Sects With Strangers
An offshoot of the Mormon Church that's big on polygamy has set up shop in West Texas. Multiple partners we can handle. It’s the possibility of another David Koresh freak show that worries us.
It was the local pilots who first started noticing the construction work. Whenever they took off in their single-engine airplanes from the dirt runway just outside Eldorado, the tiny West Texas town about 45 miles south of San Angelo, they would see buildings being erected on a ranch 4 miles north of town.
Like many of the community’s 1,900 residents, the pilots had heard the story that the 1,691-acre ranch was being turned into a hunting retreat. At least that’s what the man who bought the property had told the real estate agent who brokered the deal back in November 2003. The man had said that he was a builder in Utah and that he needed a place to take his clients, many of whom were based in Las Vegas, for hunting trips. It was a strange story. Why would a man who could hunt elk and bear in Utah want to come to heat-baked West Texas to hunt for white-tailed deer and quail? Maybe, some townspeople speculated, this man’s Las Vegas clients were members of the Mafia.
A couple of months after the ranch had been purchased, one of the pilots, a retired engineer named Joe Christian, handed Randy Mankin, the editor of the weekly Eldorado Success, a disc filled with photographs he had taken of the property from his airplane with his digital camera. “Tell me if you think a hunting lodge is getting built out there,” said Christian. Mankin popped the disc into his computer and studied the photographs. He noticed that three buildings were going up, each one three stories tall and as wide as a Holiday Inn. Together, they could probably hold at least a couple hundred people. In other photos, he saw rectangular patches of dirt: Apparently, foundations were being laid for even bigger buildings.
The burly, 49-year-old Mankin had been an oil-field worker in Eldorado before he bought the newspaper a decade ago. He sold the ads, took the photos, compiled the community news, laid out the paper, and wrote a weekly opinion column, Over the Back Fence. The one thing he had not done was investigative reporting, but he decided that this was as good a time as any to start.
He drove down County Road 300 to take a look at the ranch. There was a lock and a No Trespassing sign on the gate, and on a pole next to the gate was an infrared surveillance camera. Mankin drove back to the office and asked his wife, Kathy, who worked for him as his assistant reporter, assistant photographer, and assistant ad salesperson, to go over to the courthouse and look up some land deeds. She learned that the ranch had been purchased by a limited partnership called YFZ Land and that a man named David S. Allred was the company’s principal manager. Kathy and Randy searched for YFZ on the Internet, but they came up with nothing. They searched for David Allred. Again, nothing. Randy asked everybody who had been associated with the purchase what he or she knew about Allred. Everyone told him that he was a pleasant, middle-aged, polite man who wore long-sleeved shirts that he always kept buttoned at the wrists. They also said he had learned from an advertisement in the Internet edition of Livestock Weekly that the ranch was for sale, and he had seemed happy to pay the asking price, which was reportedly between $800 and $1,000 an acre.
For about a week and a half, Mankin tried to figure out what YFZ Land was doing. But during his stakeouts at the front gate of the ranch, he could not get any of the truck drivers to slow down to talk to him. Many days, he never saw any trucks at all. He realized that the drivers were using potholed dirt roads at the back of the ranch to get in and out so they would not be seen. Then, in mid-March, when he was at home watching television with Kathy, a woman named Flora Jessop called from Phoenix. Jessop told Mankin that she was an antipolygamy activist.
“A what?” said Mankin.
Jessop said she had been featured recently on ABC’s Primetime Thursday talking about her attempts to help two teenage girls escape from a small community on the Arizona-Utah border north of the Grand Canyon. The community (which is actually two sister cities: Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah) is made up almost entirely of members of a religious sect, an offshoot of the Mormon Church that calls itself the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. Jessop told Mankin that all male members of the FLDS believe that they have a sacred obligation to marry many times. She said that girls as young as fourteen in FLDS families are often ordered by the sect’s leader, Prophet Warren Jeffs, to marry FLDS men, some of whom are four times the girls’ ages. Jessop said that the ABC report had mentioned that Jeffs, who never spoke to the press and was constantly surrounded by bodyguards, had been looking for another place to live to escape the pressure being placed on him by Utah and Arizona law enforcement agencies investigating allegations of underage marriages in his community. Was it possible, she asked, that Jeffs and some of his reported 35 to 75 wives were moving to Eldorado?
Mankin sat back in his chair, wondering which of his friends was playing a prank on him.
Jessop insisted she was serious. She said that someone in Eldorado had seen the television piece and had called her to ask about the odd development going on out at the ranch north of town.
