Polygamist settlement distresses residents

Texas town is leery of Mormon sect's arrival at compound built on former ranch.

The Baltimore Sun/June 27, 2004
By Jean Marbella

El Dorado, Texas -- The jokes already have started, but they draw more nervous laughter than actual merriment. Some men ask where they can apply to be a husband; others say no thanks, one wife is trouble enough.

Polygamy is funnier from afar and less so with proximity.

This west-central Texas town is about to become home to about 200 members of a renegade Mormon group that, in defiance of the law, practices polygamy, with the men taking multiple wives and raising dozens of children under a single roof.

"Everybody's shocked," Jimmy Doyle, the justice of the peace, said with little exaggeration.

They've talked of little else since private pilots began noticing some odd construction sprouting up on a former ranch just north of town. The ranch had been sold several months ago to a man from Utah who said he was going to turn it into a hunting retreat -- but instead of a lodge or cabins, five large dormitory-style buildings have been built.

Residents began poking around, and someone noticed that the buildings looked much like those shown on a TV report about a group called the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the nation's largest polygamist sect, with 10,000 members.

The group, which broke away from the mainstream Mormon church over the issue of polygamy, largely lives in the adjacent towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where, increasingly, it has attracted unwanted attention from law enforcement officials and the media investigating charges of underage marriages, child abuse and welfare fraud.

For months, all the residents had to go on was that the 1,400-acre ranch had been bought by someone named David S. Allred. They learned that he was a trusted lieutenant to the reclusive leader of the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, who imposes a highly restricted life on his followers: Women must wear old-fashioned dresses that cover them from neck to toe, children are home-schooled, and contact with the outside world is prohibited.

Most disturbingly, Jeffs arranges his followers' marriages, sometimes ordering sisters or mothers and daughters to wed the same man.

"You end up being your own grandma," sighed Flora Jessop, a Phoenix-based anti-polygamist activist.

Until recently, the FLDS has largely been left alone in its remote locale north of the Grand Canyon, where the church is said to have gotten around bigamy laws by having the men marry only their first wives and then cohabit with subsequent ones. The communities run essentially as theocracies, with church members serving in all the official positions, ensuring that the group is undisturbed.

The FLDS is drawn to remote areas as a way of keeping members from easily escaping, Jessop said, and one of the many ways Jeffs maintains absolute control.

"He keeps control of the men with the threat of losing their families, and he controls the women by the threat of losing their children," Jessop said.

The county sheriff, David Doran, has been trying to quell the anxieties among residents.

"It's not as big a monster as the initial hype. It's a religious community coming in," Doran said. "We won't treat them any differently than anyone else. If we get a complaint, we'll follow up on it."

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