The Polygamists Are Coming!

Nervous West Texas townsfolk brace for the arrival of a sect of Mormon fundamentalists and their many wives

Dallas Observer/May 20, 2004
By John MacCormack

It was a high-noon scene straight from a vintage Hollywood Western, complete with a small town in panic, menace on the horizon and a mysterious stranger sounding the alarm. Under a bright March sky, more than 150 West Texas ranchers and townsfolk gathered at midday outside the old limestone courthouse in Eldorado, voices low, eyes flitting to the north where danger lurked. One woman carried a large sign that read "The Devil is Here." Others spoke of fears for their daughters, while men talked of armed resistance. The local sheriff, wearing a white hat and Colt .45 automatic, talked about keeping cool heads and not jumping to dire conclusions.

"Our stance is innocent until proven guilty," Sheriff David Doran said.

Then the newcomer in town, a thin woman in jeans and a blue-denim blouse, introduced the good citizens of Schleicher County to their new neighbors, a secretive sect of polygamists from the Rocky Mountain West.

"I don't think they are coming. I think they are here," declared Flora Jessop, 34, an anti-polygamy activist who fled the sect as a teenager. "My grandfather was one of the founding members. I was born and raised in the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. I have 28 brothers and sisters still inside the group."

The portrait that Jessop painted as the people pressed in close to listen was bizarre, frightening and reassuring all at the same time.

"They are not a threat to your children; they are a threat to their own children," she said of the polygamists, mentioning in passing child abuse, forced marriage of teenage girls, child labor, welfare fraud, tax fraud and other horrors. "They have a commune in Canada. They use it to mix up the blood. Birth defects are starting to become noticeable. If a young girl starts to get rebellious, wants to get out, they'll send her to a foreign country."

Another visitor from Arizona added a few more words, leaving a final unsettling image. "They won't be stealing your cars or selling drugs to your kids," said Buster Johnson, an official from Mohave County, Arizona. "But their women don't get educated past the fourth grade. They start having babies at 14 and continue until their insides drop out."

Afterward, the stunned locals milled around in the courthouse parking lot, trying to make sense of it all. One thing was certain: With the arrival of a sect of fundamentalist Mormons, life in Eldorado, an isolated agricultural settlement three hours west of San Antonio, was going to be different.

"It just scares the heck out of us locals. You see visions of Waco, but not knowing is the scariest part," said Joe Christian, 60, who owns a ranch not far from the 1,600-acre site acquired by the fundamentalists this spring. "I feel so strongly about this. I hope they are like cockroaches, that when you put the light on them, they run."

For one man, frontier justice would serve as a reliable last resort if things got out of hand. "I'm just gonna keep my gun loaded. We take care of ourselves here. Always have, always will," Mike Calcote said.

More than a century after the Mormon Church finally broke with the practice of plural marriage, an estimated 30,000 polygamists hold out in isolated pockets around the West, clinging to a revelation received by the original prophet Joseph Smith. The largest group and one of the most secretive is the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, which owns and occupies the adjacent towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, just south of Zion National Park. But for the hugeness of the houses and the quaint hairstyles and ankle-length dresses of the women and girls, this isolated stop among the scenic vermillion cliffs might not warrant a second glance.

"It's small-town America. There's very low crime. Children are fairly free to walk the streets. We have zero unemployment," said Colorado City Clerk Kevin Barlow in a recent interview in his office. "Most of the people here hold to fundamentalist beliefs, old-fashioned if you will. You might even call it Colonial America. Love and help your neighbor. Things you wouldn't find everywhere."

But even with all the blond kids bouncing merrily on backyard trampolines or riding on donkey carts in the streets, this is one version of small-town America that Norman Rockwell never put to canvas. Some 8,000 to 10,000 polygamists live here, led by an intense and reclusive self-described prophet who rules with Old Testament severity from behind the 8-foot-high walls of his family compound.

A church trust owns most of the city land, and the church also controls the municipal governments, police department and public school district. Outsiders are often shadowed when they cruise city streets.

The "prophet," Warren Jeffs, formerly the principal of a private academy near Salt Lake City, became the sect's absolute leader two years ago after his father's death. One of his main duties is to arrange marriages according to divine revelation. Like the prophets before him, Jeffs regularly assigns teenage girls to marriage, often to much older men.

