Surprise by polygamists feared

Anniversary is likely time

Arizona Republic/March 6, 2005
By Joseph A. Reaves

One month from today, April 6, will be a joyous milestone for Mormons in the Valley and across the world.

That date will mark the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

On April 6, 1830, the Prophet Joseph Smith proclaimed a revelation from God empowered him to restore the true covenants and gospel of Jesus Christ through a new church.

But as Mormons prepare to celebrate a sacred moment, authorities in three states are worried that a new prophet - this one a religious renegade denounced by the church and hiding from the law - could try to hijack the anniversary.

"It is clearly a seminal date and, frankly, yes we are worried about what might happen," says Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. Goddard, his counterpart in Utah, Mark Shurtleff, and law enforcement authorities in Texas are piecing together what evidence they can about Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of a reclusive sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The attorneys general were in St. George Thursday for a town hall meeting to discuss developments with the FLDS.

Jeffs commands unquestioned devotion from an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 followers, who form the nation's largest polygamous community in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., tucked beneath breathtaking cliffs of red limestone 75 miles northwest of the Grand Canyon.

But Jeffs, who never had any ties to the mainstream Mormon Church, hasn't been seen in his remote enclave for months. He disappeared months before he was named in a series of lawsuits accusing him of sexually abusing his underage nephew, covering up decades of molestations by fellow church leaders and ruining the lives of young men and boys he saw as threats to marry women the prophet wanted to promise as plural wives to his friends.

Authorities believe Jeffs is living on a secluded 1,691-acre ranch in west Texas, where he has built a massive compound that includes an industrial-size livestock shelter, a wastewater treatment plant, a rock-crushing facility and three dormitories, each 28,000 square feet, or about the size of 10 normal single-family homes.

The compound is guarded night and day by surveillance cameras and Jeffs' followers. It can't be seen from the nearest public road and is accessible only by a gated dirt track that cuts through a neighbor's property.

But authorities and curious pilots from the nearby town of Eldorado, Texas, fly over the site and photograph it regularly.

Those photographs, a series of interviews with polygamist supporters and rumors racing through communities in Texas, Utah and Arizona have authorities concerned that Jeffs has something dramatic planned for April 6.

Goddard said fears range from the possibility that Jeffs is formally establishing a new base for his church to doomsday scenarios that have the prophet preparing his faithful for the end of the world on April 6.

"We have information coming out of another polygamist group, one that is close to Jeffs, indicating that this will be more than a simple anniversary," Goddard told The Arizona Republic last week.

"We're told it will be extraordinary, a big deal. I think we have reason to at least be concerned about it."

Shurtleff confirmed he, too, was deeply concerned about April 6, but refused to elaborate.

At least three times in recent years, Jeffs has predicted the end of the world and gathered his followers to be lifted into heaven with him. Each time, when the apocalypse failed to materialize, Jeffs told the faithful it was because they were unworthy.

"For a long time we have worried that Jeffs was capable of doing something self-destructive," Goddard said. "I want to emphasize that we have no evidence of that - there is no overt sign, there is no overt threat - but it is fear we have to consider."

Authorities for years have feared the possibility Jeffs would make his doomsday predications come true by ordering his faithful to commit mass-suicide much like cult leader James Warren Jones did in Guyana in November 1978. More than 900 members of the People's Temple Christian Church died when they obeyed Jones' command to drink Kool-Aid laced with cyanide and tranquilizers.

Goddard said he and his investigators recently talked to a young man who is a loyal follower of Jeffs, who said, unequivocally, he would follow the prophet's orders even if it meant his own death.

But photographs of the compound in Texas provide compelling evidence that Jeffs plans to be around long past April 6 and that he doesn't intend to be alone.

Aerial shots show an ornate four-story temple with giant round towers on each corner and a blue tile roof nearing completion on a plot of ground that was covered in scrub brush just two months ago.

The temple is the first of its kind for the FLDS, which operated out of a sprawling single-story assembly hall in Colorado City.

Work on the temple has continued round the clock through one of the wettest winters in recent west Texas history.

"They are clearly planning to have it ready for April 6," says Goddard. "Perhaps that will be the day he formally announces his move to Texas."

Authorities and FLDS members themselves have speculated since November, when Jeffs bought the property in Texas, that he intended to abandon the block-square, walled compound where he lived with as many as 50 wives in Hildale.

The Texas property is formally known as the YFZ ranch, apparently named for a song Jeffs wrote called Yearn For Zion.

If Texas is to be the new Zion, only Jeffs' most-devoted followers are expected to be invited. Two hundred is the number widely speculated. That would leave several thousand FLDS faithful abandoned in Colorado City-Hildale with no real means to live since virtually all property and jobs in the communities are controlled by Jeffs through a religious trust.

"That's really been my biggest concern for a long time," says Goddard. "What happens to the people left behind? How does the state take care of them?"

Shurtleff and Goddard took steps to anticipate that crisis last month when they filed separate motions supporting a request by a private attorney in Salt Lake City to have the court assume control of the FLDS trust fund.

The trust, known as the United Effort Plan, and controlled by Jeffs, owns all but a few parcels of land in Colorado City and Hildale. FLDS members are assigned property on which they can build homes and live, but only with Jeffs' approval.

In the past year, since authorities in Utah and Arizona began cracking down on the sect, Jeffs has excommunicated dozens of his closest followers, throwing them out of their homes, banishing them from the community and giving their wives to other men.

Those moves, and Jeffs' continued absence from Hildale, have created an unsettling atmosphere in the long-cloistered community. Several dozen residents of Hildale and Colorado City, who normally never would venture out, showed up at a crowded town hall meeting called by Goddard and Shurtleff in St. George, Utah, on Thursday.

"I was told they were there trying to judge the trustworthiness of Shurtleff and me," Goddard said. "Let's hope we earned a little of their trust. We are going to need it in the months ahead."

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