ELDORADO, Texas, April 18, 2008(AP) The guy didn’t look much like a hunter. He was beanpole tall – scarecrow-ish, some might say, with a high, collegiate forehead and a reluctant handshake. Even in a pearl-snap shirt and jeans, this cowboy somehow seemed better suited for a college lecture hall than a saddle.
Still, he wanted land – lots of it – for a corporate hunting retreat. Said he might build a lodge, to entice some big-roller clients of his in Vegas. North of town, the old Isaacs ranch – rocky and solid as it was with rusty oil rigs, cactus and gnarled mesquite trees – caught his eye. It was plenty cheap, he said, and plenty remote.
But it didn’t take long for the sheriff and everyone else in Schleicher County to figure out that their new neighbor, David S. Allred, president of YFZ Land, LLC, had much more on his mind than the hunting of whitetail.
After the closing in November 2003, dozens of Allred’s associates arrived to make improvements on the property. Sunday to Sunday, day and night they toiled, completing three, three-story houses – each 10,000 square feet – within weeks. Soon, a cement plant shot up. Then fields of limestone were miraculously plowed into fertile farmland. And then, a superstructure unseen in these parts – a temple, masterfully clad with limestone quarried onsite – ascended into the west Texas sky.
And that, as it happened, was only the beginning.
The YFZ Ranch – which, as the townspeople would come to learn, stood for Yearning for Zion – would mushroom into a bustling, parallel city: a 1,691-acre, self-sustaining enclave carved, literally, into a rock pile for the innermost circle of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, FLDS, a 10,000-member sect that has continued to practice polygamy after it was banned by the Mormon Church in 1890.
Here, there would be enormous dormitories for enormous families, a cheese factory, a medical clinic, a grain silo, a commissary, a sewage treatment plant – and watchtowers with sentries, infrared night-vision cameras to monitor gated entrances, and 10-foot-high compound walls topped with spikes.
There would evolve a saga of “plural marriages,” racism, underage “celestial” brides and allegations of child abuse, turning Eldorado upside down with frightening tales, rumors, and a flood of reporters and investigators. A raid on the polygamists’ compound – the largest of its kind in more than a half century in the West, involving hundreds of law enforcement agents – would lead to the removal of 416 children and set up a child custody confrontation of unprecedented dimensions.
The episode would also fire up debate in the courts, and in this community of 1,951 residents, over the state’s duty to protect children from alleged abuse and over the limits of basic constitutional rights like religious liberty and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.
In the end, the residents of Eldorado would lose a measure of their rural innocence and find themselves conflicted, caught between their love of traditional, family values and their powerful, west Texas beliefs in civil liberties.
On a chilly evening in January 2004, J.D. Doyle, a pilot, and his father, James, the local justice of the peace, climbed into their Piper twin-engine plane and took to the skies over Schleicher County to see if recent rains had greened the grazing fields owned by friends who were cattle ranchers.
But as they flew over the YFZ property four miles north of Eldorado, they noticed something different: Down below, jutting up between scatterings of cedar bushes and outcroppings of limestone, were three, enormous, cabin-style barracks with enough room to accommodate two football teams.
What were those doing on a hunting retreat?
Later, they asked a friend, Joe Christian, a computer tech who lived adjacent to the YFZ ranch, what he made of it. Christian hadn’t a clue, actually. His new neighbors had been reclusive, leaving him to puzzle over all that nonstop building. We should take some aerial photographs, he suggested; the Doyles agreed.
The photos intrigued Randy and Kathy Mankin, who published the town’s weekly paper, The Eldorado Success, so they did a background check on the buyer, Allred. Initially, they saw no red flags: He was, as he’d claimed, a builder from Washington County, Utah. Still, why build such large residences on so remote a ranch?
Then, in late March, the paper got a call from Flora Jessop, an anti-polygamy activist from Utah who’d been raised in the FLDS and who, as a teenager, had run away from the sect. A polygamist group, she’d been told, was rumored to be establishing another enclave in west Texas.
