November 14, 2004
Wary Texans Keep Their Eyes on the Compound of a Polygamous Sect
LDORADO, Tex. - David Doran, the Schleicher County sheriff, drives his truck almost every week to the outskirts of town and gazes at the 1,700-acre compound through a pair of binoculars. On most of his stakeouts, Sheriff Doran receives a call on his cellphone from a guard in the compound's watchtower asking if anything is amiss.
"I just tell him I'm on business, just checking things out," Sheriff Doran said recently. "I tell them they have a right to be here and that their rights will be respected, but that doesn't mean I won't be vigilant."
Eldorado's vigilance regarding its new neighbors, however, is bordering on obsession these days. Nearly everyone in this town of 1,900 people on the arid West Texas plains 125 miles southeast of Odessa is wondering about the community that has been established by the members of an Arizona-based offshoot of the Mormon Church, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The sect split from the Mormon Church about 70 years ago after Mormon leaders officially renounced polygamy. Members of the sect continue to practice polygamy.
Leaders of the sect bought the ranch late last year in an effort to settle some families away from their larger community, in Colorado City, Ariz., just south of the Utah border.
The sect called its new compound the Yearning for Zion Ranch. After arriving in Eldorado at the start of the year, the ranch's residents set up a limestone quarry on the property and began to put up several large buildings. Pilots of airplanes that take off from Eldorado's small airstrip can see concrete foundations being laid for a large community. "They're obviously clean, meticulous, very hardworking people," said J. D. Doyle, a pilot who regularly flies over the flatlands around Eldorado, where Yearning for Zion was cleared from a landscape normally dotted with juniper trees. "I think we'd all just like to know what they're planning on doing here."
A lack of communication from the sect is not helping calm nerves here. Its members are often hesitant to communicate with outsiders, whom they call gentiles, and they do not grant interviews to journalists. Representatives have told Eldorado officials that residents at the ranch do practice polygamy. Here and in other areas of the United States, the church's male followers have generally avoided prosecution under antipolygamy laws by legally registering only one of their wives.
It is not clear how many residents are at the ranch now, but local estimates run from 50 to 100. Eldoradans say they sometimes run into residents of the ranch at the Texaco Star Shop filling their trucks with gasoline, but small talk is scant. The men, in jeans and long-sleeve shirts, and the women, in long skirts, rarely return greetings or make eye contact, residents say.
In Colorado City, meanwhile, recent fissures within the group have led to theories that its leader and self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, may be searching for a new home for many of his estimated 6,000 followers. Mr. Jeffs, said by former church members to have more than 30 wives, recently expelled more than a dozen men from the sect over their criticism of his leadership.
Mr. Jeffs is also facing legal challenges as the target of sexual abuse investigations by Utah's attorney general, Mark Shurtleff. The sect's lawyer and spokesman in Salt Lake City, Rodney Parker, warned against a "hysterical reaction" to developments within the church or at the settlement in Eldorado.
"The worst thing is when people start comparing this to a potential Waco, something that is completely unfounded," Mr. Parker said in a telephone interview, referring to the 1993 standoff between federal agents and Branch Davidian cult members that ended in a fire and about 80 deaths.
"They just do not want any attention,'' Mr. Parker added. "They want to live quiet lives."
In an effort to learn more about the newcomers, Sheriff Doran and his deputy, George Arispe, visited Colorado City in May, meeting with local police officials there. Since then, he said, he has learned that members of the sect had sold some of their land in Arizona as part of a plan to move families to Eldorado and another settlement in Mancos, Colo.
The sect and similar Mormon offshoot groups that practice polygamy have already established communities at Bountiful in British Columbia and near the town of Galeana in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.
The interest in more information about Yearning for Zion has made it the lead article in nearly every issue since March of The Eldorado Success, a weekly newspaper owned by Randy Mankin, a former city administrator for Eldorado. Mr. Mankin said he was concerned about the impact the ranch might have on Eldorado's politics if its residents began registering to vote in local elections.
"Can you imagine 500 or 1,000 new voters in a county with an electorate of only 1,300 or so?" Mr. Mankin said, adding, "They could run things around here if they chose to."
Not everyone in Eldorado is so concerned, though outright support for Yearning for Zion is nearly impossible to find. "This country was founded on religious freedom," said Susan Buchholz, a sculptor who moved to Eldorado from Austin. "Everyone needs to temper their views when it comes to our new neighbors."
Such sentiment appears to be in the minority in Eldorado, a community that depends a great deal on revenue from deer hunting season. So far, the sect's only brush with the law came in February when Sheriff Doran fined one of its members for killing a deer out of season, a common infraction here.
"Warren Jeffs seems like an unstable guy," said Jim Runge, a local entrepreneur who has tried to draw tourists to Eldorado with an event each spring called the Elgoatarod, modeled on the Iditarod sled-dog race in Alaska but involving goats pulling carts around the courthouse square. "Maybe they'll implode before taking over our little corner of the world."