FLDS compound in Black Hills shrouded in secrecy

Sioux City Journal/May 17, 2008

Pringle, South Dakota - The possibility that a raid on a Texas polygamist compound stemmed from hoax calls to a shelter makes local law enforcement here more cautious about what would trigger a response to allegations of abuse at the sect's ranch in the Black Hills.

"If I got the probable cause in, I would have to make sure it was valid - make real sure it was valid before we go down there and do anything," Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler said of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints near Pringle.

"If I've learned anything at all, it's to make sure we have a reliable source of activity that's against the law. Until that happens, I can't do anything in there."

Wheeler said he doesn't "look for anything to happen in the near future," but has a plan ready that includes the state Department of Social Services.

In Colorado, Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace said he has done the same thing for an FLDS ranch with an estimated 25 to 50 people near Mancos.

"I think it's raised the level a little bit for everybody on what to do," he said of the Texas raid.

"If another call came in with the same circumstances as that one, I think we would do a little more in-depth research at first."

Delta County, Colo., Sheriff Fred McKee said that after the Texas raid the one family living on 35 acres near Crawford, Colo., invited him to the ranch and he saw nothing unusual.

In the Black Hills, the 140-acre ranch near Pringle is less than 30 miles from Mount Rushmore along a gravel road secluded by tall pine trees.

Hardly anyone is ever seen around the secret compound, and no one knows what goes on there.

"This is South Dakota. You live and let live, you know. And I'm that way," said Cookie Hickstein, who lives along the road leading to the ranch.

But at the FLDS ranch at Eldorado, Texas, authorities took custody of all 463 children, saying teen girls forced into underage "spiritual" marriages and sex with much older men created an unsafe environment.

That's unnerving to Hickstein.

"I don't want to see kids hurt and I don't want to see adults hurt if the women are abused," she said.

South Dakota FLDS group members worry a similar raid could happen here, said Wheeler, a liaison who has been in the compound several times.

"Right now they're kind of spooked," he said.

"I was out there last week and visited with them for about an hour. And I do know they're a lot more cautious of what they do and say."

The sheriff said he thinks at least 100 people live there. He talks weekly by cell phone with Ed Johnson, the de facto spokesman of the group.

There's a lot of construction going on.

But all activity came to a halt when a reporter and photographer flew over and drove through the compound on the gravel road that cuts across the property. Two white, unmarked dump trucks hauling soil stopped and sat idling in the driveway and a man working on a farm tractor sought cover, as did another man on an all-terrain vehicle.

Neither he nor a person in the tower responded to requests to speak, and Johnson couldn't be reached.

From the road, a few cattle and an orchard watered by an irrigation system could be seen. Construction materials were scattered around the yard. And heavy equipment, tractors and trucks were parked around the place. There's also a large green house.

But even at midday, the compound looked deserted.

"You won't see anyone out, ever," said Hickstein, adding that most of the work is done at night under large lights.

"I don't think they ever rest."

There have been no reports of abuse or wrongdoing, so authorities lack the probable cause needed to do anything beyond checking for building code violations and other such infractions.

"They've been extremely compliant with everything we're aware of," said Tracy Kelley, Custer County state's attorney. "They know they're under the microscope."

Wheeler said he'd like to avoid a full-fledged raid.

"The more I listen, the more I watch, the more I learn. And if I can take all of that information and funnel it and process it and try to work with these people to see if we can avoid that, that's what I'd like to do," Wheeler said.

South Dakota Attorney General Larry Long said the Texas raid does not alter what would constitute probable cause because investigators must rely on more than just hearsay.

"The standards do not change. The affidavit in support of the search warrant has got to be done under oath and it's got to contain sufficient information to convince a judge that there's probable cause to believe or evidence of a crime at that location. And you've got to be able to describe that evidence with a bit of specificity," he said.

"At the end of the day the person who asks for the search warrant has got to produce something other than speculation: someone who can hold up their hand and take an oath and say, 'I saw, I heard that there is evidence inside that compound."'

Under the name United Land Management LLC, the sect started buying land near Pringle in October 2003 and has since put up several large dorm-like buildings. The total assessed value of the 140 acres tops $4.5 million, according to county records.

Appraisal records say the housing encompasses 28,095 square feet among five buildings, which contain a total of at least 38 bedrooms.

"Their buildings are immaculate. They're perfectionists when it comes to doing things. They do their own cement work. They'll do all their own infrastructure," Wheeler said.

There's also a guard tower visible above the trees.

"I think it's to keep those girls in," Hickstein said.

State law requires people to report births or deaths at home, but no such report has ever been filed from the ranch, said Frances Larsen, Custer County register of deeds.

A state Health Department official said three home births have been reported in all of Custer County since 2003 but the details were not available.

Tim Creal, Custer School District superintendent, said six children from the ranch received a public school exemption for the current school year so they could be taught at home.

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