AUSTIN – An emerging community of polygamists in West Texas could bring another calamity to the Lone Star State similar to the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, a legislative panel was told Wednesday.
The House Juvenile Justice and Family Issues Committee heard testimony on legislation designed to strengthen state laws against multiple marriages and youngsters getting married. The measure, House Bill 3006, would raise the minimum age of marriage with parental consent from 14 to 16 and make it illegal for stepparents to marry stepchildren.
State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, said he modeled the bill after newly enacted legislation in Utah that led to elements of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints leaving that state and setting up camp near Eldorado in Schleicher County, about 40 miles from San Angelo.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and author Jon Krakauer, whose Under the Banner of Heaven offers chilling accounts of teen-age girls being forced to marry much older men under the church’s tutelage, warned that the sect‘s secretive and controlling nature might someday lead to mass murder or suicide.
The sect, which broke away from the Mormon church after it renounced polygamy in the 1890s, is controlled by Warren Jeffs, who presents himself to his followers as God’s prophet on Earth.
“I think there’s a possibility of another Waco or Jonestown,” Krakhauer told the panel, referring to the 1993 deaths at the Branch Davidian compound and the 1978 mass suicide in Guyana of followers of the Rev. Jim Jones.
“It’s not like he’s going to have them drink the Kool-Aid,” he added in a reference to Jonestown.
In just over a year, the once-desolate area north of Eldorado has been transformed into a buzzing compound of homes and a temple of worship for members of the group, Shurtleff and Krakauer told the committee. The members, who call their settlement the YFZ Ranch — for Yearning For Zion — migrated from Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., after those states began cracking down on underage marriages and other practices of the church.
Sect members are not allowed access to newspapers, radio, television or the Internet, and are forbidden to speak to outsiders.
“It embarrasses me to say that for 50 years the state of Utah did nothing,” said Shurtleff, who began pushing for the new laws after being elected attorney general in 1998. “I feel badly about exporting our problem to the state of Texas.”
The committee will continue to study Hilderbrand’s legislation. Several members appeared shocked by the testimony. When she heard that some polygamists in the sect have fathered 100 or more children by multiple teen-age wives, state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, exclaimed, “Lord Jesus.”
Shurtleff said the sect controls local governments and law enforcement agencies in the Utah and Arizona towns, and warned that the same might happen in Schleicher County, 160 miles northwest of San Antonio.
Salt Lake City lawyer Rod Parker, who represents the sect in some legal matters, said in an interview last month that Hilderbran’s legislation is an overreach.
“It appears he is specifically targeting them,” Parker said at the time. “That doesn’t seem appropriate to me.”
Hilderbran, who represents Schleicher County, said local officials are trying to develop cordial relationships with the new residents,
But Krakauer, who said he infiltrated the organization as part of his research, said church elders who deal with local officials are prone to mislead them about the nature of the organization’s activities.
“He needs to be careful that he’s not snookered by these people,” Krakauer said.