Texas Sect Kept to Itself

The men in Western shirts and jeans who appeared in the west Texas town of Eldorado in 2003 said they were shopping for land to build a corporate hunting retreat. The 1,691-acre former exotic game ranch was just what they were looking for. Set amid rolling hills of rocky scrub dotted with mesquite trees, oil rigs and goat ranches, it was remote, and the land was cheap.

But the sheriff and other residents of Schleicher County soon discovered that their new neighbors had much more on their agenda than deer hunting. Leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a renegade sect that broke with mainstream Mormons (who banned polygamy in 1890), were under siege by authorities in Utah and Arizona. Their enclave of 10,000 based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., openly practiced "plural marriage"—their ticket to heaven, they believe—via clandestine ceremonies for "celestial" brides to circumvent bigamy laws.

Yet polygamy, though illegal, didn't spark the crackdown in recent years. Church members, including their prophet Warren Jeffs, were under investigation for marrying off girls as young as 13. Women and girls who fled the group, and boys pushed out or abandoned, told stories of forced marriages, incest and abuse. Some who left called it a destructive cult.

Jeffs, the group's powerful and reclusive patriarch, was convicted last year in Utah of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl for forcing her to marry her cousin. Sentenced to 10 years to life, he is also awaiting trial on similar charges in Arizona. At least four other FLDS men were convicted in the past two years in Arizona and Utah of having sex with underage girls they'd married.

But long before Jeffs even became a fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted List, his followers began moving to Texas. They mined limestone quarried on their gated compound near Eldorado (pronounced el-do-RAY-do) and dedicated a massive, gleaming white temple topped with a cupola in April 2005. (Jeffs slipped out of public sight soon after and was arrested in 2006.)

The tax revenue from their property, valued at $7.9 million at one point, was a boon for this community of ranchers and cotton farmers. But law-enforcement officials and residents in nearby Eldorado, population less than 2,000, were afraid of what else the sect might bring. "They're followers of Warren Jeffs, there's been multiple convictions, they practice polygamy. That moved my town," said Randy Mankin, publisher, editor and reporter of the weekly Eldorado Success. The problem was a lack of evidence. "We've known all along that it was going on behind closed doors, but no one filed a complaint."

The church's members shun contact with all outsiders, including the media, and their lawyers declined to comment Wednesday.

As a police scanner crackles with news from "the compound," under the pressed tin ceiling of his dusty Main Street office, Mankin asked, "If they're not doing anything wrong then why are they behind locked doors? Why run from the law? Moses went and confronted Pharaoh."

Finally, a 16-year-old girl reportedly called a local family-violence shelter and said she had been married and impregnated at age 15 by a 49-year-old man, according to court documents. Last Thursday Texas troopers and child-welfare officials raided the YFZ, or Yearning for Zion, ranch. State officials launched what is thought to be their largest intervention in state history, taking 416 children during their six-day sweep of the complex into temporary state custody. Another 136 women, mostly mothers, left the YFZ compound to care for the children but are free to return home. The 16-year-old girl who reportedly called the shelter and her baby have not been identified among those who have been removed.

According to an affidavit released Tuesday, signed by Lynn McFadden, investigator for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the 16-year-old repeatedly called a local shelter on March 29 and 30. Whispering into a cell phone, the girl said her husband would force her to have sex, and when he was angry he would beat and choke her while other women in the house held her baby. Once he even broke her ribs, she said. But church members warned her that if she tried to flee, she would be found and locked up, the affidavit states. If she left, she was told, outsiders would hurt her, force her to cut her hair, wear makeup and "have sex with lots of men."

The girl said she was pregnant and couldn't think of a way to escape from the ranch without leaving her infant baby behind. What's more, her parents were about to send her 15-year-old sister to the same fate. But at the end of one call she began crying and said, "She is happy and fine and does not want to get into trouble and that everything she had previously said should be forgotten," according to the affidavit.

Based on the girl's account authorities obtained the search warrant from a local judge, entered the ranch and found numerous underage girls either pregnant or already with infant children. They determined that all the children were being "indoctrinated and groomed" to participate in underage marriages, even the boys, so all were in danger of being abused.

If the accusations are sustained during upcoming court hearings, the children will be placed in foster care. For now, welfare workers are interviewing the children in San Angelo at Fort Concho, a sandstone former frontier post during the Indian wars.