He is reported to have numerous "spiritual wives" of his own, some of whom were as young as 17 when they conceived his children. While the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints now excommunicates polygamists, for the fundamentalists, plural marriages hold the keys to heaven.

"No man can become a god unless he has more wives than one. For a woman to become goddess, she must be married to a man who has more than one wife" is Jeffs' teaching.

But what the prophet giveth, he can taketh away. In recent months, Jeffs has excommunicated dozens of adult male followers--including some powerful community leaders--who fell short of perfection. In some cases, he has quickly reassigned their houses, wives and children to new men, feeding a bitter public rift. Rumors are also flying that the prophet is about to cut and run either to Mexico or Texas.

"He's on a rampage. He gets jealous and paranoid if he feels someone will be a threat to him," says Ross Chatwin, 35, one of those recently booted from the church. "There are about 100 people here who are not happy with him, so we're putting up a resistance. He's trying to control this place, but he's going to lose it."

Jeffs is also feeling the heat from outsiders, as now, for the first time in many decades, the fundamentalists are being scrutinized by anti-polygamy activists, journalists and criminal investigators. A series of investigative stories by Phoenix New Times, the Dallas Observer's sister paper, has forced public officials to confront allegations of financial misconduct, forced marriages of teenage girls and sexual abuse.

"The level of pressure being put on this community is unprecedented. The government is acting like an occupying army," complained church lawyer Rodney Parker, who also serves as Jeffs' spokesman. "They are being treated like black people were in the 1880s. I can't blame them for seeking a place of refuge, and that's what I think is happening in Texas. They crave an isolated place where they can just live their lives in peace."

For the Mormon fundamentalists of Colorado City and Hildale, the long road leading to Eldorado began more than a century and a half ago and many miles to the north in Nauvoo, Illinois. It was there, in 1843, that Smith, the original prophet of the Latter Day Saints, recorded the sacred principle of "plural marriage."

"It very nearly shattered the church, brought about Joseph's death at the hands of a lynch mob and has been reverberating through American society ever since," wrote Jon Krakauer in Under the Banner of Heaven, a recent book about fundamentalist Mormons. Plural marriage also went over like a case of the clap with Smith's wife, Emma, who threatened to take additional husbands if her husband persisted.

According to Krakauer, Smith had taken multiple partners for years before introducing the concept to his followers. Shortly after, he was shot to death by an anti-Mormon mob, throwing his church into chaos. In the battle of succession, the anti-polygamist faction lost out. Smith was replaced by Brigham Young, who soon led the Mormons west to the Utah Territory, taking polygamy with them.

In 1851, when he became governor of the new territory, Young boasted publicly of his numerous wives.

"I have many, and I am not ashamed to have it known," he told the territorial legislature. He also told the Saints that observing "the principle" was the path to heaven. "If any of you will deny the plurality of wives, and continue to do so, I promise that you will be damned," Young said, according to Krakauer's book.

But the rest of America took a dim view of polygamy, a felony everywhere but in Utah. The Mormons resisted decades of aggressive federal efforts to outlaw the practice, holding out until 1890. That year, Wilford Woodruff, the fourth Mormon prophet, under threat of confiscation of church holdings, finally folded. In what has since been known as "The Manifesto," Woodruff announced that it was the Lord's will to cease to defy man's laws against polygamy.

And although the church eventually began excommunicating polygamists, many split off to continue the practice, and sects sprouted in back corners around Utah.

"That is the story of the birth of the Mormon fundamentalists," says Sarah Gordon, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School who is an expert on polygamy and fundamentalist groups. "After 40 years of conflict that ranged from President Buchanan sending troops to Utah before the Civil War, to some 2,500 criminal prosecutions of people involved in plural marriages, the leader of the church said he would no longer counsel followers to disobey the law of the land. Polygamy went from being the most sanctified form of marriage to being a troublesome holdover from the past."

Among the many polygamist refuges was Short Creek, Arizona, founded in 1911 on the site of what is now Colorado City. In the 1930s, a die-hard polygamist named John Barlow brought his followers there. Hundreds of miles from Salt Lake City and cut off by the Grand Canyon from the rest of Arizona, the Short Creek polygamists were well-insulated from prying eyes.