“Well, okay, ma’am. Do the names David Allred or YFZ mean anything to you?” Mankin asked.
“My God, that’s them!” exclaimed Jessop. “The polygamists! They’ve come to Eldorado!”
And thus began an unusual saga that has included frantic press conferences, terrifying predictions of Branch Davidian–like shoot-outs, and West Texas being West Texas, a lot of jokes at the coffee shop about how a man could ever think that a heavenly existence meant living with more than one woman at the same time. Until Mankin broke the story of the FLDS and its new ranch compound—“Corporate Retreat or Prophet’s Refuge?” read the front-page headline in the Success—Eldorado (pronounced “El-doh-RAY-doh”), the sole incorporated municipality in Schleicher County, was little known in Texas except for its one big social event of the summer, the Running of the Bull, in which contestants stand on a stage in the middle of town in the sweltering heat and compete to tell the best lie and the best pun. The man who puts on the event, eccentric Eldorado native Jim Runge, also sponsors the annual Elgoatarod, which he describes as Eldorado’s version of the Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska, except that contestants race in goat-drawn carts around the town square. “I thought the Elgoatarod would really be the thing that put us on the map,” Runge said. “But then here came these marrying people.”
In fact, it wasn’t long after Flora Jessop, an intense young woman who grew up in an FLDS family in Colorado City before running away as a teenager herself, had her telephone conversation with Mankin that she began receiving phone calls from other reporters asking if she knew anything about the new hideout for Jeffs and his followers. Eventually she decided to come to Eldorado to hold a press conference in front of the sheriff’s office, which was attended by network television correspondents, newspaper reporters from as far away as Salt Lake City, and even Jon Krakauer, the famous journalist whose most recent best-seller, Under the Banner of Heaven, focuses on the more disturbing activities of the FLDS and other Mormons still adamantly devoted to polygamy, a practice that the mainline Mormon church abandoned in the late nineteenth century. Krakauer brought an autographed copy of the book to Mankin. “You’re in the eye of a hurricane,” he told him. “Brace yourself. Your life has changed.”
About 150 Eldorado residents also came to the press conference. Jessop told the crowd that YFZ stands for “Yearn for Zion,” which is one of the favorite phrases of Jeffs, who is said to be 48 years old and who is described in Krakauer’s book as “a tall, bony man with a bulging Adam’s apple, a high-pitched voice, and a frightening sense of his own perfection in the eyes of God.” Jeffs took over as president of the FLDS after the death of his father, in 2002, and according to Jessop, he has told his followers (there are an estimated 10,000 in Colorado City–Hildale and a few thousand more in Canada) that God speaks to him directly, just as God once did to his father, about what people must do in order to reach Zion. Among other things passed down by God has been the commandment that all FLDS members must wear, just as Mormons did in the nineteenth century, long underwear at all times, regardless of the weather. Over their underwear, the men must wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants, and the women must wear old-fashioned gingham dresses that cover them from neck to toe. To keep FLDS children away from worldly influences, they must be homeschooled and are not allowed to read newspapers or watch television. Most significantly, the children are taught from an early age that in order to please God, they must engage in “plural marriages.” (None of the marriages are civil ceremonies or registered with the state, which prevents authorities from prosecuting the FLDS for breaking laws prohibiting bigamy or polygamy.) In fact, said an Arizona county official who came with Jessop to the press conference, the sole responsibility of females in the FLDS is to submit to their husbands and give birth to babies “until their insides drop out.”
Jessop told the crowd that because FLDS members believe they are God’s chosen people and do everything they can not to associate with outsiders, it was unlikely that they would try to recruit new members or steal away the town’s healthiest teenage girls. But she did say that the FLDS men were trained in survival tactics and were ready to kill any Gentiles who tried to threaten their way of life, just as the Branch Davidians once did. What’s more, said Jessop, Jeffs has taught his followers to “bleed the beast”: to take advantage of any government assistance they can get, from food stamps and public welfare to medical care. Some reporters who follow FLDS activities say that tens of millions of dollars a year in welfare and other government funds go to the Colorado City–Hildale community. The very same thing was no doubt about to happen in Eldorado, Jessop said.
In May, Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran let the word out that he had finally had a meeting with David Allred, who is said to be Jeffs’s right-hand man, and three of his associates. Doran said that they looked like typical hardworking, middle-aged ranchers except for the fact that they did wear the long-sleeved shirts and that they were also surprisingly thin. Obviously, he concluded, they didn’t drink beer or eat enchiladas.
