Utah sect member plans to move family, business to Texas town

Associated Press/May 22, 2007

Lockney, Texas -- Samuel Fischer would appear to be just what is needed most in this withering Texas Panhandle town of about 2,000 with his promises of new jobs. The only problem is that he is a polygamist.

A successful cabinet maker with a thriving business in Utah, Fischer hopes to move the operation here, bringing with it as many as 100 jobs and perhaps eventually an influx of residents. But many here say Fischer is no godsend, and the economic boost he could provide their community is not worth the cost.

Fischer is a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a renegade offshoot of the Mormon Church. The sect's leader, Warren Jeffs, is awaiting trial on charges he arranged marriages between men and underage girls.

In Lockney, people like shopkeeper Ginger Mathis worry that Fischer, his two wives and their 24 children will soon be joined by thousands of other sect members now living in Utah and Arizona. Fischer has closed on one house in Plainview and has contracts on three others there; he is also checking out property near Lockney.

"He wouldn't be looking at houses if he didn't have some others coming," Mathis said.

Others want to give Fischer the benefit of the doubt.

"I just feel like he's one of God's creatures and if he wants to come to town, that's his business," said Kay Martin, who owns an insurance agency in Lockney and is a member of the town's economic development board. "It doesn't scare me or bother me."

Ranching and farming are the mainstays in the Lockney area, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) south of Amarillo. Farmers produce cotton, wheat, pumpkins and corn. The town's population has dropped by about 200 from the 2000 census because there is no other work for young people not interested in farming or ranching.

Fischer took his case for moving to Lockney to his future neighbors at a town meeting. He requested the meeting in a letter to the local paper after it published a column about him and his association with Jeffs.

About 100 people attended. When pressed, Fischer told them that Jeffs was his spiritual leader but that the FLDS does not have a stake in his business.

About 150 of Jeffs' followers are already in Texas, living outside the small town of Eldorado, about 230 miles (370 kilometers) south of Lockney. Among the buildings erected by the sect is an 80-foot (24-meter)-tall, gleaming white temple.

Those who attended the meeting in Lockney say Fischer, 53, promised he would not build a compound. He also said he did not know who would be living in the houses he will soon own.

Fischer declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press.

"We dealt with the people that have the need to know," he said. "And that's all I'm worried and concerned about. Those are the people who we'll be living and working with. People in New York don't need to know."

Jeffs' group — based in the adjacent towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona — numbers about 10,000. It is cloaked in secrecy and widely known for marrying off teenage brides and banishing men and boys who disagree with Jeffs. The Mormon Church renounced polygamy in 1890 and has disavowed any connection to the sect.

Fischer's arrival has piqued interest in Lockney, where several residents said they were reading "Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith," by Jon Krakauer, a 2003 nonfiction book about a different smaller polygamist sect which makes mention of the FLDS.

In his letter to the newspaper, Fischer wrote that he wants residents to get to know him and to seek jobs at his cabinet factory. He said he settled on Lockney after getting stranded by an ice storm in January in Amarillo and seeing an economy that appeared on the "upswing."

Fisher said he is leaving Hildale because Utah authorities took control of the sect's scandal-plagued trust that controls all the property in the two neighboring towns.

"There has been plenty of negative publicity regarding my beliefs which I would hope the honest in heart can see through," Fischer wrote. "I feel that tolerance for others' way of thinking, that may differ from our own, is what constitutes a peaceful society."

Some of those who attended the meeting said Fischer was not very forthcoming.

"He didn't tell us anything," Mathis said. "He evaded some (questions) and even the ones he answered I didn't feel he was being truthful."

Others said Fisher's cabinet-making business will infuse money into the area.

"I'm not very much bothered by this," said Mayor Roger Stapp. "They have every right to be here if they're being good citizens and not breaking the law."

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