Mancos -- The mystery begins 10 miles north of town, up a twisted dirt road, past the turn for Joe Moore Reservoir and the San Juan Bible Camp.
Shielded by a barbed-wire fence, screened by trees, the nation's largest polygamist sect is stepping up its construction in Colorado this summer.
A cacophony of hammers and power saws rings from the site as workers erect log-style lodges for a woodland retreat started two years ago for a man said to have 75 wives and 100 children.
Not that all of them would be here at the same time, presumably.
But even that is uncertain.
Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, is facing felony child sex abuse charges in Arizona for his role in arranging a marriage between a teenage girl and a 28-year-old married man.
He has not been seen publicly in the United States since January.
His outriders in Colorado, including a skinny guy named Ben who patrols the fenceline here on an ATV, do not speak his name. Not to strangers.
Jeffs, 49, is being sought nationally after being charged with unlawful flight in U.S. District Court in Flagstaff, Ariz. But because of the absolute power he wields over his followers, authorities have been cautious about forcing a confrontation.
"He's a classic destructive cult leader," said Hal Mansfield, founder and director of the Religious Movement Resource Center in Fort Collins, who has watched the polygamist sect and its leaders for years.
"I'm worried it could parallel Waco (where David Koresh and 80 of his Branch Davidian followers perished in a 1993 standoff with federal authorities) if he gets cornered."
Instead, law officials in Arizona and Utah have tightened the vise with the criminal indictment against Jeffs and, more recently, against eight of his followers. They've also removed him from control of the sect's multimillion dollar trust in a civil action.
"We are very interested in making it clear that no one, including Warren Jeffs, is exempt from the law," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, adding that more criminal indictments against Jeffs are in the works. On Wednesday, Goddard announced a $10,000 reward for information leading to his arrest.
But the sect controls a far-flung archipelago of properties from Canada to Mexico, including sites in as many as seven Western states, and finding Jeffs has not proven easy.
"Warren Jeffs and his organization are as well organized as any organized crime syndicate and perhaps even more elusive," said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Surveillance of the Colorado compound has spotted only Jeffs associates and women who, according to one authority on the sect, may include some of Jeffs' wives.
So far, at least, no Colorado or Montezuma County lawman has actually driven into the compound, which is surrounded by the San Juan National Forest, and knocked on the front door.
The assets in the sect's trust include most of the property, businesses and homes in the small border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where as many as 5,000 sect members live. Up to 1,000 other followers of Jeffs are believed to live elsewhere.
In successfully removing Jeffs and five other sect trustees from control of the so-called United Effort Plan, Utah officials told the court they were concerned that trust-held properties would be sold out from under sect members in that state to finance new compounds in Colorado and west Texas, where a massive white temple is the centerpiece of construction.
All of this is being met by "live and let live" comments from some neighbors of the sect's Colorado toehold, while others are more wary.
"I've been thinking about this a lot, and it will end up in my lap," said Montezuma County District Attorney Jim Wilson. "Right now, they haven't done anything wrong that we can prove.
"If you are investigating a murder, it hits you in the face. With a bigamist, you can't tell. If they're here and low key, we wouldn't know."
So far, the only difficulty Montezuma County has had with the secretive newcomers is that their check for property taxes bounced in May. The group covered that lapse with a certified check on June 27.
Despite its similar name, the sect is not part of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, which banned polygamy in 1890 when Utah became a state.
"We have nothing to do with these polygamist groups," said Mike Otterson, director of media relations for the Mormon Church. "They are living against the law.
"They are not a splinter group or a breakaway group. You wouldn't describe Protestants as breakaway Catholics."
Jeffs teaches that God's laws are revealed to him directly for dissemination to the true followers. He is all-powerful within the sect, according to investigators and former members.
Arizona investigator Gary Engels, who is based in Colorado City, calls Jeffs "a madman at the helm."
Warren Jeffs ascended to the top when his father and former sect leader Rulon Jeffs died in 2002.
Within a week of his father's death, Warren Jeffs claimed some of his father's wives, citing divine revelation, according to Benjamin Bistline, who grew up in a polygamous family and has written several books on the sect. Bistline never practiced polygamy himself.
Upon gaining control, Jeffs barred his followers from watching television, using the Internet, reading newspapers, having contact with outsiders and other access to the world that would corrupt the faithful, said Bistline and investigators.
Fully flexing his authority, he excommunicated men he deemed unfaithful, seized their homes, wives and children, and gave them to his trusted followers, said Utah and Arizona prosecutors.
