Custer County Sheriff Rick wheeler says his outreach to a fenced community associated with a polygamist religious sect has improved communications with the group and prompted members to apply for standardized testing for their home-schooled children.
Wheeler, who recently returned from visiting polygamist communities in Utah and Arizona to learn more about the group, said he has developed a relationship with the Custer County compound through one contact person.
“It took six months, really, to make contact with them,” Wheeler said. “They call me. And I call them. We got them to sign up for the school part, to get registered with the state, to make sure they’re home schooling.”
So far, six students at the compound have been signed up to take standardized achievement tests by the Custer County School District.
Wheeler said his growing relationship with the Custer County community, as well as his trip to Utah, has helped ease his mind about the presence of the sect in the county. But he also knows the community will continue to be the subject of public speculation and rumor.
The group is affiliated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a controversial sect known for its proclaimed belief in polygamy and self-professed prophet Warren Jeffs. The sect and its ways have been repudiated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which officially rejected polygamy in 1890.
And Jeffs remains in custody on charges that include unlawful flight to avoid prosecution for rape as an accomplice, based on an allegation that he helped arrange a marriage between a teenage girl and an older cousin.
Wheeler said he hasn’t had any reports of polygamy or child abuse at the Custer County compound, which includes about 140 acres in the Red Canyon area southwest of Pringle. And without a complaint or report, he has no reason to investigate, he said.
“It’s like any residence, we have to have a reason to go in there,” he said. “As far as I know, that’s not happening.”
Wheeler said he hasn’t had any other legal problems with the community members, who seem to be hard-working people who go out of their way not to cause problems.
Wheeler said that impression was affirmed by his visit last week to communities in Utah and Arizona where the FLDS sect is headquartered. He stopped in Hildale, Utah, and nearby Colorado City, Ariz., and spoke extensively with Sheriff Kirk Smith of Washington County, Utah, where Hildale is located. Wheeler also met with other law-enforcement officials who met there, including Sheriff David Doran of Schleicher County, Texas, where the FLDS has built a fenced community near the town of Eldorado.
“It was just good to sit down and talk to them (sheriffs), and to know that the other places are a lot like ours,” he said. “Eldorado is really a lot like ours, a closed, fenced community out away from things. Hildale and Colorado City are different. You can drive right down through them.”
After being elected last June to his first term as sheriff, Wheeler faced speculation about whether the Pringle-area compound might have harbored Jeffs, who was then a fugitive. Local law-enforcement authorities said they had no evidence of that.
Jeffs was arrested last August near Las Vegas. Since then, Wheeler has developing a working relationship with the Custer County FLDS compound through a contact person. During his trip to Utah, Wheeler learned that other sheriffs develop the same type of contacts in the FDLS communities in their counties.
“They’ve all got certain people they contact, if something goes wrong or they need something,” he said.
Wheeler declined to name his contact at the Pringle-area compound, but guessed him to be in his 30s.
“They like it one on one,” Wheeler said. “We need each other. I need him to keep me informed on what’s going on out there, and he needs me in case something happens n a death or fire or something. I think it’s working out good.”
Wheeler has visited the fenced compound several times. He said most of the people he has seen appeared to be in their 30s and 40s. Children are being educated at the complex, although Wheeler didn’t know how many.
The state requires home-schooled students to make applications for standardized academic tests required of students in public and private schools. Students in grades 3 through 8 and grade 11 must take the tests.
The FLDS compound is in the Custer School District, which is handling the testing. Superintendent Tim Creal said that soon after Wheeler visited the compound about home-schooling regulations, the district received applications from the community for six students in need of testing. They will be allowed to take the test at the compound and mail it to the school district, Creal said.
Home-school instructors don’t have to be accredited, nor are there requirements on the textbooks or lesson plans, Creal said. People who teach their children at home generally prefer to select their own books, he said.
“Many times people home-school for religious reasons, and they want to use books that provide an opportunity to teach with religious background,” he said. “The only way we monitor is by the test scores that come back. If the scores aren’t up to snuff, we report that to the state. If the test scores are in the appropriate range for the students at their age level, then we don’t do anything further.”
This is the first group of tests from the compound. Creal said the test results will be back from a national scoring agency sometime this fall. The district will not release the scores from the compound, he said, because it doesn’t release scores from individuals or geographic groupings.
Creal said he didn’t know how many families the six students were from.
Little is known about the population of the compound. Asked for an estimate, Wheeler said: “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were 100 or more.”
The community keeps livestock, including cattle and chickens on its complex, as well as “great big gardens,” Wheeler said. They’re also efficient builders who rely on themselves and supplies hauled in from the outside, at all hours of the day or night.
Some neighbors have complained to Custer County commissioners about the noise at night and the construction of a tower at the complex. But commissioner Leonard Wood, who lives near Pringle, said that other than those objections, he hears few complaints from locals.
“With the exception of two or three people, they say they’re good neighbors,” Wood said. “They’ve got a watchtower and high fences around the compound, OK. Let’s face it, that’s strange. But other than that, – unless Wheeler knows something I don’t n they’re law-abiding citizens.”
Wheeler agreed, saying he doesn’t receive complaints about bad behavior by sect members.
“In fact, they’ll go out of their way to help a neighbor, plow snow and things like that,” he said.
Despite their industrious nature and seemingly busy schedule, Wheeler said he’s not aware of any community members who work outside the complex.
“They do everything themselves. They all work there,” he said. “Sometimes I wonder where all the money comes from to support these communities.”
Wheeler said he assumes the FLDS is providing financial support for newer communities such as the one in Custer County.
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