As a polygamist group transforms ranchland outside the West Texas town of Eldorado into a cloistered compound, local residents continue to wonder about the whereabouts of the sect's leader.
Warren Jeffs, who is known as the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is facing a lawsuit that alleges he and his two brothers sexually abused one of his nephews during the 1980s.
The church's practice of excommunicating teen-age males from the sect as a way of eliminating competition for young brides is attracting more scrutiny in Utah, where the sect originated. As many as 400 males have been purged from the church since 1998, according to reports.
Rod Parker, the attorney for the church and Jeffs, denied the lawsuit allegations and told the Associated Press they are being stirred up by the sect's critics.
But the latest revelations continue to spur speculation that Jeffs has taken refuge at the sect's growing Texas compound about 45 miles south of San Angelo.
"It's really hard to say," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran. "We're monitoring the situation out in Utah, but that's about all we can do. It's pure speculation as to the location of Warren Jeffs. I think he has been out here at the ranch, but I have no reason to believe he's there right now."
The polygamist group has been based in the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., for decades.
Late last year, the sect purchased land outside Eldorado. The town's 2,000 residents were initially told it would be a hunting lodge, but they learned in March that it had been purchased by Jeffs' followers. In recent months, local pilots have watched in awe as the sect constructed multiple large buildings at the remote site.
Schleicher County officials believe Jeffs visited the ranch in July when one of his wives, Barbara Barlow, 39, died of breast cancer. Jeffs is believed to have between 20 and 70 wives, according to former church members.
Justice of the Peace Jimmy Doyle, who conducted the inquest, said church officials notified him several days before Barlow's death to make arrangements for him to issue a death certificate. Barlow was buried on the property, he said.
Former members of the church, including author Benjamin Bistline - who has just published a book on the sect, "Colorado City Polygamists" - say they believe that Jeffs may have fled to a church compound in Mexico to avoid being served a subpoena.
Yet none of these issues has slowed construction at the compound about four miles outside Eldorado.
"They've blocked off some city blocks with a 'dozer," Doyle said. "I think at some point they're going to fill that in with some more homes. From the air, it definitely looks like a grid, like you would see in a town."
"It's really hard to know how many folks are out there," Doran said. "The number they keep telling us is 200, but whether that's 200 folks or 200 families isn't clear. They're kind of evasive. They're still telling me it's a church retreat and that people out there will be coming and going."
The lawsuit, filed July 29 in Utah, accuses Jeffs and his brothers, Leslie and Blaine Jeffs, of continual abuse of children.
The pleadings state that a nephew was 4 or 5 years old when the brothers abused him over a two-year period in the 1980s at the Alta Academy near Salt Lake City. The alleged abuse took place in a basement bathroom, the lawsuit says, while Sunday church services were being held upstairs.
The victim, now 21, decided to come forward with the allegations after his brother committed suicide in 2002, the lawsuit states.
Fort Worth attorney John Jose, one of the lawyers representing the plaintiff, declined to comment.
Most boys in the sect receive only an eighth-grade education and are excommunicated as a way of eliminating competition for young brides, critics say.
Meanwhile, the church is also dealing with 29 violations issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regarding its water treatment facilities, its cement plant and its practice of dumping water from sewage tanks onto roads.
Church members are trying to comply with regulations and have met with Eldorado city officials, but there has been no resolution, Doran said.