Opposition letters inundate FLDS compound's water request before hearing

Rapid City Journal/October 12, 2015

By Seth Tupper

Unsubstantiated claims of a “house of proving” and a “room full of pregnant girls” are among the allegations made in a torrent of letters sent to the South Dakota Water Management Board ahead of a Wednesday hearing on a Custer County religious compound’s water permit application.

The 140-acre compound is obscured by fences and berms and overlooked by a guard tower near the rim of Red Canyon in the remote southwestern Black Hills. The nearest town is Pringle, about 15 miles to the northeast.

The inhabitants are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the FLDS, a breakaway Mormon sect that is believed to practice polygamy and is headquartered on the Utah-Arizona border. The sect’s former leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving a lifetime prison sentence for sexually assaulting children after he married girls as young as 12 years old.

Leaders of the Black Hills compound want to drill a new well. One of the roughly 45 letters sent recently to the state Water Management Board by opponents of the application is from Mike Fleming, who has a home across the canyon.

“A truck driver from Hot Springs was making deliveries of gravel to the compound a few years ago,” Fleming wrote. “Normally he was paid by a person, or by $100 bills left in an envelope for him near the front gate. One time he was not paid in person or by envelope, and went looking for someone who could pay him. He unexpectedly stumbled upon a room full of pregnant girls, before being intercepted, paid, and escorted from the compound.”

Fleming also wrote that someone who owns a cabin near the compound came across two young men who’d been expelled.

“He helped them contact friends in North Dakota who came to pick up the ex-cult members,” Fleming wrote.

A letter from Scott and Terry Johnson, who live four miles from the compound, says FLDS members rented a home for two years in the subdivision where the Johnsons reside. The Johnsons wrote that they were interviewed, along with other subdivision residents, by authorities from the Custer County Sheriff’s Office and the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation.

“We were told by the Custer County Sheriff that the home rented by the FLDS was used as a ‘house of proving,’” the Johnsons wrote. “It doesn’t take much imagination to figure what a house of proving means when older men and very young women and children are involved.”

Another letter is from Linda Hasselstrom, a noted poet and essayist from rural Hermosa. She urged the board to protect what she described as western South Dakota’s “precarious” water supply, and she offered a blunt condemnation of the FLDS.

“Providing a permit for even more water will encourage the FLDS to continue their practices of raping little girls under the guise of religious freedom,” Hasselstrom wrote. “Please help stop their influence by not allowing them to expand further in our county.”

To date, no evidence has been gathered to show that any of the claims made by the letter-writers are true, or verifiable by law enforcement.

One of Warren Jeffs’ brothers, Seth Jeffs, is the water operator for the compound and has applied for a permit to drill a third well into an aquifer. Outside observers have speculated that more people are moving to the compound. Seth Jeffs has denied that and said in correspondence with state regulators that an additional well is needed because the compound’s existing wells are “not able to keep up with the additional demand of watering gardens, orchards, landscape, and feeding animals during the spring and summer months.”

Last week, Seth Jeffs did not respond to a phone message or email from the Journal.

At a hearing in July, he claimed ignorance when asked repeatedly by the Water Management Board to divulge or estimate the number of people living at the compound. The only hint he provided was his assertion that the compound is not overburdening its wastewater system, which is capable of serving up to 126 people.

Board members said they need more information, including the compound’s population, to determine whether the request for additional water is justified. They directed Jeffs to come back with more information at the board’s next meeting.

That public meeting begins at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Pierre Chamber of Commerce, 800 W. Dakota Ave. in Pierre. The FLDS permit application is scheduled to be heard at 1 p.m. immediately after a lunch break.

The application seeks permission to withdraw up to 200 gallons per minute from the Madison aquifer, which provides most of the fresh water to the Black Hills region.

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has recommended approval by the Water Management Board, which consists of seven members appointed by the governor. The chief engineer of the DENR's Water Rights Program has suggested attaching several qualifications, including that the permit would expire after 20 years and that a meter must be installed and used to generate annual reports detailing the amount of water drawn monthly from the aquifer.

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