Pringle, South Dakota - Just down the dirt road that passes Cookie Hickstein's home, an isolated group of neighbors has drawn intense interest here in the sparsely populated Black Hills.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) has put roots on 140 acres of rugged territory. It is the same sect as at the ranch near Eldorado, Texas, where the practice of men taking multiple wives and allegations of sexual abuse of underage girls have sparked a custody battle over more than 400 children.
No such allegations have been made here, but local police worry about whether they can do their job when many of the people in their jurisdiction live in a closed, secretive society.
"It's difficult," Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler says. "They don't just open their doors. It's a locked-down operation, a locked fence. I don't get precise answers, and yes, that concerns me."
South Dakota is among a handful of states where the FLDS has set up polygamist compounds. The others are in Colorado, Utah, Arizona, Nevada and Texas, and in the Canadian province of British Columbia. FIND MORE STORIES IN: Texas | Arizona | Canada | Colorado | Republican | Utah | Nevada | Columbia | Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints | Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints | Warren Jeffs | Eldorado | Black Hills | Mormon Church | Wheeler | Pringle | Ed Johnson
The sect is one of several groups that broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church, after it disavowed polygamy in 1890. The FLDS' "prophet," or leader, Warren Jeffs, was convicted and sentenced last year to two five-years-to-life terms in a Utah prison for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl.
In 2003, the same sect leader who established the 1,700-acre ranch near Eldorado began buying property outside tiny Pringle, which has an estimated population of fewer than 200 people. According to Custer County records, the sect's land and buildings are valued at more than $4.5 million.
No reports of complaints
Hickstein and other locals were suspicious of the outsiders, who kept to themselves and made it clear with fences and an observation tower that they wanted to be left alone. Sheriff Wheeler is aware of the allegations against the group in Texas, but he says absent complaints or a legal reason to search the compound here, the sect members have a right to privacy.
"It is a delicate balance," says Custer County State's Attorney Tracy Kelley. "We need to treat them like we would any other citizen in our county. If we get a valid complaint, then law enforcement authorities with the sheriff's office would investigate that."
Sara Rabem, spokeswoman for South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long, says Long "cannot confirm or deny whether there's an investigation" of the sect in Pringle.
"We haven't raided the Pringle compound or received any criminal complaint or report of criminal activity," she says. "It's something that obviously everyone is watching kind of closely."
No one for the FLDS or its South Dakota settlement could be reached for comment. Two lawyers for the sect, Rodney Parker of Salt Lake City and Gerald Goldstein of Houston, did not return telephone calls. A visit to the compound found the gate locked and no one to talk to.
Hickstein is uneasy but can't say exactly why.
"They're not bad neighbors. I just can't condone what's going on in there," she says.
It's not for lack of trying that the town doesn't know what is going on inside the compound.
In 2006, Wheeler won the Republican primary for Custer County sheriff by beating incumbent Phil Hespen, who had shown little interest in investigating the FLDS sect and had repeatedly dismissed concerns as unwarranted.
"I'm not going to be curious," The Salt Lake Tribune reported Hespen as saying in April 2006.
Wheeler was curious and said so during the election.
"The word on the street is that's why (Hespen) lost the election," says Norma Najacht, editor of the weekly Custer County Chronicle.
Wheeler immediately opened lines of communication to the sect. He says he talks weekly with the local sect leader, Ed Johnson, and has visited the enclave on several occasions. He also has accompanied county officials inspecting septic and water systems and building construction.
Wheeler has gone out to the compound by request as well, he says, to sit in on a meeting between a former female sect member from Canada who wanted to see her grandchild. Wheeler says he was compelled to order the woman off the sect's property when she refused the group's request that she leave.
"I don't condone what's going on down there, but the other side of the coin is I've got to maintain an open line to them," Wheeler says. "If anybody can get in there and talk to them, it's got to be me."
A quiet group of people
Getting to the compound involves a bumpy ride over dirt roads 10 miles from the paved roadway. In the wooded hills that rise above the landscape one is as likely to see elk as people.
Wheeler doesn't know just how many live at the compound. County records show there are at least five lodges, each with 12 to 14 bedrooms. David Green, the county planning director, says men from the settlement show up occasionally in Custer, the county seat, for courthouse business. He says they pay in cash and say little.
"They don't offer any extra verbiage in their sentences," Green says.
When he has gone onto the property to conduct building inspections, Green says, he has seen no women or children.
The group has registered six children with the state for home schooling, according to both Wheeler and state officials. Wheeler says there probably are more children living there. Construction appears to be ongoing; building materials are visible.
In Texas, women at the FLDS compound wear pioneer-style dresses and long hair with a wave on top. Few women are seen here and the men, on the rare occasions when they come into town, dress like anyone else in western South Dakota, residents say.
"I don't think people know who they are," Wheeler says.
The Texas raid has made the sect wary that South Dakota might try a similar move, Wheeler says: "Everything's on high suspicion with them right now."
He and others assume polygamy goes on inside the compound and that perhaps children are at risk as Texas officials allege there - but he says he cannot act until there is evidence.
"People say if it's happening down there, it's happening up here," Wheeler says. But, he adds, "it's like anybody's residence. We've got to have probable cause to go in."
The allegations of abuse that emerged from the Texas raid, even if ultimately substantiated in court, would not be enough to legally support a similar raid, he says, unless there is evidence of criminal activity here.
"We must have some type of probable cause to go in and search the compound," says Rabem, the state attorney general's spokeswoman.
Polygamy is illegal in South Dakota as in other states. But as in Utah, officials say it is difficult to build cases because there often is little record of marriages beyond a man's first. So officials say they look for other crimes.
"If the man is having sex with a female or male under the age of 16, that is a crime," Rabem says.
South Dakota's Child Protective Services office has received no complaint and cannot act until law enforcement does, says Emily Currey, spokeswoman for the Department of Social Services.
Wheeler is watching the Texas case and doesn't rule out a similar law-enforcement move if circumstances demand it.
"It still depends on what happens down in Texas. We know they are all connected," he says.
The possibility seems on everyone's mind. The Custer weekly had a headline on its front page last week: "What if it happens here?" The Rapid City Journal, 85 miles away, followed with a headline, "Will Pringle sect get raided?"
"Most people are really concerned," Najacht says. "When it involves women and children, it's everybody's business."