Polygamists in their
sect's move to Texas
ranch has some feeling "like UFOs landed here."
ELDORADO, Texas - The population of this drowsy West
Texas town hasn't done much but dwindle in recent years, so
its residents grew curious in March when a pilot shot some aerial photos
showing construction of several huge, dormitory-style buildings on a
sprawling ranch just outside town.
The curiosity soon changed to concern when antipolygamy activists from Utah showed up for a news conference to
reveal the identity of the group that had bought the 1,600-acre ranch: the
Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a secretive
Mormon sect that practices polygamy and sanctions marriages involving
underage teenage girls.
Now, with construction on the buildings nearly
complete and the first of an expected 200 church members about to take up
residence, the 1,951 citizens of Eldorado are
trying to make peace with new neighbors whom many regard as followers of a
"Our biggest concern was that we wouldn't be
dealing with another Waco problem
here," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, referring to the
Branch Davidian siege in another Texas town in 1993.
"We have talked to them about polygamous marriages and underage
brides, and made them very aware of Texas
laws governing sex with a minor. They told us they didn't plan on
practicing that in this community."
But the practices of the church have drawn increasing
interest from law-enforcement officials in Utah
where an estimated 10,000 church members live in two small towns that
straddle the state line. A local police officer who is a member of the sect
was convicted last year of bigamy and unlawful sex with a minor for taking
a 16-year-old as his third wife.
Ron Barton, a special polygamy investigator for the
Utah Attorney General's Office, confirmed that the leader of the church,
Warren Jeffs, 47, was under investigation for
allegedly fathering children with two 17-year-old girls.
Meanwhile, some former church members expelled from
the group by Jeffs are accusing him of running a
mind-control cult. And antipolygamy activists
charge that young women are being held against their will and forced into
The pressure has driven the church to seek a new
outpost in Eldorado, according to Rodney Parker,
the group's attorney and de facto spokesman. Church officials will not
speak with reporters.
"The State of Utah has a polygamy czar who's down
there looking in people's windows and camps out in front of the
leadership's homes sometimes. That's part of it," said Parker,
referring to Barton, the investigator. "There has been a stepped-up
effort to try to create laws that would ensnare these people. So part of
the reason for the move is to establish a new foothold somewhere
Utah officials estimate
that as many as 60,000 residents practice polygamy in defiance of rulings
by Mormon elders and state laws that forbid it but are rarely enforced. The
mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemned polygamy
to win statehood for Utah
The fundamentalist Mormon group, founded in the 1930s,
is believed to be the largest polygamous sect, and for years it has
prospered as a closed society whose members are forbidden to watch
television, read newspapers, or use the Internet to maintain contact with
the outside world.
But that secrecy began to crumble earlier this year
when Jeffs, regarded by his followers as a
prophet and infallible leader, expelled 20 church members for failing to
follow his dictates, and evicted them from their church-owned homes.
Former members portray an authoritarian world in which
Jeffs demands tributes of $1,000 per month from
each male church member and decides where each man may work.
The leader also decides whom each woman will marry and
how many wives each man will have, based on divine revelations supposedly
only he can receive. Girls as young as 15 have been married to men in their
30s, 40s or older on Jeffs' command, former
church members say. Families are expected to have many children and to take
advantage of state and federal welfare programs to support them.
Any member who resists Jeffs'
rulings risks expulsion from the church, shunning by other family members,
and, followers are repeatedly warned, eternal damnation.
Flora Jessop, 34, a former
church member who now devotes herself to "rescues" of young women
seeking to leave, said followers were effectively brainwashed and unable to
"When you're born into this stuff and it's the
only thing you know, and you're taught that if you don't abide by this law,
you damn yourself to hell, it's not a matter of submitting themselves
voluntarily," said Jessop, who has been
trying to free her 18-year-old sister from the group.
Parker, the church attorney, denied that any members
were being forced to do anything against their will.
"There are marriages that occur out there under
the age of 18," Parker said. "But to say that anyone's being
forced, that something is happening that is not consensual, is just not
true. Legally in Utah,
a young woman is considered old enough to make her own decisions regarding
marriage at the age of 16, as long as she has her parents' consent."
At first, church officials said that the Eldorado ranch would be used as a "hunting
retreat." Later, they conceded to local officials that the compound
would house the elite members of the church.
The distaste of some lifelong residents here for their
new neighbors is palpable.
"I feel like some UFOs landed here and now people
are saying, 'OK, they're here, there's nothing we can do, let's welcome
them,' " said Thelma Bosmans,
51, a teacher's aide at Eldorado Middle
School. "But how can we welcome someone
with so many people under his control? How can you condone teenage girls' being married to 60-year-old men?"