Have polygamists found their Eldorado?

West Texas compound may be a haven from scrutiny, but neighbors worry

Houston Chronicle/March 6, 2005
By Thomas Korosec

ElDorado -- In little more than a year, Sylvia Griffin's neighbors have transformed their ranch into a small town, complete with a soaring temple and a 29,000-square-foot house for their self-proclaimed prophet and his dozens of wives.

But the newcomers, a fundamentalist polygamous sect, have yet to stop by the Griffin place to say hello.

"When my husband works the fence line between us, he waves at them," said Griffin, whose family is one of the more prominent in Schleicher County. "They don't wave back."

From her door, Griffin can look across the rocky brown hills dotted with cedar and prickly pear and see the temple, which has been under noisy construction since early January.

"It's unsettling having neighbors you can't be neighbors with," she said of the secretive group. "I wish they'd just go away."

The fact that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is transforming the 1,700-acre YFZ ranch - short for Yearn for Zion - into a sprawling headquarters is disturbing to others as well in this sleepy West Texas county of 3,000 residents.

"You get a sect like this, and everyone wants to compare it to Waco," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, referring to the deadly stand-off between federal officials and Branch Davidian leader David Koresh in 1993.

"What we've been able to learn in a year is that they have no history of violence. They've complied with everything they've been asked to do," Doran added.

'Celestial kingdom'

The 10,000-member sect has lived throughout its 70-year history in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hilldale, Utah, twin towns north of the Grand Canyon, and in a small outpost just across the Canadian border in Bountiful, British Columbia.

Scorned by the Mormon Church, which renounced polygamy in 1890 under pressure from the federal government, FLDS members consider themselves God's chosen people. They believe to reach the "celestial kingdom" one must have at least three wives, or be one of at least three wives.

Warren Jeffs, 47, a former high school principal who began taking over the sect in the late 1990s, became the undisputed leader after his father's death in 2002. He arranges his followers' marriages through revelation, sometimes ordering sisters or mothers and daughters to wed the same man, former members say. He also is known to banish men and reassign their wives and children to others in the group, according to news reports last year.

Their isolated desert community, which runs like any small town, with church members working as nurses, accountants and shopkeepers, has been left largely alone since 1953. That year, Arizona officials arrested 122 polygamists and declared 233 children wards of the state. Newspaper photos of crying infants being pulled from their mothers reportedly caused a public backlash. Nobody ended up going to jail.

In recent years, though, Jeffs and his group have come under increasing scrutiny from the media, anti-polygamy activists and law enforcement officials. They are facing two civil lawsuits by former members and ongoing criminal investigations by Utah and Arizona authorities, Utah officials said.

Former members accuse Jeffs and other church members of taking wives as young as 14.

Utah authorities are investigating accusations of welfare fraud and tax evasion, and lawsuits filed last year against the sect allege that children were abused.

Rodney Parker, a Salt Lake City lawyer who is the group's only spokesman, denies the allegations and said a 16-month criminal investigation has produced no indictments. "I think a lot of that is political," Parker said.

He said the group, which refuses to talk with the media, wants only to be left alone.

That's abundantly clear in Eldorado, where the YFZ ranch's gate is locked and a "Keep Out" sign is posted. From the county road, everything but the temple's upper reaches is hidden from view.

One Theory

Benjamin Bistline, who was a member of the sect until 1980 and has written a history of Colorado City, said he thinks Jeffs is trying to escape the escalating scrutiny.

And Randy Mankin, owner and editor of the weekly Eldorado Success, theorizes that spiritual ideas led the polygamists to Texas.

"They believe that at the end of time, the city of Zion will be built with gold in a precinct near the Gulf of Mexico," Mankin explained. "Now, if you're from Houston, Eldorado may not seem that close to the Gulf. But if you're from Utah, it might."

Jeffs and his father, the prophet known as Uncle Rulon, have predicted the coming of "the destructions," the apocalypse, at least four times in the past five years, Mankin said. The latest doomsday prediction was for Jan. 5.

"What I'm learning is that every time there is one of these apocalyptic visions, it coincides with a spike in the number of underage marriages," Mankin said. "These girls aren't interested in 50- or 60-year-old men, but all of a sudden (the) world is ending and you need to marry to be lifted up to heaven."

When the vision fails, several sources agreed, Jeffs tells his followers they were not faithful enough.

Sam Brower, a private investigator who is working for several lawyers who have sued the church, called Jeffs' followers in Utah "hard-working people, thoroughly devoted" whom he is driving relentlessly to build his Texas compound.

Millions in expansion

"Besides their 10 percent tithing, every family is being asked to donate an extra $1,000 a month and whatever else they can spare," he said.

About $3 million worth of building has been done so far at the Texas ranch, according to preliminary tax assessments. The group has put in a large meeting hall, a school, a dozen large wooden houses, a network of roads, a dairy, a garden, a concrete plant and a quarry from which massive limestone blocks for the temple are being dug up and cut to shape.

The sect's secretiveness and the fact that it "wasn't straightforward" with people when it first came to town have upset residents most, Schleicher County Judge Johnny Griffin said. Church officials originally said they were putting in a hunting retreat.

"If you're operating behind a locked gate, people think what you're doing is illegal or immoral or both," said Justice of the Peace Jimmy Doyle, who has flown over the polygamists' ranch at least 90 times.

"They keep out of sight," he said. In a photo taken from his plane, several women in frontier-style blue or pink gingham dresses and braided hair are seen dashing for the cover of a schoolhouse, a gaggle of children at their feet.

In town, polygamist sightings have been nearly as rare.

"I saw them once at the post office, close as you and I," said Patsy Kellogg, manager of the county welfare office. "There were three men in their 30s. They wore jeans and long-sleeved shirts, starched. The thing I remember is they smelled real nice."

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