A warrant was issued for the arrest of a man suspected of abusing the girl, but the man lives in Arizona and says he has never met her. Texas authorities are aware of his location but have not tried to take him into custody. Two men were arrested in recent days during the raid on the Eldorado compound: Leroy Johnson Steed, 41, for tampering with physical evidence, and Levi Barlow Jeffs, 19, for interfering with the duties of a public servant. But so far no one has been arrested for the allegations of abuse or neglect.

An Uneasy Town
Members of the group and their sympathizers have long argued that they are persecuted because of their religious beliefs. The group's leaders, confronted by county officials a few years ago about their plans in Eldorado, said they wanted nothing more than privacy to worship in peace.

The fundamentalists, chased from their historic home along the Utah-Arizona border, have related enclaves in the states of Colorado and South Dakota, as well as in the Canadian town of Bountiful, British Columbia, and in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Eldorado residents, however, were not appeased by the group's claims that they were being unfairly targeted. They feared that the group's followers would register to vote and take over their town by running for sheriff or public office. Locals repeatedly buzzed over the property in airplanes, snapping photos of women in long pioneer dresses digging gardens. They watched as sect members built barracks, a concrete factory, a cheese dairy and a clinic, fashioning a virtually self-sustaining enclave out of what had been "a rock pile," as one Eldorado resident put it. "They must never sleep," marveled Gloria Swift, owner of the Hitch'n Post Coffeeshop, admiring their hardworking ethic.

Texas Rep. Harvey Hilderbran of Kerrville, alarmed by reports from Eldorado, the Utah attorney general and sect members who had fled the group, helped push new legislation into law in 2005 that raised the legal age of consent to marry in Texas from 14 to 16, that made it illegal for stepparents to marry their children and made officiates liable for performing illegal wedding ceremonies. "We didn't want to facilitate the things we knew they had been involved in before, including child abuse, sexual abuse, forced marriages, that were clearly detrimental to the safety and welfare of children," Hilderbran tells NEWSWEEK. "It's not in the best interest of a 14-year-old girl to be forced to marry her uncle or stepfather or any other man in this cult, because the men are being rewarded for their obedience with these child brides."

In some ways, the Texas raid appeared to some to be a case of history repeating itself. In July 1953, armed Arizona deputies burst into the FLDS town of Colorado City, then called Short Creek, taking 177 children into state custody. Officials charged the men as polygamists; they dispersed the mothers and children to new homes around the state and put them on welfare. "This is déjà vu for us," says Benjamin Bistline, 73, a former member who wrote a history of the FLDS in Colorado City and who was 18 at the time of the raid. His wife, Annie, then 15, was forced to resettle in Phoenix with her mother.

That raid 55 years ago and its aftermath cast a long shadow, making the fundamentalist Mormon leadership even more secretive and reclusive. Voter backlash in Arizona against the images of children ripped from their parents' arms cost the governor his job and convinced officials in Utah and Arizona to leave the polygamists alone. Only in the 1990s when the forced marriages of young girls, child abuse and alleged welfare fraud came to light did law-enforcement and child-welfare officials begin to pay attention.

Polygamy has always been the keystone of the FLDS church, and underage marriages are nothing new, according to former members. Bistline, who left the group in the 1980s, recalls that in the 1940s girls as young as 12 were married off to older men. The church leader arranges most marriages, claiming divine guidance for the matches. In practice, a small group of wealthy men get multiple wives, leaving many younger men, called the "Lost Boys," unable to marry and forced out of the group in an inexorable numbers crunch.

The girls are married off young, Bistline believes, because they are more malleable. "When they are in their early teens, they are a lot easier to persuade to marry a man 30 or 40 years older," he says. "By the time they are 18, they have their own ideas." The early marriages are also a means of control. In some cases, girls who show independence and a precocious interest in boys become young brides in the group's belief that the new husband will exert a strong guiding hand.

In Eldorado, owners of neighboring ranches were reportedly warned to watch for girls fleeing the compound. The local sheriff, David Doran, would drive up to the gates near the guarded entry post and peer at the group through his binoculars. Eventually he established a rapport with the sect leaders and was one of the very few outsiders allowed inside.

Far from taking over the town, sect members isolated themselves from Eldorado and had almost no contact with local residents. The women and children did not shop at local stores or attend public schools, as they once did in Utah and Arizona. Men driving down the country roads in their work trucks did not wave back when residents offered a greeting, though they were nice enough shopping for propane in Eldorado. The group did most of their business in the much larger city of San Angelo, 45 miles up the road past flat dry cotton fields, where they could shop in bulk for warehouse staples and were often seen at the Lowe's home-improvement store.

