in their midst
Secretive sect's move to
ranch has some
feeling "like UFOs landed here."
By Howard Witt
The population of this drowsy
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.
curiosity soon changed to concern when
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.
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
are trying to make peace with new
neighbors whom many regard as followers of a strange cult.
biggest concern was that we wouldn't be dealing with another
problem here," said Schleicher County
Sheriff David Doran, referring to the Branch
siege in another
town in 1993. "We have talked to them about polygamous marriages and
underage brides, and made them very aware of
laws governing sex with a minor.
They told us they didn't plan on practicing that in this community."
the practices of the church have drawn increasing interest from
law-enforcement officials in
, 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.
Barton, a special polygamy investigator for the Utah Attorney General's
Office, confirmed that the leader of the church, Warren
47, was under investigation for allegedly fathering children with two
some former church members expelled from the group by
are accusing him of running a mind-control cult. And
activists charge that young women are being held against their will and
forced into plural marriages.
pressure has driven the church to seek a new outpost in
according to Rodney Parker, the group's attorney and de facto spokesman.
Church officials will not speak with reporters.
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
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
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.
that secrecy began to crumble earlier this year when
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.
members portray an authoritarian world in which
demands tributes of $1,000 per month from each male church member and
decides where each man may work.
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
' 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.
member who resists
' rulings risks expulsion
from the church, shunning by other family members, and, followers are
repeatedly warned, eternal damnation.
, 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 free themselves.
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
, who has been trying to free her 18-year-old
sister from the group.
the church attorney, denied that any members were being forced to do
anything against their will.
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
, 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."
first, church officials said that the
ranch would be used as a "hunting retreat." Later, they conceded
to local officials that the compound would house the elite members of the
distaste of some lifelong residents here for their new neighbors is
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,'
, 51, a teacher's aide
"But how can we welcome someone with so many people under his control?
How can you condone teenage
to 60-year-old men?"