As a polygamist group transforms ranchland outside the West Texas town of Eldorado into a cloistered compound, local residents continue to wonder about the whereabouts of the sect’s embattled leader.
Warren Jeffs, who is known as the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, is facing a lawsuit that alleges he and his two brothers sexually abused one of his nephews during the 1980s.
The church’s practice of excommunicating teen-age boys as way of eliminating competition for young brides is attracting more scrutiny in Utah, where the sect originated.
Rod Parker, the attorney for the church and Jeffs, denied the lawsuit allegations and said they are being stirred up by the sect’s critics.
But the latest revelations continue to spur speculation that Jeffs has taken refuge at the sect’s growing Texas compound about 45 miles south of San Angelo.
“It’s really hard to say,” said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran. “We’re monitoring the situation out in Utah, but that’s about all we can do. It’s pure speculation as to the location of Warren Jeffs. I think he has been out here at the ranch, but I have no reason to believe he’s there right now.”
The polygamist group broke off from the Church of Latter-day Saints when the church rejected polygamy in the late 1800s. Over time, the sect gravitated toward the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Late last year, the sect bought land outside Eldorado. The town’s 2,000 residents were initially told it would be a hunting lodge, but they learned in March that it had been purchased by Jeffs’ followers. In recent months, local pilots have watched in amazement as the sect built large buildings at the remote site.
Schleicher County officials believe Jeffs visited the ranch in July when one of his wives, Barbara Barlow, 39, died of breast cancer. Jeffs is believed to have between 20 and 70 wives, according to former church members.
Justice of the Peace Jimmy Doyle, who conducted the inquest, said church officials notified him several days before Barlow’s death to make arrangements for him to issue a death certificate. Barlow was buried on the property, he said.
Former members of the church, including author Benjamin Bistline — who has just published a book on the sect, Colorado City Polygamists — believes Jeffs may have fled to a church compound in Mexico to avoid being served with a subpoena.
Yet none of these issues has slowed construction at the compound about four miles outside Eldorado.
“They’ve blocked off some city blocks with a ‘dozer,” Doyle said. “I think at some point they’re going to fill that in with some more homes. From the air, it definitely looks like a grid, like you would see in a town.”
“It’s really hard to know how many folks are out there,” Doran said. “The number they keep telling us is 200, but whether that’s 200 folks or 200 families isn’t clear. They’re kind of evasive. They’re still telling me it’s a church retreat and that people out there will be coming and going.”
The lawsuit, filed July 29 in Utah, accuses Jeffs and his brothers Leslie and Blaine Jeffs of continual abuse of children.
The pleadings state that the brothers began abusing a 4-or 5-year-old nephew and continued for two years in the 1980s at the Alta Academy near Salt Lake City. The alleged abuse took place in a basement bathroom, the lawsuit said, while Sunday church services were being held upstairs.
The victim, now 21, decided to come forward after his brother committed suicide in 2002, the lawsuit states.
Fort Worth attorney John Jose, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiff, declined comment.
Meanwhile, the church is also dealing with 29 violations issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regarding its water treatment facilities, its cement plant and its practice of dumping water from sewage tanks onto roads.
Church members are trying to comply with regulations and have met with Eldorado city officials, but there has been no resolution, Doran said.
Last weekend in Salt Lake City, a group called Smiles For Diversity staged a rally to draw attention to the 400 boys purged from the church since 1998. The group is trying to help the boys obtain high school equivalency certificates and mentors to help them adjust to mainstream society.
Most boys in the sect receive only an eighth-grade education and are ex-communicated as a way of eliminating competition for young brides, critics say.
This report includes material from the Associated Press.