In Mankin’s mind, polygamy had already taken its place on history’s ash heap. But the caller wouldn’t stop asking questions. When Mankin finally relinquished the name of the buyer, he heard a silence on the line, then:
“Oh, my God … it’s them … ”
“Them,” Jessop went on to explain, was the FLDS, a renegade, splinter group of Mormons that by the 1930s were practicing polygamy (the ticket to heaven, followers believed) in secret ceremonies for “spiritual brides” that circumvented bigamy laws in the United States.
In recent years, sect members and their prophet, Warren Jeffs, were being investigated by authorities in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., for allegedly marrying off girls as young as 13 to much older men with multiple wives. Women and girls who fled the sect – and boys who’d been forced out or abandoned – told stories of forced marriages, incest and abuse; some who left called the FLDS a destructive cult.
The March, 25, 2004 story atop the Success’ front page – “Corporate retreat or prophet’s refuge?” – sent shockwaves up and down Eldorado’s dusty streets. Everyone wanted to know: Were these outsiders like the Branch Davidians, whose compound near Waco was stormed in 1993, resulting in the deaths of 80 people?
Would they kidnap their sons and daughters? Brainwash them? Would they try to conquer Eldorado by ballot, voting as a bloc for judges, commissioners and school and hospital board members sympathetic to their ways?
At the local library, paperback, cassette and hardcover copies of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” an unsparing look at similar sects, suddenly were in demand. The local paper featured articles almost every week on the FLDS, and posted online audio clips of Jeffs ranting in a steely monotone about the Beatles being covert agents of a “Negro race.”
Locals, buzzing regularly over the property in their planes, snapped photos of FLDS women in long, pioneer dresses tending gardens, men digging small graveyards, erecting 5-foot-thick walls around their temple, and building enough dwellings to establish a mini-city.
“They never shut down,” says Gloria Swift, who runs the Hitch’n Post Coffeeshop with her husband, Jerry, in town. “Even when you drive by that ranch at night, you see this glow of lights from the highway. They’re out there with heavy machinery, building, 24 hours a day.”
The sect’s members, meanwhile, shunned nearly all contact with outsiders, including the media, insisting they wanted to be left alone to practice their religious beliefs in peace. The women didn’t shop in local stores; the children were home schooled on the ranch.
As a group, sect members bought most of their merchandise in the much larger city of San Angelo, 45 miles up the road past sun-baked fields of cotton and mesquite trees. There, they shopped in bulk for warehouse staples, and were often seen at the Lowe’s home-improvement store hauling away dozens of appliances at a clip.
When drivers waved to the men, who occasionally came to town in their trucks to buy propane, housewares or tools, they didn’t wave back. They did maintain a cordial, if not friendly, relationship with Curtis Griffen, who ran Eldorado’s only fuel depot with his father.
“They were always nice, polite,” Griffen says. They bought thousands of dollars in fuel each month, always paying their monthly bills on time, in cash. “From what I could gather, they had no intention of creating problems here in town. In all my dealings with them, them seemed like any other regular customer.”
Most other Eldorado residents, however, remained wary. Owners of neighboring ranches were warned to keep an eye out for young girls fleeing the compound. Some days the sheriff, David Doran, stood at the gates, in view of the sect’s sentries, peering at the group through binoculars. (As time passed, Doran established a rapport with the sect’s leaders; he was one of a handful of outsiders ever allowed inside before the raid.)
State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran became alarmed by reports from Eldorado, former sect members and the Utah attorney general. In 2005 he pushed into law a bill that raised the legal age of consent to marry in Texas from 14 to 16.
“Every now and then you’d hear something about alleged child abuse, but there was never any hard evidence of it,” says Mankin, publisher of Eldorado’s local paper.
As the months passed without incident, the townspeople’s’ fear of the group morphed first into a generalized disgust of the sect’s polygamous practices, then a morbid curiosity with the now-finished, gleaming white temple (which had 4-foot-thick outer walls of poured concrete), and its priesthood rites, marriage ceremonies and secretive ordinations.
When Jeffs, the self-styled prophet, predicted Armageddon in 2005, on Eldorado resident paraded in front of the ranch’s outer gate in a grim reaper costume. Caps were sold in town with ELDORADO: POLYGAMY CAPITAL OF TEXAS stitched across them. A resident songwriter had a local hit with “The Plural Girl Blues,” a tune about polygamy.
