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Posted on Mon, Jul. 05, 2004

Polygamist group ranch worries small town's residents

Star-Telegram Staff Writer

ELDORADO -- First, it was going to be a hunting lodge.

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.

The Fundamentalist 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.

If large 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 us."

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.

Polygamist towns

The twin cities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where the church is based, are dominated by the polygamist group.

The church owns the houses, and controls the police department and the school district, even though most of its children are home-schooled.

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.

Eldorado residents were in a uproar in March when they learned that the group bought the property.

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 compound.

On County Road 300, the two-lane road that surrounds the ranch, the construction is largely invisible.

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.

Getting a clear picture of what this activity means is difficult.

The 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 pastures.

The church already has a community in Bountiful, Canada, and there are rumors of another outpost in Mexico.

One author and former member says the group has changed since Warren Jeffs became the leader.

"The biggest 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 Books

Under Jeffs, the group has changed some of the beliefs, said Bistline, who left the church in 1980.

"I've always 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," Bistline said.

Religious persecution

The church's lawyer disputes allegations of abuse and forced marriages, saying detractors take the group's belief's out of context.

"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 prisoner."

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."

Schleicher 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 security.

"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 things."

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 City.

"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."

Johnson 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.

But Parker, the group's attorney, says that's false.

"That 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.

The Texas 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 runoff plan.

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 day.

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 fence."

Bill Hanna, (817) 390-7698

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