A compound in Texas becomes a focal point as Arizona officials say the leader of polygamous sect is hiding there
With 1,700 hilly acres and a gate accessible from a maze of back roads, the Yearn for Zion Ranch could be an ideal hide-out.
Whether the West Texas compound is being used by polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs during his five-month flight from sexual misconduct charges became a contentious issue last week when Arizona officials suggested Jeffs could be captured there in short order.
The sheriff in Schleicher County, where the ranch is located, disputes the claim, saying there is nothing to indicate that Jeffs has been to the ranch since he became a fugitive in June.
“The attorney general is uninformed,” said Sheriff David Doran, referring to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who earlier said he had “good information” that Jeffs “comes and goes with impunity” from the Texas ranch.
The exchange appears to reflect a growing frustration by Arizona officials as they search for the elusive Jeffs, said Schleicher County Justice of the Peace James Doyle. “They’ve spent a bunch of money going after him and don’t have much to show for it,” Doyle said.
By all indications, the 49-year-old Jeffs is getting considerable help from members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which he has led as a self-described prophet since 2002.
“He is living on cash. It seems he is traveling a lot and isn’t staying in one place a long time,” said Andrea Esquer, Goddard’s spokeswoman. “And he has people willing to give him refuge.”
Jeffs was indicted in Mohave County, Ariz., on two counts of sexual conduct with a minor and one count of conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor for marrying a 16-year-old girl to a much older married man. Federal officials later charged him with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and he was placed on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. Jeffs’ wanted poster warns he “may travel with a number of loyal and armed bodyguards.”
The 10,000-member FLDS, as it is called, has been based throughout most of its 70-year history in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hilldale, Utah, twin towns north of the Grand Canyon. But it also has settlements in Canada, Colorado and Nevada and has ties to polygamist colonies in Mexico, southwest of El Paso.
The group arrived in Texas in late 2003 and purchased a ranch four miles northeast of Eldorado, a town of 1,870 located about 45 miles south of San Angelo.
Since then, the estimated 80 to 150 FLDS members living there have built a soaring limestone temple surrounded by a 12-foot rock wall. There are more than a dozen sprawling log homes and meeting halls, barns and other structures as well.
Attention turned to the Texas compound following the Oct. 28 arrest of Seth Jeffs, the leader’s brother, near Pueblo, Colo., where he was detained on local prostitution-related charges and a federal count of concealing a person from arrest, namely Warren Jeffs.
Police found $142,000 in cash, seven cell phones and several envelopes containing thousands of dollars of prepaid phone cards and credit cards in the sport utility vehicle in which the brother was traveling. They also found several hundred letters addressed to the prophet from church members and a jar full of coins labeled “Pennies for the Prophet.” In an arrest report, a sheriff’s deputy noted that Jeffs’ wanted-poster photo had been photocopied and attached to the jar. An envelope inside was addressed to “Uncle Warren.”
Seth Jeffs, 32, told federal officials he did not know where his brother was and that nobody in the church would help turn in their leader. “It would be stupid to tell anyone where he is because he would get caught,” the younger Jeffs said, according to an affidavit.
Jeffs told authorities several different stories about where he was heading, including that he was on his way to the Texas ranch to deliver documents to an unnamed “bishop.” On Monday, the brother was freed on $25,000 bond despite objections from federal prosecutors in Denver that he is a flight risk.
Esquer, in Arizona, said her office’s contention that Jeffs has been in Texas is based on the brother’s arrest and “anecdotal accounts that he has been able to go in and out of the Texas compound. We’re not able to elaborate on that, but we are confident he has been there in the last five months.”
Watching the compound
In Eldorado, the sheriff said the brother’s statements were hardly conclusive evidence of where he was heading. “He was not on a direct path if he was coming to Texas. He may have been coming, I don’t know,” Doran said.
“We have no evidence he has been on the property since June. We’ve never associated any vehicle or anyone with him coming and going, and we know a lot about what’s going on out there,” said Doran. “We have closely monitored this place from day one, and we are very much aware of the activities there.”
Jeffs was probably on the ranch last January, as work on the temple began, Doran said. A photo showed followers huddled around a figure that could have been Jeffs. They appeared to be shielding him from view as a plane circled overhead. “That was probably him,” said Doran.
He said he has established contact and a working relationship with the FLDS members at the ranch “who haven’t broken any laws that we are aware of.”
Doran, who routinely flies over the compound, said he and his four deputies have done everything they can within the bounds of the law to locate Jeffs. He said he is in regular contact with Arizona, Utah and federal officials, including an investigator in Goddard’s office.
A lot of protection
State and federal officials said there have been a number of Jeffs sightings in Arizona and Utah. Special Agent Brent Robbins, in the bureau’s Salt Lake City office, said Jeffs and a group of men were spotted last month buying fishing gear at a store in Lehi, 26 miles south of Salt Lake City, and later seen at a nearby reservoir.
Sam Brower, a private investigator from Utah who is working for several lawyers who have brought civil suits against the group, said Jeffs is no ordinary fugitive.
“It’s much easier when you have people who are honored to hide you or send you money or take a bullet for you,” Brower said. “He isn’t some bank robber driving around in a 1989 Taurus. If he needs a car, he has hundreds at his disposal.”
Ben Bistline, a former church member who still resides in the Colorado City area, said, “They’re taught from birth to support their leader, so whomever the prophet is they support automatically. He has people sworn to protect him with their own lives.”
Bistline, who has written a history of the group, said Jeffs preaches that the world will end soon, and he and his followers will be lifted up while the rest of the world is destroyed.
“Why answer to these accusations and allegations when you can sit and wait for the end of the world?” Bistline said. “I also have heard rumors he expects to die a martyr and dying in a gunbattle would make him a martyr.