“People would stop each other on the street and ask, ‘So, what’s the latest on our polygamists?” recalls J.D. Doyle, the pilot. “They’d ask, ‘How many houses do they have now? Or, ‘Have you ever met one yet?’ See, those people were like an itch on the back of your neck, and you needed a way to make light of it.”
Gradually, interest waned, except for those times that reporters came to town, or when Jeffs (left) made headlines in Utah with his legal troubles; he was investigated for years for allegedly marrying off girls as young as 13. (Last year, he was convicted in Utah for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl for forcing her to marry her cousin.)
Indeed, the taxes the county collected from the YFZ ranch – the sect’s property at one point was valued at $8 million – was a boon to a community of sheep and cattle ranchers and cotton farmers. And yet, the nagging doubts, the scuttlebutt and rumors about what was going on behind the fences and walls of the sect’s compound wouldn’t die.
A Mormon who had lived in town with his family for years moved away with his wife and children, after first writing a letter to the editor of the local paper which said the FLDS was not representative of mainstream Mormons.
“Those people came under false pretenses to our area,” says Lynn Meador, 62, a local sheep and cattle rancher. “Even though they brought a lot of things to our community, I think people deep down were afraid this thing would end up like Waco. We were all just waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
It came in late March, when a 16-year-old girl reportedly called a local domestic abuse hotline to report that a 49-year-old man had married her, impregnated her at 15, and beaten and choked her repeatedly, according to court documents.
In one of several phone calls to the hot line, the girl said her husband had broken her ribs. But church members had warned her to not to flee – otherwise she would be found and locked in a room, according to an affidavit signed by an investigator for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
On April 3, hundreds of agents – a SWAT team, FBI agents, Texas Rangers, San Angelo police, highway patrol, and sheriff’s department officers from four counties – raided the YFZ ranch, backed by an armored personnel carrier, K9 dog units and ambulances. For six days they searched the compound for evidence of child abuse and illegal marriages, hauling away a cache of computers, photographs, and birth and marriage records.
According to other affidavits, investigators saw numerous underage girls who were pregnant, and took statements from others who told of entering into polygamous marriages in their early teens. They described finding beds on a top floor of the temple, including one that had what looked like a long strand of female hair.
The long-feared bloody conflagration didn’t materialize. Tela Mange, a spokesperson for the Texas trooper and Department of Public Safety, said agents had been much more “diplomatic” with the sect that they have been in other raids. “Not a shot was fired,” she said, “and there wasn’t even a twisted ankle in this one.” (She declined to say whether weapons had been found on the ranch.)
But the sight of the confused, anxious faces of women and children gazing out the bus windows as they were transported to local churches, then mass shelters in San Angelo, was enough to shake Eldorado’s townfolk, and stir a debate over whether the authorities may have gone too far.
Some were uncomfortable that the 16-year-old who reportedly called the child abuse hotline wasn’t identified. Others wondered how it could be that her alleged abuser had not set foot in Texas in the last five years, as was later reported.
Others wondered if it was legal for the agents to keep the sect’s men in their homes the first 24 hours after the raid, without charges. Later, at the group shelter in San Angelo, authorities took the cell phones away from mothers who remained in contact with their husbands back at the ranch.
Since the women hadn’t been charged with a crime, folks asked, did the police have that right?
“A lot of people here are starting to ask those questions,” says Griffin, the oil dealer. “If those women weren’t under arrest, how could the police do that to them?”
Others were less bothered by it. “It’s about time they went in there and busted that thing up,” says Lisa Lopez, a 43-year-old homemaker. “I couldn’t understand how people in Eldorado could sit back and let them have sex with underage girls for so long.”
You’ve got it all wrong, say the people of the YFZ ranch, finding their voices after years of near silence. Children were not abused here. Eldorado – indeed, all the outside world – does not understand.
“We are all Heavenly Father’s children,” says an FLDS mother of two boys, ages 11 and 14, who identified herself only as Brenda. “You have your religion. I have mine. You choose to live how you want. I choose how I live mine. Is this not freedom? Can’t we choose?”