Just because the capture last week of the man his polygamous followers call “The Prophet” didn’t end in a bloody gun battle as some had feared, that doesn’t mean the people of Eldorado rest easier today.
Eldoradoans have for nearly three years watched with a mixture of concern and bewilderment as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, under the direction of Warren Jeffs, has built a $20 million community from nothing just north of this West Texas town. Local law enforcement officials preached tolerance of the new neighbors, in part because they worried that cornering Jeffs might produce another tragedy like that of the Branch Davidian Church in 1993 near Waco.
They needn’t have worried. When Nevada state police stopped Jeffs last week in a Cadillac Escalade without license plates, the “God Squad” of armed bodyguards he was said to travel with was nowhere to be seen. Jeffs was armed only with wigs for disguise and $54,000 in cash. The frail, nervous man appeared to be neither the charismatic religious leader with dozens of wives and children nor the desperado who spent months on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
The 50-year-old Jeffs waived extradition last week, and in the coming months, the district attorneys for the neighboring communities on the Utah and Arizona border where the Fundamentalist Church originally settled are expected to charge him with sex crimes that might include child rape.
We hope the investigation leads, as Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has promised, to the exposure and dismantling of the hidden empire Jeffs has built on a morally and religiously bankrupt foundation. Investigators have pegged the total value of these ill-gotten gains at $130 million.
As pernicious as it is to use the threat of eternal damnation to command girls to perform sex acts, as Jeffs is alleged to have done, he has used his absolute authority to subjugate some 10,000 followers, whose livelihoods, marriages and properties he once controlled absolutely. Hundreds of these people were brought to Eldorado to toil for these past few years building a temple that is grander than the Schleicher County Courthouse. They’ve put up a huge meeting hall, at least 15 large residence halls, a sewer and water system for at least 2,000 people, and dairy and chicken operations.
The hold Jeffs has on his followers is both spiritual and material. All property is owned by the Fundamentalist Church. A man’s highest salvation is earned by having at least three wives. The more wives he has, the more blessed he is. From the time he assumed leadership of the church in 2002 following the death of his father, Jeffs has set about redistributing land, wives and children. Jeffs and his most loyal lieutenants have been the most fortunate beneficiaries.
To walk up and down the streets of the twin cites of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., is to see the results of Jeffs’ work. Jeffs and his extended family live in the largest and most luxurious dwelling in either town. The homes of the most loyal are easily recognizable because they are attractive and completed. Because of the church’s heavy tithing requirements, most of the other homes in these communities are unfinished. Their occupants must pay for the construction in cash, as they can, which is not often enough.
Last year, as the cases against him were building and Jeffs went into hiding, a federal judge appointed a fiduciary to oversee the church’s finances. Homes are slowly being returned to their rightful owners. Wives, however, are another matter. Although polygamy is illegal in Utah, Arizona and Texas, men and women of the church marry only once in a legally recognized ceremony. The others are spiritual marriages arranged and performed by Jeffs or church elders. Even those who have been excommunicated rarely go to the authorities because they’re terrified they will go to hell.
Eldoradoans are wondering how these polygamists in their midst will react to the jailing of their spiritual leader. The curious who keep tabs by flying over in small planes say construction on the ranch has stalled since Jeffs’ arrest. With or without Jeffs, and whether or not we approve of it, the Fundamentalist Church appears to have made Texas a permanent home. If a church condoning multiple marriage must be here, it is infinitely better for all of us without its rapacious and false prophet.
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