W. Texas town fears polygamists

San Antonio Express-News/March 26, 2004
By John MacCormack

Eldorado -- For months, the construction project northeast of town escaped general public notice, as did the strangers who came and went in cars with out-of-state plates.

That ended Thursday when folks in this West Texas cotton and cattle town, population about 2,300, were stunned to learn their new neighbors may be members of a secretive polygamist sect.

State authorities in Arizona and Utah repeatedly have investigated its leaders on suspicion of child abuse, welfare fraud and incest. Prosecutors, however, say cases are difficult to make because few members are willing to cooperate.

According to anti-polygamy activist and former cult member Flora Jessop, who spoke Thursday in Eldorado, the compound being built on the old Cheek Ranch belongs to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The group, with about 10,000 followers, is led by Warren Jeffs, and has its base on the Utah-Colorado border, with another compound in Canada.

"My grandfather was one of the founding members. I am related to everyone in that community. I don't think they are coming. I think they are here," Jessop, 34, told more than 100 people gathered outside the Schleicher County courthouse.

Pressed for evidence, Jessop said that the YFZ Land Corp., which bought the 1,300-acre ranch, is a known business arm of the FLDS church.

YFZ, she said, is an acronym for "Yearning for Zion."

The person handling the construction project, identified by her and others here as David Allred, is a known sect member and is related to Jeffs by marriage, Jessop said.

"We've been applying a lot of pressure on them in Utah and Arizona. They are trying to get established where they are not known," she said of the group she left as a teenager.

She said she has 28 brothers and sisters, many born to several of her stepmothers. Group leaders force adolescent girls to marry and violate child labor and sexual abuse laws, she said.

"They are not a danger to your children. They are a danger to their own children," she said.

Also speaking was Buster Johnson, an official from Mohave County, Ariz., where the FLDS church has long been established. He said he has no doubt the church is constructing the compound north of Eldorado and agreed its members represent no threat to the public.

"These people are basically a closed society and they keep all their abuses inside the group. They won't be stealing cars or selling drugs to your kids," he told the crowd.

"But their women don't get past the fourth grade. They start birthing babies at 14 and continue until their insides fall out," he said.

The FLDS church was an offshoot of the Mormon faith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once sanctioned polygamy but condemned it shortly after the beginning of the 20th century.

A fly-over of the site north of Eldorado revealed three large three-story dormitory-like buildings in various stages of completion, as well as four double-wide trailers, apparently housing construction workers.

There is a large garden and a concrete batch plant.

FLDS church leader Jeffs never speaks to reporters and Rod Parker, a church lawyer, has declined to comment on reports that it is building a compound in West Texas, the Associated Press reported.

Addressing anxious residents outside his office, Sheriff David Doran said Thursday he can't prove the FLDS church is building the compound.

And until Texas laws are violated, he said, there's little he can do beyond keeping an eye on developments.

"We've got construction workers from Utah there, but they represented themselves as putting in a corporate hunting retreat," he said, adding that his office is "on top of this and we are researching it."

After the news conference, residents milled around, digesting the unwelcome news.

"I kind of agree with the sheriff. If they are not breaking the law, leave them alone although personally, I wish they had picked somewhere else," said James Taylor, 38.

"It's the things that people don't know about. Things like polygamy and child rape don't happen around here and we're not going to stand for it," he said.

Others were less understanding.

"I'm just gonna keep my gun loaded," said Mike Calcote, 52. "We take care of ourselves out here. We always have and we always will."

Dora Bosmans, 75, an Eldorado City Council woman who carried a sign proclaiming, "The Devil is Here," said: "You remember (Branch Davidian) David Koresh? We're afraid that might happen here, too. We're afraid for our children."

Despite the public discontent, there's little room for official action, County Judge Johnny Griffin said.

"The community ... (wants) someone to do something, but what can you do? They've broken no laws.

"It's kind of ironic," Griffin said. "We're right here in the heart of the Bible Belt and the same people who are bent out of shape because you can't pray at football games or in school want to get rid of this religious group that has different beliefs."

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