Neighbor concerned about polygamy, child welfare

The Rapid City Journal, South Dakota/May 22, 2011

Pringle - Cookie Hickstein would love to open her front door some day to find one of Warren Jeffs' wives standing on her front porch, seeking sanctuary.

"If one of those women wanted to run, I'd help her do it," said Hickstein of a secretive compound just up the road from her house that is owned by followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

But Hickstein and her husband, Richard, who have lived in a remote area 27 miles southwest of Custer since 2001, don't expect that to happen.

"I'm not ever going to see an FLDS woman run. If that's all you've ever known, you don't know any different," she said of the communal lifestyle that she is convinced includes not only the practice of polygamy but the marriage of underage girls to older men.

Since 2004, the Hicksteins have shared their Black Hills landscape of forested meadows and rugged canyons with a religious sect that broke away from mainstream Mormonism back in 1935 over the practice of polygamy.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially renounced polygamy, the practice of one man with multiple wives, in 1890. Members who openly practice it are excommunicated from the LDS church. But numerous breakaway Mormon sects, including the one headed by Jeffs, still do.

Hickstein said she has become increasingly obsessed with her FLDS neighbors over the years. She knows all about the criminal charges that Jeffs faces in Texas, as well as his latest legal battles in Utah, where he is seeking to maintain control over FLDS property and funds that another FLDS patriarch William Jessop is trying to usurp. And she has had a front-row seat to the development of the Pringle compound, which FLDS watchers believe Jeffs planned as a "place of refuge" for his "chosen people."

"I spend way too much time on those people," said Hickstein, who has watched the compound grow from undeveloped forest land to a 140-acre parcel that contains at least nine buildings - including five large log homes, a million-dollar chapel and even its own fire station. Total assessed valuation for the compound and its structures in 2011 is in excess of $5 million, according to county records. County officials say the buildings are high-quality, well-constructed structures and exact replicas of some at the Yearning For Zion compound in El Dorado, Texas. Texas authorities removed more than 400 children from that compound in a 2008 raid over child sexual abuse concerns. Eventually, the children were returned to their homes, but some male residents faced criminal sexual misconduct charges as a result of the raid.

According to state water permit documents, buildings on the compound include an 18-bedroom home, a 13-bedroom home and two seven-bedroom duplexes, but government officials have no way of knowing how many people live in them, or whether or not any of them are "married" to Jeffs. The population of the compound continues to elude its neighbors like Hickstein - as well as county, school and state officials.

Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler makes it a point to visit the compound every six weeks or so, but he isn't invited past the gate at the compound's guard tower.

"I hate to sound like a broken record ... but it's real tough to get anything out of anybody," he said.

In 2008, Wheeler estimated the compound's population at perhaps 75 to 100 residents, a number that compound leaders continue to report to state water officials.

Hickstein suspects it is higher today, based on her periodic strolls and horseback rides around the perimeter of the compound, as well as the amount of water the compound hauled in before it drilled its first well in 2005 and its second in 2007. The original well is no longer in use. For more than a year, a 3,500-gallon tank truck made around-the-clock trips every day of the week to surrounding communities to buy water, neighbors say.

Since the FLDS's lone operational well is presumed to serve more than 20 people, it is considered a public water system by the state of South Dakota. As such, they are monitored by the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, including an on-site inspection once every three years.

Water usage from the second well rose dramatically between 2007 and 2009, which are the most current records available: .46 acre feet of water in 2007; 8.6 acre feet in 2008 and 19 acre feet in 2009.

According to DENR conversion tables, that means water usage from that well rose from about 150,000 gallons in 2007 to nearly 6.2 million gallons of water in 2009.

Linda Harris, an environmental scientist in the Rapid City DENR office, inspected the compound's water system on April 19 and found it to be in compliance with all state and federal requirements. "Everything looks good. They are doing what we ask of them. No complaints from our end," said Harris.

Their water permit allows the compound to draw .21 cubic feet per second from the well, or about 95 gallons per minute, and the compound uses approximately 225 gallons per person per day, based on its own estimate of 75 compound residents, Harris said. The compound is expected to report its 2010 usage numbers soon.

The city of Buffalo, with 330 residents, operates three municipal wells on a rotating basis and uses about 18.6 million gallons of water per year, according to city officials.

According to official state and county records, no one has ever been born or died at the Pringle compound.

