Former polygamist ranch near Eldorado finally sold

San Antonio Express-News/March 2, 2019.

By John MacCormack

Eldorado — Polygamists, with their blonde child brides and 19th-century doctrine of plural marriage being the pathway to heaven, were forced out their compound here in 2014, and scattered to the west.

Their prophet and absolute leader, Warren Jeffs, 63, once on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List, is serving a life sentence in a Texas state prison for raping young girls at the site.

And for most residents of this one-stoplight farming town three hours west of San Antonio, the whole traumatic story that began 15 years ago is fading into history.

But just a few miles north of town, the abandoned Yearning for Zion Ranch looks much like it did when hundreds of followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints called it home.

The broad streets, orchards, water treatment plant and more than 40 large buildings, including a massive white temple, remain intact and functional.

After years of legal entanglements, the property soon will belong to ETG Properties LLC. The Dallas-area company intends to use it as a military and law enforcement training base.

On a recent flyover, James Doyle, 82, a pilot and former Schleicher County justice of the peace, noted important landmarks.

“That big house down there is where Warren Jeffs lived. He had 15 to 20 wives there,” he remarked, pointing out an elongated structure that resembles a small motel.

He also pointed out a huge concrete amphitheater from which Jeffs reportedly planned to address the leaders of the free world after his prison walls crumbled.

And if the fear and anxiety triggered by the arrival of polygamists from Arizona and Utah has ebbed, the unnerving presence of the prophet lingers.

“He is terrible, horrible. He caused a lot of heartache for a lot of kids and other people. He separated wives from their husbands and all kinds of things,” Doyle said.

The ranch and all of its improvements were forfeited to the state in 2014 after Jeffs and nine other men were convicted or pleaded guilty to bigamy and sex crimes committed on the property.

In October, ETG Properties, based in Addison, agreed to buy the ranch for $4.17 million. While waiting for the sale to close, ETG has been leasing the property for $5,000 a month.

Already, Border Patrol and Defense Department personnel have come for training, and neighbors are getting used to the sounds of helicopters and other aircraft moving after dark.

Repeated attempts to reach the principals of ETG Properties and related companies were unsuccessful.

Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran is the most eager for the story to end.

“This has consumed my life since 2004. There has not been a day that did not involve something to do with this bunch or this land,” he said.

For a decade, Doran was the county’s liaison with the polygamists and he still maintains contact with one of them.

After the group left in 2014, Doran and his wife, Lenette, moved into a two-bedroom apartment on the ranch as caretakers.

“It was the cheapest way for the county. At first, it was creepy because of everything that happened there. Now there is nothing there that bothers me,” he said.

He used inmate labor to maintain the property and structures, once valued at $34 million on county tax rolls.

During his watch there, the ranch has experienced flooding, a wildfire and scattered attempts to break into the property.

Along the way, he said, he had to learn how everything worked, including the municipal water system.

Bigamy, sexual assaults

Before the YFC Ranch turned this town upside down, people here talked more about cotton, cattle and high school sports.

Doran still remembers the shock of learning that the reclusive polygamists were building a community just to the north.

“It was baptism by fire. We were trying to wrap our minds around what this group was about,” he recalled. “Me personally, I barely knew what polygamy was.”

On March 25, 2004, as stunned townspeople gathered with Doran outside the courthouse to hear the news, one local woman held up a sign that read “The Devil is Here.”

Flora Jessop, an apostate who’d left the polygamist colony at Short Creek, Ariz., and Buster Johnson, an official from Mohave County, Ariz., spoke to the crowd.

“They are not a danger to your children. They are a danger to their own children,” said Jessop, who said she had 28 brothers and sisters.

Johnson spoke graphically about how the FDLS women received almost no education and some begin bearing children as young teenagers.

Randy Mankin, publisher of the Eldorado Success, which was first to report the sale of the ranch property, likened the polygamist’s arrival to that of a UFO.

“It’s still fresh to me, like yesterday but I’m one of the old geezers,” Mankin said.

“It just felt like a cloud was hanging over the town. No one knew what the future would be. Some people left because they were afraid a group would come and take over,” he said.

Things reached a chaotic peak in April 2008, when the state raided the ranch, prompted by an anonymous complaint to Child Protective Services of child abuse. The call later proved to be a hoax, but not before hundreds of women and children were removed.

“There were 13 satellite television trucks parked at the courthouse,” Mankin recalls.

More than 400 children were taken into temporary custody by the state. They were returned seven weeks later after the Third Court of Appeals ruled the state had not met its burden for an emergency removal.

Still, the evidence obtained, including DNA from the children, led to indictments of Jeffs and 11 other men on charges of bigamy and sexual assault.

In August 2011, Jeffs was convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a child and sexual assault of a child. His victims were 12 and 15 years old. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.

In November 2012, the Texas attorney general’s office began legal proceedings to seize the ranch. In April 2014, the last polygamists left peacefully and Texas authorities took possession.

Opinions still divided

As Eldorado’s improbable polygamist ordeal now finally is ending, opinions about the place among community leaders differ.

Johnny Griffin, 74, who was county judge through 2008, still thinks the state was wrong to forcefully remove more than 400 children.

“I was really opposed to that whole operation. It was a political stand for (then-Attorney General Greg) Abbott. He was going to run for governor. In my opinion, it was the worst of the state being Big Brother,” Griffin began.

He also disagrees with the state using the criminal convictions of a handful of polygamist men to justify seizing the Yearning for Zion Ranch, and forcing everyone who lived there to leave.

“Why in the hell didn’t they leave the mommas and the kids in there, and get rid of the men? When you see your momma get drug off, it’s got to affect you. I thought it was terribly handled,” he said.

Former County Commissioner Matt Brown, however, thinks that state officials handled the situation appropriately.

“We’re just glad that they are gone. There was a lot of turmoil and unrest in the county. When they move in, they can certainly ruin a community,” he said.

Brown said the abuses that occurred within the polygamist community outweigh any arguments about religious liberty or criticism of the state’s abrupt removal of the children.

“It was the child abuse and the brainwashing that goes on in that cult. And it’s sad that it’s still going on. It’s pretty much a slave state,” he said.

“We’re glad to have new owners. We’re glad someone was interested in the property and it’s being put to good use,” he added.

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