ELDORADO — In the 10 months since the news broke that a sect of polygamists had bought a large ranch outside of town, pilot James Doyle has flown over it about 50 times, often with an out-of-town reporter riding shotgun.
“It’s a strange situation. We don’t know much about them,” said Doyle, 68, Schleicher County’s only justice of the peace. “They don’t let us inside, and they don’t come to town to trade.”
“I just wish the damned old guys weren’t here. I don’t think any good is gonna come of it, but they haven’t violated any laws,” he mused.
With the Eldorado Success publishing polygamist updates and site photos almost weekly, many of the county’s scattered 3,000 residents maintain a working knowledge of their new neighbors.
But despite the polygamy jokes in the coffee shops, many share Doyle’s deep sense of unease. Also mentioned over coffee are Branch Davidian leader David Koresh, whose 1993 standoff with federal officers outside Waco ended with more than 70 fiery deaths.
Before late March, when Sheriff David Doran called an impromptu town meeting to announce the arrival of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, few here had heard of the group or pondered plural marriages.
The secretive sect, whose forebears refused to go along with the Mormons’ renunciation of polygamy more than a century ago, has an estimated 10,000 members.
It’s based in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, neighboring communities that straddle a remote stretch of state line, and led by a stern and reclusive prophet named Warren Jeffs who preaches that outsiders are to be shunned, multiple wives are the key to salvation and that “the destructions,” or end times, are imminent.
In the past year, Jeffs and his followers have come under heavy pressure there, facing lawsuits and public calls for criminal prosecution of men, including Jeffs, who allegedly have conceived children with underage girls.
The church itself is in turmoil, as Jeffs has excommunicated scores of followers, sometimes reassigning their houses, wives and children to other men. He preaches that Zion lies in Texas, and heavily duns his followers for money.
“They call it the Holy City, and everybody who is worthy can go to Zion, either to visit or to live,” said Richard Holm, 52, excommunicated last year.
“The resources of the community are being sucked out. He calls for money regularly. I’m sure that $15 million to $20 million has gone out of there (Colorado City and Hildale) in the last year,” said Holm, whose wife and children were given to a younger brother.
The fundamentalists got off on the wrong foot in Texas when they told Doran that the 1,971 acres of rangeland four miles from Eldorado would be used as a corporate hunting retreat.
That fiction collapsed when Flora Jessop, an outspoken former sect member, came to town with harrowing stories of forced marriage and child abuse. In the spasm of paranoia and panic that followed, men talked of getting their guns and women warned of Satan’s presence.
And though things now are calmer, life in this quiet ranching and farming community some 200 miles northwest of San Antonio isn’t quite the same.
“I think the mood of the community is all right. There are still people who fear their land values will go down, and others who fear a local government takeover (by the sect), but we’re not getting any indication of that,” Doran said.
Last year, he traveled to Arizona for look at the polygamist’s home base, which is eye-catching for the hugeness of its houses and the quaint frontier dress of its women and girls. He also stays in touch with sect members in Texas.
“When I get the opportunity to talk to them, I try to hit on issues like the welfare concerns of family members. We also try to track rumors of girls running away, but we can never get them confirmed,” Doran said.
“They are not open. They don’t disclose anything they don’t have to,” he said.
Neither Jeffs nor other members speak to outsiders or reporters, and with the recent dismissal of a Salt Lake City lawyer who acted as a church spokesman, they have cut themselves off completely.
But a massive building project suggests Schleicher County soon will be home to hundreds of Jeffs’ chosen followers. One clue is the application for a sewage treatment plant that could accommodate 1,000 to 1,300 people.
A recent flyover of the compound showed a dozen large residential buildings that appeared ready for occupancy and three or four large metal structures also near completion.
Gardens and plowed fields, a small dairy, a chicken house, a concrete batch plant, and a stone quarry also were visible, as were numerous pieces of heavy construction equipment and a few workers.
“We’re looking at in excess of 100,000 square feet of residential space, and that’s preliminary, and almost 50,000 square feet of non-residential buildings, some of which are not complete,” said Scott Sutton, the local tax appraiser.