That ended suddenly in 1953 when Arizona Governor Howard Pyle sent in more than 150 troopers and police in a pre-dawn raid. More than 120 men and women were arrested, and some 260 of their children were placed in foster care.

In language echoed by anti-polygamists today, Pyle condemned the practice. "Here is a community unalterably dedicated to the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into the bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages for the sole purpose of producing more children to be reared to become more chattels of this totally lawless enterprise," he said.

But the raid, which received heavy newspaper coverage, proved a public relations fiasco. Images of families being torn asunder sparked broad public sympathy.

"The raid was widely perceived as religious persecution by overly zealous government agencies, and it sparked a great outcry in support of the polygamists," wrote Krakauer. Within three years, Pyle had been voted out of office, and all the polygamists who had been arrested, as well as their children, were back together in Short Creek.

Now, after a half-century of relative peace, the polygamists are again under the legal gun, awaiting only the prophet's impulse to remove to West Texas. Already, they have constructed three large dormitory-like structures on the property purchased this spring by the YFZ Land Corp., whose name is thought to signify "Yearning for Zion." Two more buildings are planned, and an orchard and large garden are already in the works.

Their chosen sanctuary, Eldorado (rhymes with Play-Doh) is a more conventional slice of small-town America. The city of 2,000 residents and eight churches is the only incorporated municipality in Schleicher County. Sheep, goats and cattle, wheat and alfalfa, and a little oil and gas support the local economy, and about a half-dozen mainstream denominations worship here.

"It's a pretty standard West Texas town. We've got Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, you name it. There are no Mormons that I know of," said Mayor John Nikolauk.

Eldorado became aware of the newcomers this spring after local pilots noticed the construction of the large structures on the recently sold game ranch just north of town. When a local reporter did some checking and came up with the fundamentalist Mormon polygamists, shock and confusion followed.

"That first week, it was like a UFO had fallen out of the sky," says Randy Mankin of the Eldorado Success, which broke the story. Since then, he says, things have calmed down. "It's gone from anxiety and fear to anxiety and joking. I heard a fellow today say he's already qualified because he's been married three times."

The subject has been talked to death in the morning coffee klatches.

"I think that for someone to have more than one wife would be cruel and unusual punishment," cracked Gene Jones, 65, a retired oilfield worker who meets daily with the other old-timers at a local convenience store.

But some in Eldorado have not lowered their guard.

Councilwoman Dora Bosmans, 75, who carried the sign announcing the satanic arrival, remains on high alert. "We feel it's like a Trojan horse thing. They are going to be here, and we are going to accept them, and then all of a sudden they'll march down to the courthouse, register to vote and take over the town," Bosmans says. "They have a right to believe whatever they want to, but when it's polygamy and child abuse and child brides, that's wrong, and that's where the devil comes in. That's evil, and the devil is evilness."

After initially claiming that the project was a corporate hunting retreat, the fundamentalists have come clean with Sheriff Doran, admitting it will be used as a "religious retreat." In one visit to the site, the sheriff spoke with church elder Ernie Jessop. "He said, 'We're trying to get away from all the publicity and hype in Arizona and Utah,'" Doran recalls. "He said, 'We are hardworking, honest people. We are a closed society. We don't want to expose our children to outside corruption. We want to raise our children by our own beliefs.'"

More recently, Doran met with four church leaders at their request.

"We had a two-hour meeting in my office. I asked a lot of questions," he says. The fundamentalists told him the retreat will accommodate no more than 200 people, among them the closest followers of the prophet.

"I asked them if Warren Jeffs is coming. They did not say either way. They indicated that Warren Jeffs does whatever he chooses," the sheriff says.

In addition to reviewing Texas laws on homeschooling, welfare and environmental issues such as water and septic system requirements, the sheriff broached the touchy subject of polygamy and underage brides. The sheriff says he advised polygamists that in Texas it is a felony for an adult male to have sexual relations outside of state-recognized marriage with a girl 16 years or younger.

"They said it won't be their practice, although it might have happened in the past," he says.

Doran and a deputy will be driving out to Colorado City in the near future to get a firsthand look at the fundamentalists' enclave.

Neither Jeffs nor church members speak to reporters, but church attorney Parker says the Texans have nothing to fear. "If they give the fundamentalists a chance and get to know them, they'll find out they are peaceful and honest people who are not very different from people in that country. These are rural Western people. They'll find they have a lot in common," Parker says.

