Dispatch From Eldorado, Texas

Los Angeles Times/May 19, 2006
By Miguel Bustillo

Eldorado, Texas -- Jimmy Doyle, the local justice of the peace, circled his Piper Cherokee plane over the fast-sprouting mini-city where polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs, one of the FBI's 10 Most Wanted fugitives, may be hiding.

More than half a mile below, a monolithic white temple encased in thick limestone towered above the West Texas scrubland.

All around it, young men in pickups and construction cranes were busy building a self-sufficient compound, which authorities believe is intended as a sanctuary for the 1,000 most faithful followers of a sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which broke away from the Mormon Church.

"Some call this a religion," said Doyle, 69, as he stared out the cockpit with a look of disgust. "But it sure looks like a cult to me."

Doyle and other leaders in Eldorado (pronounced el-doh-RAY-do) have been keeping a wary eye on their secretive neighbors since church leaders told a real estate broker two years ago that they planned to build a hunting lodge.

The anxiety has heightened this month in this town (pop. 1,951) four miles from the polygamist village, after news that the FBI now considers the gangly Jeffs one of its most highly sought suspects. He is wanted on charges that include rape and child molestation.

Jeffs - who may have been present at the dedication of the mysterious white temple last year - has preached that Zion, the stronghold where his sect will experience salvation, lies in Texas, according to former members of the church. Jeffs has also compared himself to Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism who was killed by a mob in Illinois, and predicted a climactic confrontation with the outside world.

Narrating his bird's-eye tour of the compound that locals have called the Yearning for Zion Ranch, Doyle pointed to amenities in varying stages of construction. There were three-story dormitories, a commissary, a dairy farm, a chicken coop, orchards, row crops, a rock quarry, a cement plant, a water tank, greenhouses, grain silos - and, clearly, more to come.

The first floor of every building was constructed with solid concrete "thick enough to withstand a bullet," Doyle noted. Women in antiquated long skirts and bonnets are sometimes seen tending crops. Men inside a tall wooden guard tower stand sentry around the clock, informing outsiders that they are unwelcome.

Ten thousand members strong, the FLDS, which believes that men need a minimum of three wives to be granted complete salvation, openly practiced polygamy for decades with scant interference from police in Utah and Arizona. But the sect is facing serious law enforcement scrutiny in those states amid allegations that it has tolerated the sexual abuse of children for generations.

As a result, its leaders and their multitude of spouses are seeking a new beginning in rural Schleicher County, Texas, about 200 miles northwest of San Antonio.

Jeffs has prophesied a final showdown between the devoted and the outside world. Many in Eldorado worry that his supporters will do something rash when he is cornered.

The worst fears, fed by a barrage of media reports, are that Eldorado could become "the next Waco." Some foresee a bloodbath similar to the one that occurred 13 years ago near Waco when a federal siege on a Branch Davidian compound ended with the deaths of 76 church members, including charismatic leader David Koresh.

"They're up to something big in there, no doubt about that," said Wayne McGiness, the Eldorado postmaster, as he stood on County Road 300 and peered inside the compound through a pair of binoculars. "I just hope this Jeffs character doesn't try to go out a martyr."

Law enforcement officials downplay the concerns, saying there is no reason to suspect the men inside the compound are armed and dangerous. Thus far, Texas authorities have received no complaints of sexual abuse, of teenage boys banished by church elders to thin out the competition for young wives, or any of the other allegations that have followed the FLDS.

One of Jeffs' wives, Barbara Ann Barlow, died inside the compound in July 2004 at age 39. But Doyle, whose duties as justice of the peace include investigating deaths, determined she died of cancer as reported by her sister Annette, also married to Jeffs.

Under Texas' development policies, government officials have only minimal authority over construction on the compound. The sect's only run-in with the law involved $34,000 in fines imposed by state environmental regulators for failing to properly dispose of raw sewage.

"There is always the possibility for trouble when dealing with such a secretive group," said David Doran, the sheriff of Schleicher County, which includes Eldorado and the compound. "But we have been out there numerous times, and everything is on the level."

Much of the anxiety in Eldorado stems from reports that Jeffs was spotted inside the compound last year during a dedication ceremony for the temple, believed to be the most opulent structure ever constructed by the FLDS.

Doran, who was part of the group that made the reported sighting, during a surveillance flight, said he cannot be sure it was Jeffs. Others on board, including writer Jon Krakauer, author of "Under the Banner of Heaven," a highly critical look at the sect, believe the tall, thin man they saw was indeed Jeffs. As the plane flew overhead, church members quickly surrounded the man as if to shield him from view.

Randy Mankin, publisher of the Eldorado Success, a community newspaper that broke the story of the polygamists' arrival and has been aggressively covering the story since, also considered the Waco comparisons unfounded.

"There is no crush to get in there, for one, by law enforcement," Mankin said. "They are taking a wait-and-see approach."

Mankin's tiny reporting staff, which consists of his wife, his son, another journalist and himself, has published more than 100 hard-hitting stories on the FLDS. Despite publishing a plea to hear their side at the bottom of every FLDS story, the weekly's reporters have never been able to interview an active member of the sect.

"When those boys come in here, they don't say anything," said Kerry Joy, owner of the West Texas Feed & Mercantile store in the center of town. "I've tried to ask them what goes on in there, but they just smile and clam right up. And the women - we never see them. They keep 'em cooped up."

FLDS members did not respond to a written request for comment left outside the compound gates, and calls to a local phone number went unanswered.

Sheriff Doran, the Texas Rangers, the FBI and other authorities say they are closely monitoring activities at the compound for any signs of trouble. Earlier this week, Doran met with Merrill Jessop, a top church official who is overseeing the compound's construction, and notified him that they had better turn over Jeffs if he was hiding there. He would not say what kind of response he got.

Though bigamy is a crime in Texas, authorities have declined to prosecute FLDS members, arguing that because the women are typically wed to their husbands by a prophet's decree instead of a legal contract, the cases would be difficult to prove.

That passivity has soothed concerns in Eldorado that overzealous law enforcement actions could trigger violence. But it has also angered some citizens who want authorities to move decisively against the polygamists.

Chip Cole, a rancher and real estate broker whose property borders the compound, said he was frustrated because he believed the sect's followers were draining water wells and polluting streams with raw sewage - and no one was stopping them.

"I'm not going to debate the morality of what they do over there - that is for God to judge," Cole said as his cows lapped water carried 300 feet to the surface by a metal windmill. "I'm just mad at the state of Texas for making it so darned easy."

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