That doesn’t include the largest and most significant building, a multistory stone temple apparently patterned after one ordered built in 1846 in Nauvoo, Ill., by Joseph Smith, the original Mormon leader.
The temple is the first built by the fundamentalists since they split from the main church in the late 19th century when the U.S. government cracked down on polygamy.
“It’s hugely significant. I don’t think anyone knows exactly what the temple means except that it means something very profound,” said John Krakauer, author of a book about the Mormon fundamentalists, “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
Krakauer has taken a deep interest in Jeffs, tracking his elusive movements around western states, contacting excommunicated members and helping one of the numerous teenage boys cast out of the sect.
He said the temple rising in Texas could be linked to Jeffs’ apocalyptic preaching as well as his sense of himself as the final Mormon prophet.
“Warren has predicted the end of the world twice already this year. He’s also said that ‘the destructions’ will come sometime between the laying of the cornerstone and the completion of the temple,” he said.
“I believe those who say the temple is patterned after the Nauvoo temple, which brackets the death of Joseph Smith and the exodus (of the Mormons) to Utah from Nauvoo. So you can read all this disturbing stuff into it, these apocalyptic underpinnings,” he said.
During a Jan. 1 flyover, Krakauer believes he captured the image of the seldom-seen prophet presiding over a temple dedication.
“Warren is a night guy. He wouldn’t do it if it weren’t significant. He was out there in broad daylight, on the temple foundation, immediately before they started erecting the temple walls,” he said.
If the tall figure in the dark suit in the photo was Jeffs, it was a rare sighting.
The prophet’s only other public appearance in Eldorado came last fall when a local funnyman used an enlarged photograph of Jeffs along with other alarming pictures in his haunted house.
“It was the scariest thing I could think of,” joked Jim Runge, who promotes a spring goat race and a fall liars festival.
“The kids didn’t know who he was, but the adults just laughed,” he said of the photo.
It was posted next to one of a man putting a small live snake through his nose.
Sued twice last year in Salt Lake City, Jeffs repeatedly has eluded investigators trying to serve him with legal notice. Ultimately, a judge allowed him to be served by publishing newspaper notices in Texas, Utah, Colorado and British Columbia, where the sect has an enclave.
One suit, filed by a nephew named Brent Jeffs, claims Warren Jeffs and two adult brothers repeatedly sodomized him years ago in the basement of a religious academy in Utah. It also claims Jeffs was a known sexual predator since his teens.
The second suit was filed on behalf of some of the so-called “lost boys,” the hundreds of teenagers forced out of the sect’s communities to eliminate competition with older men for girls. They were “abandoned, alienated from their parents and cut off from family … friends and educational, business and employment relationships,” the suit claims.
That suit also seeks to gain control of the multimillion-dollar church trust known as the United Effort Plan, which owns most of the property in Colorado City and Hildale.
Criminal investigators in Utah and Arizona also are showing interest.
“It’s pretty much open-ended. It’s a process of turning over rocks and seeing what we find there,” said Jim Hill, an investigator for the Utah attorney general.
After dismissing his lawyers, Jeffs appears to be making no effort to defend himself in the two suits and has also avoided criminal investigators. If indicted, few believe he’ll willingly surrender.
“When he’s finally cornered, he’s not going to go to jail. I think he’ll fight to the bitter end, and he’ll wrap his criminal troubles into his theology,” Krakauer said.
“He compares himself to Joseph Smith at Nauvoo. Smith was martyred (there), and Warren sees himself as a victim and a martyr, and it’s all coinciding with God’s plan for destruction,” he said.
One excommunicated follower who asked not to be named said, “I think personally, an analogy to Jim Jones would be closer than one to David Koresh. He won’t go out guns firing. It will be suicide.”
“And if he gets backed into too bad a corner, he’ll take them all with them, those that will go,” he said of the faithful.
Krakauer believes the folks in Schleicher County may have a front row seat.
“When the final drama plays out, it will probably happen in Eldorado. It has the buildings and it’s by far the most secure,” he said of the compound.
“And that’s a good thing because Texans have a very clear memory of Waco,” he said. “The law will be patient. Hopefully they will outsmart him and will not martyr him.”