And, Parker says, even though he does not know what the church plans to do with the Eldorado retreat, fears of a large-scale invasion are misplaced. "They are certainly not planning a wholesale move to Texas. That's just not feasible or realistic or consistent with the work I've been doing there for many years, trying to protect the property in Utah," he says.

In Colorado City and Hildale, however, where some regard Jeffs as a megalomaniacal dictator, the fears expressed in Eldorado do not seem so far-fetched.

"If I lived in Eldorado, I would be very concerned, but I don't know what they can do to stop them," says Ben Bistline, a former church member who recently wrote a critical history of Colorado City. "I understand it's a very small town. Jeffs could move 3,000 there overnight and within six months he'll have political control of that county. That's a real danger. That's what they've done here."

Bistline, who grew up in the church and left years ago, has a very dark view: "It's all about money, sex and power. I think Jeffs is trying to make himself scarce in Colorado City. The Utah attorney general wants to talk to him, and I think there is some federal interest. He's awfully nervous."

As a sign of the crisis gripping the church, other former members are publicly denouncing Jeffs and are fighting his efforts to break up their marriages and force them from their homes. Because a church trust owns almost all the land in Colorado City, those who build homes on church property face loss of their entire investment if they fall out of favor and are evicted.

Chatwin, who was born into the faith, was excommunicated last year. In a stunning break with custom, his sole wife risked eternal damnation by refusing to be assigned by Jeffs to another man.

"The choice was hers. My wife could have done that, but I was very blessed because she didn't. She said, 'I don't know if my husband has done anything wrong. I won't leave him,'" said Chatwin, who is also resisting in court the church's attempt to evict him.

Chatwin denounces Jeffs as a modern-day Hitler.

"The similarities are very close. Warren Jeffs wants absolute control, even of your sex life. In my opinion, absolute power absolutely corrupts, and that's exactly what has happened," he says.

Chatwin also says that the prophet is behaving like a man about to bolt. "I heard that he said the Lord is through with Colorado City and Hildale. It really looks like he's preparing for a mass exodus," he says. "He's going to take his 500 elite and their families and move to either Mexico or Texas. A year from now, Warren will be in total hiding. He's very, very paranoid."

Chatwin says although Jeffs is not a threat to outsiders, he represents a real danger to his more devout followers.

"It could turn into a really ugly situation here very soon. If we wait too long, we could have a Jim Jones situation on our hands," Chatwin says. "He could tell all of his followers, 'This is what the Lord wants you to do. Drink the punch.' And half the people in this town would drink it and commit suicide. And he could do it if he gets backed into a corner."

Another of the recently excommunicated is Richard Holm, a wealthy Hildale businessman who says he contributed more than a million dollars to the church in the past five years. "He's on a purge campaign to end up with a pure people, and that doesn't allow anyone he deems as sinful," Holm says of Jeffs.

Holm was a longtime faithful church member until last year when he abruptly lost favor with Jeffs over unspecified sins in his past. "I had respect for him, but I didn't kiss his ass," Holm says. "He never gave me a reason. He said if my wives stayed with me, they'd go down with the wicked."

After being exiled from the church, Holm in late December saw his two wives and seven children reassigned to a younger brother who remains within the sect. Another man was given his house.

Holm now denounces Jeffs as a false prophet and an evil man.

"When he takes the most sacred people to me and puts them into absolute adultery, that brings out the reality of his deviousness and cunning," Holm says bitterly over a bowl of soup in a restaurant in St. George, Utah.

Holm has also heard the rumors that Jeffs and others will soon go to Texas. "He said this community has a curse, that he's going to Zion and that Zion is Texas," says Holm of the recent scuttlebutt.

Holm doubts Jeffs and his followers are a threat to anyone there. There's no danger of violence, he says, as long as law enforcement officials do not resort to any strong-arm tactics, as they did with the Branch Davidians outside Waco a decade ago. That armed standoff took the lives of more than 75 people, including Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"I've studied the David Koresh thing, and there are some striking parallels. David Koresh also purported to be a holy man, no different than Warren Jeffs. He's got the same delusional state of mind," Holm says. "He personally would be no threat, but he's got a group of armed bodyguards who will do their best to protect him, to see that he's not hurt or arrested." Lately, Jeffs has been dodging law enforcement officials from Utah who have a particular interest in allegations of forced marriages of teenage girls to men far their senior. The church lawyer says that all marriages are strictly voluntary.

