Officials keep close tabs on W. Texas ranch in effort to find polygamist
ELDORADO, Texas — More than a year after a polygamist sect began building a compound in West Texas, the number of people living there and the whereabouts of the group’s elusive leader remain a mystery to those outside the ranch’s locked gates.
Warren Jeffs, 50, the “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is wanted by the FBI and authorities in Utah and Arizona on charges including sexual conduct with a minor and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
The former accountant and private school teacher has been on the FBI’s “Most Wanted Fugitive” list since June, and the reward for information leading to his arrest grew to $60,000 last month.
But despite reported sightings the length of North America — Mr. Jeffs has been rumored everywhere from Canada to Mexico — he has managed to elude authorities, and the new compound in Texas seems like a reasonable hiding place.
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, whose deputies keep close tabs on the fortress-like YFZ Ranch, said he routinely meets with members of the church. But without a legal reason to search the ranch for Mr. Jeffs, there’s not much else he can do.
“He’s got his tight circle. They’re very well organized,” Sheriff Doran said.
The sect split from the Mormon church more than 100 years ago after The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in Salt Lake City renounced polygamy. The group migrated to a remote area along the Utah-Arizona state line, where about 10,000 members lived in almost complete seclusion.
In 2004, the group bought a former exotic game ranch about 160 miles northwest of San Antonio for $700,000 and began an ambitious construction program anchored by an 80-foot-tall, gleaming-white temple.
“People in Arizona and Utah speculate there are thousands of people out there,” Sheriff Doran said of the Texas compound. “But no. There’s not anything close to a thousand people out there.”
Sheriff Doran and his deputies routinely fly over the ranch, and he estimates about 150 people live there. Church members used to run and duck for cover whenever they heard his aircraft approaching, but now they’re accustomed to it.
“If they’re working in the garden, it’s not uncommon for them to look up,” Sheriff Doran said. “They’re getting more comfortable in their surroundings now.”
Unless his appearance somehow has been altered, Mr. Jeffs is gaunt, about 6-foot-3 and 150 pounds, with brown hair and brown eyes. The FBI’s “Wanted” poster shows him with a crooked smile and wearing a dark coat, white shirt and tie.
“He’s not considered an armed and dangerous person,” said Deborah McCarley, a special agent at the Phoenix FBI office. “But obviously, we’re going to respect the fact that he has a lot of followers who believe in him and may try to protect him.”
If the sect’s members in Texas are upset with the scrutiny, they’re not saying. Members aren’t allowed access to newspapers, radio, TV or the Internet, and they are forbidden from speaking with reporters.
Several weeks ago, Terry Goddard, the Arizona attorney general who obtained an indictment against Mr. Jeffs for arranging underage marriages, suggested Sheriff Doran’s department allowed Mr. Jeffs to come and go at will from the YFZ Ranch. Sheriff Doran denies that.
“We’ve got all the parameters covered that we would for any felony out-of-state warrant, and probably more than any for this one,” Sheriff Doran said.
In November, days after he was pulled over for a traffic violation in Colorado, Mr. Jeffs’ brother, Seth Steed Jeffs, of Hildale, Utah, was indicted on a charge of concealing him. In his SUV, authorities found nearly $142,000 in cash, thousands of dollars worth of prepaid phone cards and personal papers of Mr. Jeffs.
Seth Jeffs denied knowing the whereabouts of his brother. Then, according to the arrest affidavit, he added that even if he did know, he wouldn’t be a snitch.
“They keep their secrets,” Sheriff Doran said. “They don’t talk.”