ELDORADO – Ten months after the first signs of a secretive polygamous sect’s new outpost on the West Texas range, a full-fledged town is springing up.
The community doesn’t have a name, isn’t incorporated and isn’t on any maps.
The compound, about 45 miles south of San Angelo, sits behind a padlocked gate, a guard shack and 8-foot fences. Inside, crews work around the clock on construction of a multistory temple that is expected to be the largest building in Schleicher County.
The 1,491-acre YFZ Ranch — short for Yearn for Zion — is turning into far more than the hunting lodge or retreat that leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints originally told local officials that they were planning.
A grid-like layout of a town has emerged on the rolling ranchland four miles east of Eldorado. It includes 13 wooden structures, some as large as college dormitories. There are also a half-dozen metal buildings, a concrete batch plant, a quarry, a dairy, well-tended gardens and a growing number of mobile homes.
For nearly 70 years, the 10,000-member sect, believed to be the largest polygamous group in the country, has been based in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
That appears to be changing.
“I think it means this is where their headquarters is going to be located,” Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said. “I don’t think everyone is going to abandon the Colorado City area to come down here, but some of the most loyal followers probably will.”
Doran, who has had limited communication with the group, said he can’t figure out sect leader Warren Jeffs‘ plans for the development.
In the last year, Jeffs has excommunicated many of his rivals, been accused in a civil lawsuit of molesting children in the 1980s and been blamed for helping fuel the collapse of Utah-based Bank of Ephraim and leading the Colorado City school district into financial ruin.
A second lawsuit has also been filed on behalf of the so-called Lost Boys, hundreds of teen-agers and young men ages 13 to 21 who were purged from the group to eliminate older men’s competition for young brides.
Utah Deputy Attorney General Kirk Torgensen said his office is continuing to investigate the sect but declined further comment.
Those developments, along with long-standing accusations by some former members that young girls are coerced into polygamy, leaves many Eldorado residents uneasy. In a county with a population of 2,816, some worry that the sect could stage a political takeover.
“What someone thinks they know about this story changes day to day,” said Randy Mankin, editor and publisher of The Eldorado Success. “Who would dream they would be building a temple out there? And I don’t know what that means for our community. Are they still going to have 200 people out there as they have claimed, even though they’re building a sewer plant for 1,000 to 3,000 people? Are they going to leave us alone, or are they going to try and take over political control of this county? Who knows.”
The sect’s belief that plural marriage is the true Mormon faith has led them to shroud their actions in secrecy since the sect split from the Mormon Church when it rejected polygamy in 1890.
The group’s fears of governmental persecution were heightened in 1953, when Arizona officials raided the community, then known as Short Creek. Photos of children being taken from their parents prompted an outcry, causing Arizona and Utah officials to adopt a hands-off attitude toward the sect.
That began to change in the past decade as allegations of welfare fraud, forced marriages and abuse of teen-age girls began to surface.
In 1998, Jeffs, with his father and church prophet Rulon Jeffs in poor health, ordered all members of the church living in Salt Lake City to move to the Colorado City-Hildale area. He also ordered that they no longer associate with nonmembers.
In 2002, Jeffs became prophet after his father’s death, and he quickly began to expel potential rivals and young men from the group.
Colorado City residents say Jeffs abandoned his home there.
“Warren Jeffs hasn’t been seen around here since November,” said Colorado City resident Ross Chatwin, who was ordered by Jeffs last year to leave the sect and move out but went to court to retain the right to stay in his home.
In Colorado City, a church trust owns the land but followers erect the homes. Jeffs often randomly reassigned homes to his followers, Chatwin said.
“I think what’s happened here is Warren has abandoned Colorado City and Hildale but he’s taking all of the financial resources with him and leaving most of his followers behind,” Chatwin said.
Chatwin believes the construction of a temple could be ominous. The sect has not built a temple since it split with the Mormon Church.
Chatwin is convinced that Jeffs plans to make his frequent end-of-the-world prophecies come true.
“You have to understand Warren prays every single day for the end of the world,” Chatwin said. “That is all he thinks about. The scary thing is, they may do a Jim Jones-type of thing if Warren keeps making the end-of-the-world predictions that he’s making now.”
In 1978, preacher Jim Jones and more than 900 of his followers committed mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana.
Benjamin Bistline, author of The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City, Arizona, believes Jeffs “has decided to run.
“The scary thing is they might do a Jim Jones if he keeps heading in this direction,” Bistline said.
Eldorado residents, however, downplay such scenarios.
“Warren and his father before him have routinely predicted the end of the world,” said Mankin, the newspaper editor. “I think that’s as much of a fund-raising ploy as anything.”
Eldorado officials have taken some pre-emptive moves.
The Schleicher County hospital district is taking steps to elect its board members by district rather than at large. That would prevent the sect from taking over the hospital board, as many residents have feared.
But Schleicher County Justice of the Peace James Doyle said many residents remain oblivious.
“People in Eldorado would be shocked if they knew if there was a full-blown town only three or four miles out of town,” Doyle said. “It is very strategically located where you can’t see a thing from the road. And for a lot of people, if they can’t see it, it isn’t real.”