"There is so much misinformation on the bride issues, it's hard to know where to start," Parker says. "I'm not aware of a single proven example of a forced marriage. Young girls are not required to be married if they don't want to be."

He also denounces those who draw comparisons to Koresh.

"Any analogies are completely off base and designed to scare people by appealing to local fears and prejudices. The church is a peaceful and pacific people," he says.

Parker says that the fundamentalists' plural marriage lifestyle is constitutionally protected from government interference, particularly in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down a Texas law that had criminalized consensual gay sex. "That case says the government can't tell homosexuals how to conduct their intimate lives. We're talking about the same thing here. I believe a plural family relationship is also protected from being made a crime," he says. "These people have a right to structure their family lives and intimate relations without interference from the government."

But that argument has not derailed efforts to police the polygamists.

Last year, Rodney Holm, a Colorado City policeman, was found guilty of bigamy and unlawful sexual relations with a 16-year-old girl he had taken for his third wife. He was given a year in jail and lost his police certification. In Arizona, legislators are considering a bill, modeled after a Utah law and aimed at polygamist communities, that would make it a felony for a married adult to marry a minor. And in Utah, where polygamy and sexual relations with underage girls are already illegal, an investigator for the attorney general's office is charged specifically with policing closed communities. Investigator Ron Barton regularly checks reports of illicit relationships between young girls and older men, but he says they are dauntingly difficult to prove.

"Basically, in plain English, if a girl under 18 has sexual intercourse with a man who is more than 10 years older than her, and she is not married to him, then that is a felony," he says, though birth records with a county health department indicate that Jeffs has fathered children by underage girls. "There are birth certificates that list Warren Jeffs as the father. These are children who were conceived by girls that he is not married to, who were under the age of 18," Barton says.

Yet despite Barton's regular visits to Hildale, Jeffs remains a phantom. "I have never spoken to him or seen him in person," Barton says. "The community is so closed, and he is so well-protected, we've tried to serve subpoenas on him and his family members, and we have not been able to do it. We don't know where he is, even now."

The alleged female victims, who are raised in a closed, religious society, are extremely reluctant to cooperate with outsiders, he says.

"The young girls are married to these men, and if they were to violate the trust or relationship, they will be totally ostracized by their family. These girls have been taught since childhood that this is how their lives will end," Barton says. "They will be assigned someone to marry. Life on earth might be hell, but they will be blessed in the hereafter. A person who leaves the faith is treated as if he is dead by remaining church members, including the family."

Among the apostates or "living dead" in Hildale is Pam Black, 52, who left the faith five years ago and now lives with her elderly parents and some of her younger children on a small plot of land just outside the city limits. Black had 14 children in 22 years of an arranged marriage and says some church women have borne far more, but she could never accept the absolute obedience and subordination demanded of women.

"You obey your husband and do exactly what he wants, and he'll take you to heaven. A woman has absolutely zero freedom. It's like the Taliban," she says. "It was like soul murder. I didn't care if I lived or died, but I was going to be free."

Black is now working with outside groups trying to help young girls and women trapped in abusive polygamous marriages.

"I'm not anti-polygamy. The only thing I'm against is the abuse of young kids and the indoctrination," she says, while sitting in the shade of a piñon pine near the rocky headwaters of Short Creek.

Black recalled her own marriage, arranged by an earlier prophet, to a 26-year-old man she barely knew. "Leroy Johnson said, 'We have a husband for you. Is that all right with you?'" she says.

Black agreed to the match because she had been taught that "if we chose different than what the prophet wanted, we would go to hell."

"I was barely 17. I might as well have been 12. I was raped on my wedding night. I didn't even know about sex," she says. Years later, she says, her husband, now dead, apologized.

"He said, 'I only did it to show you that I owned you,'" she says.

And although most of her children left the church with her, one 34-year-old daughter, who is Kevin Barlow's second wife, has remained in Colorado City among the faithful.

"It's so sad. People here loved me, and I loved them," she says. "I can't see my own grandchildren. My daughter has nine kids and is pregnant with twins. She's doing what I taught her to do. Have babies."

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