Polygamist group ranch worries small town's residents
By Bill Hanna
ELDORADO -- First, it was going to be a hunting
Then a retreat.
But as each new dormitory-style
building goes up, residents here become a little more apprehensive
about a secretive polygamist sect's move onto a ranch four miles
outside of Eldorado.
Locals say they have good reasons for
feeling uneasy about their new neighbors.
Church of Latter Day Saints, based in Arizona and Utah, is believed
to be the largest polygamist group in the country. The 10,000-member
church openly practices plural marriage and has generated more than
a century's worth of controversy, including allegations of abuse of
young girls, welfare fraud and wife swapping.
numbers of the polygamist church do end up in Eldorado, residents
fear the group could dominate the sleepy town of 1,955 about 45
miles south of San Angelo.
"They could easily come in here,
bring in several thousand followers and take over the hospital board
and other elected positions if they wanted to," said Randy Matkin,
editor of the Eldorado Success and head of the Schleicher
County Hospital District board. "That is what concerns
Locals note that the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day
Saints initially tried to hide its purchase of a 1,691-acre ranch
last year. And the scale of the construction leads many to question
whether church elders were truthful when they said the ranch would
be a retreat for 200 members.
As part of their beliefs,
church members try to interact with the outside world as little as
possible. They could not be reached for comment for this story, but
their lawyer, Rodney Parker, said the allegations are nothing more
than religous persecution.
twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where the
church is based, are dominated by the polygamist group.
church owns the houses, and controls the police department and the
school district, even though most of its children are
The group believes the mainstream Church of
Latter Day Saints strayed from its true beliefs when it renounced
plural marriage in 1890. It broke away from the church and has
defiantly practiced polygamy ever since.
were in a uproar in March when they learned that the group bought
One City Council member even suggested the
Devil had come to town.
The alarmist attitude has largely
subsided, replaced by apprehension. Residents still grab copies of
the Eldorado Success as soon as they're placed in the racks
and call the sheriff when they see large trucks headed to the church
On County Road 300, the two-lane road that
surrounds the ranch, the construction is largely
The only sign of the budding community is a
no-trespassing sign and guard shack. The top of a cement batch plant
tower is the only visible structure.
But it's a different
picture from the air.
Five buildings, including three large,
apartment-like structures, have been erected in a matter of months.
Another large foundation was laid in mid-June.
clear picture of what this activity means is difficult.
church's leader, Warren Jeffs, took over after his father, Rulon
Jeffs, died in 2002.
Earlier this year, Jeffs purged about 20
church elders, including several rivals, leading some observers to
think the move to Texas was a search for greener
The church already has a community in Bountiful,
Canada, and there are rumors of another outpost in
One author and former member says the group has
changed since Warren Jeffs became the leader.
thing I've noticed since Warren Jeffs took over is the wife swapping
-- taking wives from one man and giving them to another," said
Benjamin Bistline, who wrote The Polygamists: A History of
Colorado City, Arizona, a non-fiction account of the church's
history published by Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Agreka
Under Jeffs, the group has changed some of the beliefs,
said Bistline, who left the church in 1980.
defended the polygamists," Bistline said. "They're a very moral
people. But now, since he has taken over, there is more corruption,
more abuse of women."
Bistline, who lives just outside of
Colorado City, believes some women are forced into marriage at a
young age to keep them in the fold. Moving to Texas may increase the
hold on them, he said.
"I think as isolated as it is down
there, it will be much harder for the young people to escape,"
church's lawyer disputes allegations of abuse and forced marriages,
saying detractors take the group's belief's out of
"With regard to the marriage issue, it's very messy,
very complicated," Parker said. "There are marriages between the
ages of 16 and 18, and occasionally younger, but they're not
commonplace. They're being used by critics to imply that's what the
church is about and nothing else. It's grossly inaccurate, a
deliberate falsehood. None of these girls are being held
He also argues that attempts to prosecute polygamy
will not withstand legal challenges.
"I think polygamy is
constitutionally permitted," Parker said. "All manner of sexual
relationships are now being permitted. To somehow single out this
one and say it's illegal doesn't make any sense."
County Sheriff David Doran, who visited Colorado City and visited
the Eldorado property, has been trying to learn about the group and
calm the concerns of his constituents.
"They have very
different beliefs, but they have a nice town up there in Colorado
City, and they let me see everything," Doran said. "I talked to
women and young children, and everyone was open and polite. I'm
trying to do everything in my power to keep a line of communication
open to them."
Yet Doran concedes that that the group will do
whatever Jeffs asks.
"If he gives them an order, whatever it
is, I'm sure they'll follow it," Doran said.
Flora Jessup, a
Phoenix woman who grew up in the church, has been a vocal critic of
the sect. She's the one who alerted Eldorado residents that the
church had bought the ranch.
"They're very good at putting on
a face to the public," said Jessup. "They're told to 'keep sweet.'
It is a mask that is portrayed by the community. If you do not
portray it right, there is punishment."
She said Eldorado
residents shouldn't be lulled into a false sense of
"You never get a clear picture of what is going on
in these communities," Jessup said. "What you see in public and what
is happening in private are two totally different
A closed society
In Colorado City, the
incorporated town is run as a closed-off society, said Buster
Johnson, a Mohave County, Ariz., supervisor from Lake Havasu
"They won't be coming into town and kidnapping children
or causing any problems," Johnson said. "But they will try and get
every bit of government assistance that they can."
noted that 66 percent of Hildale residents received Medicaid. The
average in Utah was 6.5 percent, he said.
Some critics have
referred to the tactic as "bleeding the beast," a system where the
sect siphons financial resources from nonbelievers.
Parker, the group's attorney, says that's false.
doesn't mean, however, that they don't take advantage of what
they're legally entitled to," he said.
Parker says the ranch
will be "a new place to get away from the pressures here in Utah. In
that sense, it's a place of refuge, but I think that's about as
specific as I can get."
The group is already in a stalemate
with the state of Texas over environmental permits.
Commission on Environmental Quality issued cease and desist orders
in May for failure to obtain permits for a rock crusher and concrete
plant, sewage treatment facilities, and not having a storm water
When a Star-Telegram reporter and
photographer flew over the compound in June, the concrete plant
appeared to be operating.
"I think we'll be out there within
a week," John Steib, the commission's deputy director of office of
compliance and enforcement, said Thursday.
If there are
violations, the agency could impose fines of $10,000 a
As for local residents, many say they will tolerate the
church as long as no one is harmed.
"The only time we're ever
going to know is if someone comes in and swears up a complaint,"
said Justice of the Peace Jimmy Doyle. "If they keep it locked up, I
don't know if anyone can get out of an 8-foot, deer-proof