Richard Holm, 52, felt Jeffs' wrath. Apparently on orders from Jeffs, Holm's two wives left him, taking seven children with them. Both then married Holm's younger brother, Edson.
Holm, whose father had 11 wives and 60 children, said he believed in the spiritual basis of polygamy as a means to heaven. But he told the Rocky Mountain News that he no longer believes in the tenets of the polygamist sect.
"With (Warren) Jeffs' regime," Holm said, "it went to a cult."
Said Bistline of Jeffs, "I've listened to his sermons and teachings. He's self-righteous and awfully arrogant. He drones on and on in a hypnotic voice that lulls them."
Warren Jeffs started working with his dad as an accountant and also worked at the Alta Academy, a private, unaccredited school on Rulon Jeffs' ranch near Salt Lake City, said Bistline.
The school motto was: "Perfect obedience produces perfect faith."
In 1998, Rulon Jeffs sold the ranch, closed the school and moved his large family to Hildale in order to avoid media attention during the run-up to the 2002 Winter Olympics, according to news reports.
In Hildale, Warren Jeffs became his ailing father's only spokesman, said Bistline.
Since Rulon Jeffs' death, his son's ambitions have become apparent outside the Hildale-Colorado City enclave. Through his son-in-law and business agent, David Allred, Jeffs moved to expand the sect into Texas and Colorado.
When Allred bought the group's first Colorado parcel in July 2003 for $669,000, he didn't mention the sect, saying only that the property would be used as a hunting retreat. He used a post office box in Washington County, Utah, as his address.
The land, with a large open hay barn and a small house, had a market value of about $400,000, said Montezuma County's deputy assessor Scott Davis, meaning that the sect handsomely overpaid.
In the fall of 2003, construction crews hauled in trailer truckloads of supplies. Working day and night, they turned the barn into a dormitory-size home and built two large log homes.
Allred hired a Cortez-area concrete firm then owned by County Commissioner Larry Rule to lay the foundations for the construction.
"I never went up there, but my crew said they were nice people," said Rule, who didn't learn about Allred, Jeffs and the sect until 2004. "They are working fools. They worked through the night. The guys said there were about 10 or 12 men. They didn't see any women or small children."
Rule's wife, Pat Rule, said she talked with Allred on the phone and handled the payment check.
"He never argued about anything," she said. "He didn't talk about anything but the job."
When deputy county assessor Davis needed information last fall for the tax rolls, Allred met him at the gate.
"He wouldn't let me inside the buildings," said Davis, a former bail bondsman. "He was acting so strange I thought he had a meth lab in there."
That prompted Davis' wife, Mary Davis, to look for Allred in telephone books. He wasn't there.
She tried an Internet search and found information about Allred, the polygamists' home community on the Arizona-Utah border and the new colony in Eldorado, Texas.
"Allred told us it was going to be a hunting retreat, just like he told the people in Eldorado," said Scott Davis, who reported the sect's presence to other county officials.
Davis flew over the two parcels the group now owns late last fall with Jon Krakauer, author of the 2003 best-seller on Jeffs' polygamist group, Under the Banner of Heaven.
He spotted the new homes, multibedroom barn conversion, a satellite dish, and the solar panels and generators that supply power.
Davis estimated the improvements at $1 million.
This April, Allred sent the county a check for $6,517.57 for property taxes, according to Montezuma County records. In May, the check was returned to the county treasurer's office for insufficient funds. Allred made good with a certified check last month.
When Allred bought the group's second parcel, with a home, two cabins, a large metal shed and several ponds, in September 2004, he didn't use his own name or Utah address, property records show.
On Sept. 10, owner Laurie D. Campbell turned the land over to Jolujo Management Trust, which had a mailing address in Medford, N.Y.
The property was sold a month later to Sherwood Management Group Inc., of Mesquite, Nev., where investigators said Jeffs is believed to have followers.
John Suthers, Colorado's attorney general, has talked with Mark Shurtleff, Utah's attorney general, about the sect and its leader.
"We are trying to figure out in Colorado what the overall objective of this group is," Suthers said. "It's not clear what the goal is, if they are trying to establish beachheads in several places and move between them. Intelligence is being gathered."
"Our biggest concern is the safety of the underage people," he said. "The history of this group has not been good in terms of the protection for underage girls and boys."
Prosecutions against Jeffs' sect were rare in Utah and Arizona, where several polygamist groups have survived, until the 2002 conviction of Utah polygamist Tom Green for child rape.
Green wasn't a part of Jeffs' sect, but his case opened the door for a more vigorous examination of polygamy.
