Afraid of what sect might do

Denver Post/July 11, 2008

Custer County's sheriff is taking a stand.

"We don't want them here," Fred Jobe says of the polygamists who quietly are settling onto his turf. "I just don't want them to think they're gonna move in and take over the county."

As Jobe tells it, followers of Warren Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have moved into four compounds in Custer County and two in Fremont County. The extent of their influx into south-central Colorado is unclear because few outsiders have been let inside the sect's secrecy fences.

Many locals are wondering why they don't see frumpy-frocked women, their octogenarian husbands and broods of children in town.

"Why don't we run into them in the grocery store, the post office? Why don't they support our businesses?" asks Jane Thomas, who lives yards from a compound near Westcliffe.

At the prodding of an anti-FLDS group called Step Up, Thomas and nearly 200 locals crammed into Custer County Middle School's gym Thursday to learn about their new neighbors from a woman who escaped from a similar sect.

Laurie Allen's documentary, "Banking on Heaven," features accounts of mind-control and child molestation, labor violations and hunger in Colorado City, the FLDS hub on the Arizona-Utah line. Allen raised legitimate concerns about child abuse, welfare fraud and teenage boys cast from the sect so parents can offer their daughters to Jeff's loyal elders.

With rapt applause from her audience, she went further by mocking the religion, which she likens to the Taliban, and deriding its minions as unChristian followers of polygamous Old Testament Jews. Allen — who encourages raids on the group such as the one this year in Eldorado, Texas - raised fears Thursday about the sect propagating like rabbits, drowning deformed babies, taking over county government and engaging in Waco-like standoffs, Jonestown-like mass suicides, Auschwitz-like incinerations and other unneighborly acts of blood atonement.

"We don't want to go around and get everyone scared," she said as she proceeded to agitate the group even further.

"They have no regard for their life," Allen added. "If their prophet tells them to kill your children, they'll do it. Don't underestimate them."

Heady stuff for a rural county whose chamber of commerce touts it as a "refreshing Colorado escape."

I have covered the FLDS, been harassed by polygamous police goons in Colorado City and had my car keyed and a colleague's tire slashed while reporting on women who fled.

I empathize with residents loath to ignore abuses in their neighborhoods and laud them for contemplating safehouses should sect members seek their help.

But there's no evidence of wrongdoing among the FLDS in Custer County, where I'm assuming there is still religious freedom and the presumption that we are innocent until proved guilty.

"No evidence so far," notes Jobe, who has visited the sect. "But just because we don't see anything criminal when we go in doesn't mean there's nothing criminal going on."

While Jobe admonished me for asking if he is on an FLDS witch hunt, others in the crowd were comfortable with the term.

Says neighbor Jeff Thomas: "If what happened with these folks in other communities happens here, you can bet we're gonna have a witch hunt, and you can bet it's gonna be big."

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