During the meeting, Doran quizzed the men extensively about their plans for the ranch. Allred admitted that he had made up the hunting retreat story, but he said he had done so only because they were a fiercely private group and they didn’t want the national press descending on Eldorado. Allred also said that the ranch would be used as a retreat for only two hundred of the most faithful FLDS followers. They were not going to try to create a town like Colorado City, Allred said, nor would they be applying for welfare or sending their children to public schools. He also said that, while the ranch residents would likely be registering to vote, no one in the group was planning to run for public office in hopes of controlling the local government.
Doran was aware of the rumor that Jeffs wanted to move to Texas because the Utah attorney general’s office was investigating him for having sex with underage girls. (Jeffs’s attorney has told reporters that the charges are blatantly false.) Yet Allred said little to Doran about Jeffs and would not confirm or deny that he might be moving to Eldorado.
Doran had one more question he just had to ask: “Fellows, I’m sorry, but I have to tell you. I have enough trouble with one wife. Why would you want more than one?”
One of Allred’s associates, who was carrying the Book of Mormon, launched into a solemn speech about how the founder of their religion, Joseph Smith, was an avid polygamist and how the original Mormon doctrine treated polygamy as a sacred act. He told Doran that mainstream Mormons had abandoned the faith by not engaging in multiple marriages (mainstream Mormons say that a new revelation from God after Smith’s death ordered them to stop polygamy). If human beings want to reach the highest levels of celestial life, the man explained to Doran, then they need to maintain three or more marriages. “Our many wives are a blessing from God,” he said.
“Wow,” said Doran. “That’s a new one on me.”
Throughout this past summer and fall, the questions about the compound only increased as Mankin published more aerial photos in the Success that showed additional buildings going up, including another dormitory and what appeared to be a giant meeting hall that Mankin figured could easily seat two thousand people. The photos also showed several new dirt roads, as well as a garden the size of a football field. “The idea that they were building a compound out there for only two hundred of their followers was ridiculous,” Mankin said. Yet no one in Eldorado could get any more answers. Allred apparently had returned to Utah, and the men who were left in charge of the compound were evasive whenever Sheriff Doran got them on the phone. They were so intent on guarding their privacy that when a bulldozer needed to be repaired, they hauled it to the county road so that the mechanics who had been hired to fix it would not be able to see the compound. They also requested information on how to obtain permits to maintain their own volunteer fire department and ambulance service.
When I visited Eldorado in September, most of the residents still hadn’t met even one of their new neighbors. Someone had seen a woman wearing an old-fashioned dress sitting in the passenger seat of a truck at the Shell station while a man in a long-sleeved shirt, apparently her husband, filled up the truck with gas. But the woman kept her head down the entire time and refused to speak. At city hall, Mankin ran across a compound resident named Ernie Jessop, who was trying to find out some information about water rights. “You know, things would be a lot better around here if you had a spokesman to speak to our community instead of acting so secretive,” Mankin told him.
“Sir, we don’t talk to outsiders,” Jessop said. “That’s the way my grandfather was, the way my father was, the way I was raised, and the way I will raise my children. It’s a tradition. We congregate to ourselves.”
“Around here, that’s what we call Aggies,” said Mankin, trying to be jovial.
“I’m sorry. An Aggie?” replied Jessop.
The one person who has talked publicly for the FLDS is the group’s Salt Lake City–based attorney, Rodney Parker, who has said that the FLDS members “crave an isolated place where they can just live their lives in peace.” So far, that is exactly what has happened in Eldorado. No one from the compound has applied for welfare or shown up at the tiny Eldorado hospital asking for free medical care. Nevertheless, the town’s fears were not appeased when a paperback version of Krakauer’s book came out in June. In the book, one of Jeffs’s former associates is quoted as saying that there is “about a fifty-fifty chance” that Jeffs would “start something like what happened in Waco or Jonestown if the police come in here and try to take him. I really think it’s possible. It’s scary. Warren is a very fanatical person, and his followers are true believers.”
In fact, about the only person these days in Eldorado who has a positive outlook about the polygamists is Elgoatarod founder Jim Runge, who believes that the FLDS will eventually tire of the publicity they are getting in Texas and move somewhere else. “And then we can take over the property and turn it into an Olympic village,” he told me. “I’ve already started an organizing committee to get the Olympics to Eldorado. I’m telling you, as soon as the marrying people leave, this could really be our chance to shine.”