Green was sentenced to five years to life in prison for taking a 13-year-old girl as his fifth wife.
"Our investigator in the case in 2001 came back and said child brides were commonplace (in the polygamist groups)," said Shurtleff.
Shurtleff said he has a family tree full of polygamist pioneers and went to school with children from polygamist families, but he didn't know about the child sexual abuse.
"I asked the county attorneys why wasn't anybody doing anything about it," said Shurtleff. "They said, be our guest."
The county attorneys' reluctance to prosecute was due, in part, to the difficulty of getting a conviction in polygamist communities and the unwillingness of plural wives to testify against their husbands.
In the Green case, Linda Kunz Green, the child bride, said she was not a victim and didn't want Tom Green prosecuted.
"I wanted to be married to Green, and I chose him. And I still want to be his wife," she told reporters outside the courthouse.
After the Green conviction, Utah and Arizona stiffened penalties for men who take girls under 18 as their wives.
As the sect's prophet, Jeffs arranges and sometimes performs the marriages, officials said.
Utah and Arizona have focused their prosecutions on sexual child abuse, spousal abuse and fraud rather than polygamy, said the attorney generals from each state.
Recently, a Mohave County, Ariz., grand jury indicted eight of Jeffs' followers. Seven were charged for sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy, including still another Holm brother, Rodney, who was convicted two years ago of marrying a 16-year- old as his third wife. Another follower was indicted for sex assault.
The reclusive Jeffs is believed to have parceled out his wives and children to hideouts in several states, including Colorado, and to Canada and Mexico in response to the subpoenas, asset seizures and investigations, prosecutors said.
"This is a group that has thrived for 100 years using remote locations," said Arizona's Goddard.
He said Jeffs' sect has a long history of setting up communities near state lines and in Mexico and Canada to elude prosecution.
"At one point if you did something wrong in Colorado City, Ariz., you could go live in Hildale, Utah, and not be pursued," said Andrea Esquer, of Goddard's office.
The largest of Jeffs' recent round of new communities is in Eldorado, Texas, where his loyalists have built large homes, the sect's first temple and a thriving farm with a dairy, chicken coops, vegetable gardens and fruit trees.
Shurtleff said some of the people from the main Jeffs' community on the Utah and Arizona border have moved to Eldorado.
As for the Mancos-area retreat, "Maybe it's a 'We'll see what happens in Eldorado' place," said Shurtleff.
"Colorado should make sure they know what is going on," warned Goddard.
One of the first sect associates known to be at the Colorado retreat in 2003 was Fred Jessop, 94.
Known as "Uncle Fred," Jessop was a founder of Hildale, Utah, and a longtime trustee in the sect's financial organ, the United Effort Plan.
Jessop, also the sect's senior bishop, vanished from his home on the Utah-Arizona border soon after Jeffs took control. Jessop had 24 wives and 100 children.
"When we asked where he was, they told us he was off doing God's work," said Flora Jessop, his niece, stepdaughter and granddaughter, who fled the sect before Jessop's disappearance.
"How much work can a 94-year-old man do?" she asked. "Jeffs moved Uncle Fred to Mancos."
Fred Jessop died at Skyline Medical Center in Lone Tree on March 15, 2005. There was no autopsy because of his age, said Douglas County Coroner Wesley Riber.
Grocery store and hardware shop owners in Cortez, Mancos and nearby Dolores don't know if they've done business with Allred or other sect members.
"I'm sure they don't say who they are, so how would anyone know who they are," said Ruby Gonzales at the Dolores Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center.
There's no post office box in Mancos, Cortez or Dolores for Jeffs, Allred or others associated with the sect, said District Attorney Wilson.
Investigators and prosecutors in Colorado and the other states offer no predictions of what will happen next.
But alarms are sounding.
Mansfield, the Fort Collins expert on religious cults, believes Jeffs is unlikely to surrender and could turn violent if confronted by law enforcement.
"This guy talks about violence, the end of the world, all the time," said Mansfield, a retired Air Force officer with a master's degree in psychology. "I worry about the people he will drag down with him."
Montezuma County officials don't believe Jeffs has spent any time recently in Colorado.
But, said District Attorney Wilson, "I'm sure Jeffs isn't going to say 'Here I am.' "
Meanwhile, in Mancos, the gateway to Mesa Verde National Park and the closest town to the polygamist retreat, locals resent being connected to the sect.
"That place north of town isn't us," said Tom Vaughn, editor of the Mancos Times, which runs regular stories about Jeffs' sect. "We'd much rather be known for Mush Dog Days in February."