How the sect built a fortune and home

The Arizona members' wages, military business among income, deserters say.

Houston Chronicle/April 20, 2008

Eldorado - After more than a century as Schleicher County's only settlement, tiny, unpretentious Eldorado found itself with an improbable new neighbor rising swiftly from the empty brush a few miles from town four years ago.

Members of a secretive, hardworking polygamist sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, spent the past few years building a town on the 1,700-acre ranch, including more than 30 large buildings and a soaring white temple that dwarfs any house of worship within hundreds of miles.

The market value of Yearning for Zion Ranch exceeds $21 million - with the approximately 80,000-square-foot temple valued at $8.7 million, according to the county tax appraiser. One of the county's biggest taxpayers, the sect paid last year's $424,000 bill on time.

There is little mystery about the source of all the money and manpower it took to build the ranch, according to dissident FLDS members, who still live at the sect's historic home on the Utah and Arizona border.

They say before Warren Jeffs was arrested in August 2006, the sect's self-pronounced prophet aggressively solicited the faithful at its base in Colorado City, Ariz., for donations of cash and labor to build its "New Zion" in Texas.

Jeffs has since been convicted in Utah of being an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl. He is in Arizona awaiting charges of sexual conduct with a minor, incest and conspiracy, but he is still believed to be in charge of sect affairs.

"The money came from Warren's milkers. It's like he's got electric milkers on a bunch of dairy cows. He's got all these people, and he's milking them for all they're worth," said Richard Holm, 55, a Utah businessman who left the sect years ago after contributing more than $5 million in cash and property. "The Texas compound is supposedly for some of the elite that were culled out of the common folks and riffraff who were left here to work and send money to the elite over there."

$500 to $1,000 a month

Marvin Wyler, 63, is a polygamist who broke with Jeffs several years ago but who still lives in Colorado City, which many residents call Short Creek. He agreed that many families made great sacrifices to build the ranch.

"A while back, even two or three years ago, they were asking $500 to $1,000 a month from each family. And they had scores of men go down there and do the building. They worked for nothing," said Wyler, who has 34 children by three wives and more than 100 grandchildren.

According to Ben Bistline, a former sect member who wrote a history of the polygamists, Jeffs raised additional millions by selling properties owned by the church's community trust, called the United Effort Plan, and by persuading sect businessmen to kick in large sums.

"We're talking about tens of millions. And you've got to remember the Texas compound isn't the only one he has," Bistline said. "There's one in South Dakota, a small one in Colorado and others in Canada."

Male sect members are sought by contractors in the construction and home-building trades, he said.

"They are very skilled, hard workers. You can hire them and get away with underpaying them, or in the case of young people, paying them nothing, and giving all the money to Warren," Bistline said.

Another source of church funds was the profitable businesses that employed sect members, Bistline said.

"There are people in the organization who are very skilled at producing money. There was one business, Western Precision, that did things for the military. That was bringing in millions," he said. "That's where the money came for Texas. They're not making any out there."

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram has reported that John Nielsen, a former employee of Western Precision, which is now called NewEra Manufacturing, claimed as part of a civil lawsuit that sect members were made to work for little or no wages and that up to $100,000 in monthly profits were donated to Jeffs or the church.

The company has obtained government contracts worth more than $1.2 million in recent years, mostly for aircraft parts for the Department of Defense, the newspaper reported.

Speedy construction

Roger Hoole, a Salt Lake City lawyer who has sued the sect and Jeffs several times on behalf of various former members, said his investigators tried to track what Jeffs and the FLDS church owned.

"Significant assets were sold by the FLDS church just prior to the land in Texas being purchased, including a property in Utah called the Steed Ranch, which sold for a little over $8 million, and a couple of other parcels in Apple Valley, (Utah)," Hoole said. "That money didn't stay in Short Creek. It's probably a very safe assumption that it went to Texas."

With ample money and a ready pool of skilled labor, the Yearning for Zion Ranch was built with a speed and efficiency that amazed the handful of locals who regularly flew over it.

Pilot J.D. Doyle, 48, recalls watching a 21,000-square-foot residence take shape in a matter of weeks, followed by the 120-foot tall temple.

"As far as work ethic, diligence and pure engineering skill, you just can't beat these people, even if they do have a dark side," he said. "They built a whole town out there in four years. It's laid out better than Eldorado, and the buildings are better. ... This place was built with a plan."

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