The recent convictions of polygamist church leader Warren Jeffs proves that South Dakota and Custer County law enforcement officials should do more to investigate a Jeffs-affiliated compound near Pringle, said an expert on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Sam Brower is a private investigator from Cedar City, Utah, who spent seven years investigating the FLDS after being hired by a FLDS member who was engaged in a dispute with the group. Brower provided law enforcement with information that helped a Texas jury convict Jeffs of the sexual assault of two underage girls, a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old whom he had taken as "spiritual brides." He has also written a book about Jeffs titled "Prophet's Prey," which hit bookstores Tuesday.
Brower is convinced that underage marriages also occur at the FLDS site near Pringle, though he said he has no evidence to prove it.
Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler was on the compound Aug. 4, the same day that a jury convicted Jeffs. He was at the 140-acre compound to accompany staff from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources. DENR was there to inspect a concrete batch plant and construction-related dirt runoff. The concrete is being used in the construction of two agricultural buildings.
Wheeler tries to visit the compound every week or so and usually accompanies government officials onto the property. He knows he doesn't see all of the compound's residents on his visits but said he has never seen any obviously pregnant underage girls. Wheeler didn't hear any conversation about Jeffs that day, nor find any evidence of child brides during any of his frequent visits.
"At this time, I don't," he said when asked if he has any evidence of child sexual abuse. "If we did, we'd act on it."
"The day that I was in there, there were women around, with kids, doing things. One thing I have noticed is that most of the women and guys that I see are fairly close to the same age," Wheeler said.
Brower was raised in the mainstream The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has no ties to the FLDS. He has been to the Pringle area three times in the course of his FLDS investigations, once with Jon Krakauer, the author of "Under the Banner of Heaven," a best-selling book that examines the ideologies of both mainstream and fundamentalist Mormons. Brower's book, however, deals mainly with activities at FLDS communities in Utah, Arizona and Texas.
Brower is familiar with the leadership in Pringle, however, and said he didn't see anyone from that compound in the San Angelo courtroom during Jeffs' trial. Jurors and spectators, including Brower, heard a tape recording of "a panting, pervert prophet raping a little girl," he said. That tape was confiscated by authorities the day the fugitive Jeffs was apprehended in 2006, but this trial was the first time it was used as evidence against him. Previously, a Utah judge sealed it as prejudicial and a federal judge said it was protected as "religious material."
"I hope ... that attorney generals in other states, including South Dakota, model their performance more after the attorney general in Texas than the one in Utah ... and don't let these atrocities continue," Brower said.
Among the mounds of evidence removed from the FLDS ranch in El Dorado, Texas, were diaries indicating that Jeffs has been at Pringle and directed its activities. Brower believes some of his estimated 80 wives may be living there now.
"I don't know that for a fact, but I think that's a good possibility that they are," Brower said. "It's a place of refuge for people in the hierarchy of the church. Only the most righteous are allowed to go there."
Meanwhile, the Texas verdict sends a clear message to FLDS leadership in Pringle and elsewhere, Brower said. "In the United States, we're not going to tolerate people raping little girls."
He warns South Dakotans that other jurisdictions that have taken a "hands-off" approach toward the FLDS have regretted it. "Everybody that believes it's easier just to look the other way has paid a price for it," he said.
Brower contends the FLDS is a "large criminal organization" that uses unfair labor practices to underbid legitimate existing businesses, particularly in the construction trades. His book recounts the plight of women who have left the FLDS, as well as "lost boys" -- young males with little education and no money -- who have been banished from their families and communities at the whim of church leadership.
Brower said South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley to take a "proactive" approach to the FLDS, even if no victims speak out.
"If I was there, I would be knocking on Marty Jackley's door, asking for an investigation; the law should follow them around," he said.
A spokeswoman for Jackley said her office wouldn't confirm or deny the existence of any investigation of the Pringle-area community.
"As with any matter, if we receive information regarding potential criminal activity, our policy is to investigate that information and see criminal prosecution if justified," Jackley said by email.
Brower said breaking the secrecy of the compound requires proactive investigation.
"It's much easier for people to look the other way. They don't want the headache, the hassle. It's the easiest thing to do," he said. "I know it's not easy. More than anybody, I know how hard it is to crack this religious facade. But human suffering is caused because of it."
Brower doesn't expect Jeffs' prison term to have much economic impact on Pringle, which is largely financed by church followers elsewhere, he said.
"They're completely supported by people in Shortcreek," he said. That community on the Utah/Arizona border is hailing Jeffs as a martyr for his religious beliefs, complete with a 38-foot-tall statue of the prophet that it had shipped from Texas to Shortcreek recently.
In it, Jeffs holds a Bible with one hand and a little girl by the other.