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