Despite the tensions, some local residents made light of their secretive new neighbors. When Warren Jeffs reportedly predicted the end of the world in 2005, one Eldorado resident paraded in front of their gate in a Grim Reaper costume. Ball caps were sold proclaiming ELDORADO: POLYGAMY CAPITAL OF TEXAS, and another man became marginally famous for writing the "Plural Girl Blues," a song about polygamy. "We always laughed it off and said if they had a wife like you, you wouldn't want 50 of them," said Swift, the coffee-shop owner. "We just hoped it wouldn't be another Waco."

Sheltered Lives
When the town and the polygamists were finally brought face to face after the raid, it was startling for both. The women and children first sheltered in Eldorado had not been allowed to watch television, use the Internet or have any contact with the outside world. They appeared to be loving, if incredibly naive, parents, who didn't know what crayons were used for.

The sight of the lost, anxious faces of the women and children looking out the bus windows or hiding behind their coats as they left the compound was enough to make more than one Eldorado man cry. "No one in our community has any connection to them, they were pretty much out by themselves. Up until yesterday or the day before, I was not even sure I had met a member of the cult," said Pastor Andy Anderson of First Baptist Church, which temporarily housed some of the group. He and leaders of all the churches in town, which far outnumber restaurants, had been waiting for years for this chance to minister to them in Christ's name.

Residents and local businesses donated carts full of food and sodas, boxes of teddy bears, and cots and cribs to the women and children at the Eldorado shelters. "Numerous people are going to have much better lives as a result of this raid," Anderson said. "And if even one person could be salvaged from child abuse, I think it was worth it."

Church volunteers and child-welfare officials said the women and children were emotional but relatively composed, given the shock of what they must be experiencing. "Obviously this has been a tense situation for all involved. We are trying to be as kind and respectful as we can be, and they seem to be respectful of that," said Texas Child Protective Services spokeswoman Marleigh Meisner. For now they are cooperating with the caseworkers, she said, but "as you know human emotions are a strange thing, and that can change any time."

Tela Mange, a spokeswoman for Texas troopers and the Department of Public Safety, added, "We have been trying very hard to be sensitive to the folks at the ranch … trying to be sensitive to their concerns about their holy places. So we have been much more diplomatic with them than we typically are when we are serving any other search warrant."

But in court filings seeking to stop the raid, FLDS members said that allowing outsiders to enter their sacred temple would be absolute desecration, that it was akin to rummaging through the Vatican and that once the damage was done it would be irreversible—the bell could not be unrung. A SWAT team entered the temple anyway.

Carolyn Jessop, author of the book "Escape," fled the sect and her polygamous union with Merril Jessop in 2003. Merril is now thought to be leading the Eldorado group in Jeffs's absence, she said. Carolyn rushed to Eldorado in the wake of the raid hoping to meet with her stepdaughters, with whom she hadn't been able to speak with since she fled to Salt Lake City. "I knew these girls would be just terrified," she said. "They are being exposed for the first time to mainstream society."

Jessop doesn't think authorities overreacted in preparing for the worst when they called in an armored personnel carrier, K9 dog units and ambulances during tense negotiations to enter the temple. "This group absolutely could turn violent," she said, adding that Warren Jeffs had reintroduced the use of guns into the community, which had for a time limited hunting to the use of bow and arrows.

Sheriff Doran, who worked in the field until 2 a.m. some nights assisting with the compound search, has declined to comment in light of a judge's gag order. He is credited with derailing what some feared could have become a violent standoff of Waco-like proportions.

Carolyn Jessop and others who fled the group said it had become increasingly isolated and bizarre under Jeffs, who had already taken control by the time his father died in 2002. The new leader banned the color red and made members execute all their dogs, for instance. He started reassigning wives and children to men in better standing, sometimes casting the husbands out with no more explanation than "repent from afar."

Law-enforcement officials are not saying yet what they found at the compound, but Mange said Monday afternoon that Texas troopers had encountered no violence. She declined to say whether weapons had been found. Now a federal search warrant has been issued, the church's lawyers said in court Wednesday, and FBI agents have been seen entering the compound.

It is not clear what the children's fate will be. After six days of searching, officials said Tuesday they had removed all the children at the ranch. Some in Eldorado predict that most will be returned to their parents. Meisner, the child-welfare rep, said each will be assigned a guardian and attorney, and the allegations of abuse will be scrutinized during multiple hearings in coming weeks. But Texas was already facing a critical shortage of foster-care homes.

Jerry Swift, a retired county agent turned sheep and goat rancher, said he knows the authorities' hands were tied until they could gather the evidence. Still, he says, "It should have been stopped before it started."