate. And with each new front-page photo showing the start of another building or the cross-hatched outline of a new tract, Mankin said, people are finding it hard to believe the new development is for just 200 people.
These people, upon learning what the Fundamentalist church has built in Hildale and Colorado City, can’t help but wonder what might be in store in Texas, he said. In those two cities, the city councils, police departments, school boards and various paid city services posts are filled by church members.
In Schleicher County, with a population of 3,000 people — nearly 2,000 of them in Eldorado — a new community the size of Hildale would compete for state and county funding and services, Mankin said.
A new voter base motivated to come to the polls to endorse church interests could hand control of the county over to the Fundamentalist Church, Mankin said.
“The thing is, people have no way of knowing whether or not that could happen, but they see a city going up out there,” Mankin said, putting the latest Eldorado Success to bed last week. “All we can do it wait and see.”