ELDORADO, Texas – The prophet made a big mistake if he thought he was getting away from the meddling media by slipping into Schleicher County.
“They’ve been all over this story,” said Brad Spradley, a bear of a man who sells some of the best brisket in Texas out of a 55-gallon oil drum-turned-barbecue pit hitched to the back of his pickup outside the county courthouse.
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“I can’t wait to get the paper every week.”
Neither can just about anybody else in Eldorado, a community of 1,951 especially friendly souls in the outback of western Texas.
Circulation of the weekly newspaper has soared 10 percent from 1,000 to 1,100 since editor Randy Mankin, his wife, Kathy, and their secretary-reporter-photographer Staci Key started writing in March about the arrival of a secretive polygamist sect on the outskirts of town.
“This the biggest story we’ve ever dealt with,” said Mankin, who majored in political science and history at Texas Tech and then worked as an oilfield driller before buying the paper on a whim in 1994.
Mankin also serves as city administrator and hospital board member. But his real passion is journalism.
“I wish I had discovered this 30 years ago,” he said, rocking happily in a blue fabric swivel chair in the back of a turn-of-the-century cafe that is home to the Success.
Until this year, the biggest story Mankin and his wife had covered was a bus accident that left nine members of the local First Baptist Church dead in Louisiana. That tragedy eclipsed the man killed by Africanized bees and the 23 water-cooler jugs of marbles that teacher Corrine Robinson confiscated from students during her career.
“We had a media frenzy after the bus crash and I said to myself: ‘This is the biggest story you’re ever going to cover,’ ” Mankin said. “Then the UFO landed north of town. Well, it wasn’t a UFO, but it might as well have been.”
What it was, was the coming of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group that broke away when mainstream Mormons abandoned polygamy in 1890.
The FLDS is based in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, but has a branch in Bountiful, Canada, and is building a compound on 1,691 acres north of Eldorado.
Mankin, 49, broke the story after getting a tip from local pilots that someone was putting up some unusually large buildings on a ranch that had been sold to strangers.
Since then, the Success has been filled with stories and photographs explaining not only what is happening at the ranch, but educating readers about the sect.
“It’s been a pretty steep learning curve,” said Mankin.
The paper’s coverage has been aggressive but balanced. For weeks, the Success dutifully reported the official FLDS line that the compound would be used as a hunting retreat even when it was obvious to every Texan who ever stood in a deer blind that that couldn’t be true.
Mankin also has shown typical western Texas politeness. He sought out Gary Grubbs, athletic director of the high school, and a rare mainstream Mormon in town.
“He said, ‘I hope we haven’t offended you in any way’ and asked me to write a letter explaining what Mormons believe,” said Grubbs, who has a brother in Gilbert. “I really appreciated that.”