"That's a really tough question to answer," said Custer County Register of Deeds Dennis Zellner, when asked if FLDS women give birth at the compound.

The South Dakota Department of Vital Records shows a total of six home births reported from all of Custer County between 2004 through 2010. State law requires that all births in South Dakota, even those outside an institution, be reported to the state Department of Health. FLDS women may go to medical facilities at other FLDS communities, possibly Hildale, Utah, or Colorado City, Ariz., to give birth.

Neither the county coroner nor an ambulance has ever been called to the compound, Wheeler said.

"It has been explained to them that a death certificate needs to be filed," he said. None ever has been.

A spokesman for the state Department of Social Services said federal law prohibits the release of information that could identify recipients of Medicaid, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, food stamps or other federal benefits by specific address.

On the advice of the school district's attorney, Custer superintendent Tim Creal refused to release the number of public school exemption certificates issued by the Custer School District for school age children during the 2010-11 school year - either county-wide exemptions or those issued for home-schooled students at the Pringle compound. The Rapid City Area Schools releases its home-school exemption numbers.

Of the $80,425 that the United Order of South Dakota will pay in 2010 property taxes, more than $56,000 will go to the school district.

In 2008, there were six such exemptions for FLDS children, a number that Hickstein finds laughable.

"There's lots of kids up there. I've seen more school-age kids than that at one time," she said. "But you'll never get a number on how many kids are there."

There are at least two large garden plots on the property and an orchard has been planted close to Farmer Road. A small herd of cows is visible from the road, but the buildings are all placed behind a screen of pine trees.

One adolescent-age male could be seen on compound property in mid-March, working with an adult male on a piece of heavy equipment. Both people ducked into a nearby shed beneath the guard tower when an unknown vehicle passes by.

A third person drove off in an immaculate, late-model full size black SUV with tinted windows, not unlike the one that fugitive Warren Jeffs was arrested in when he was apprehended in 2006 in Nevada. Jeffs is in a Texas prison facing charges of bigamy and sexual abuse of a child. He has been imprisoned since 2007, when he was convicted of being an accomplice to rape. That conviction was overturned by the Utah Supreme Court.

There is no evidence that underage girls are being united in "spiritual" marriages to older men at the Pringle compound that has come to the attention of state law enforcement officials. If there were, Attorney General Marty Jackley said, he would have a legal responsibility to act on it. FLDS men are legally married to their first wife but are "married" in a religious ceremony with additional women.

"If I felt that there was something rising to the level of criminal activity, I would have an obligation to address it, and I don't have any such information at this time," Jackley said.

Jackley wouldn't comment on whether law enforcement officials keep the compound under surveillance of any type, including aerial surveillance.

Other Pringle-area residents take a more hands-off approach to their FLDS neighbors.

"I don't understand those folks," said Owen Murphy, who retired to the area 10 years ago and owns Country Charm Cabins and Corrals with his wife, Lois. "I'm still trying to remember why I thought I wanted one wife - don't know why anybody would want multiple."

While the Murphys want the state to ensure the safety and welfare of young girls living at the compound, they take a "good fences make good neighbors" approach to the compound and any of its unusual religious practices, as long as they involve consenting adults.

Jim Farmer, the owner of a cabin perched on the rim of Red Canyon, which surrounded by FLDS property, said the compound has been a good neighbor.

"At this point, they're probably the best neighbors. They pretty much stay to themselves," Farmer said.

Occasionally, they even act neighborly, dropping off fresh vegetables and fruits from their gardens or jars of homemade pickles and jams on neighbors' porches.

"Oh, yeah, they try to buy us off," said Hickstein, who enjoys the homemade treats in spite of her belief that they are manipulative. "Their homemade cheese is wonderful."

Farmer's position is that although bigamy is against the law, there's nothing illegal about polygamy as practiced by the FLDS, since a man can be legally married to only one woman. Any subsequent "marriages" are not legal in South Dakota, which doesn't recognize common law marriages.

Hickstein, however, is increasingly, concerned about the safety of children at the compound, and her own safety, especially since she has chosen to complain publicly about the FLDS.

"At times, yes, I have been afraid, especially when my husband worked nights," she said.

"Do the FLDS scare me? Yes, at times. How would it affect you to have a tower that looks like a tower on any prison yard in your back yard? It makes you wonder, are they trying to keep someone in or keep us out?"

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