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Posted on Sun, Jul. 11, 2004

Polygamists in their midst

Secretive sect's move to Texas ranch has some feeling "like UFOs landed here."


The population of this drowsy West Texas 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.

The curiosity soon changed to concern when antipolygamy activists from Utah 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.

Now, 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 of Eldorado are trying to make peace with new neighbors whom many regard as followers of a strange cult.

"Our biggest concern was that we wouldn't be dealing with another Waco problem here," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, referring to the Branch Davidian siege in another Texas town in 1993. "We have talked to them about polygamous marriages and underage brides, and made them very aware of Texas laws governing sex with a minor. They told us they didn't plan on practicing that in this community."

But the practices of the church have drawn increasing interest from law-enforcement officials in Utah and Arizona , 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.

Ron Barton, a special polygamy investigator for the Utah Attorney General's Office, confirmed that the leader of the church, Warren Jeffs , 47, was under investigation for allegedly fathering children with two 17-year-old girls.

Meanwhile, some former church members expelled from the group by Jeffs are accusing him of running a mind-control cult. And antipolygamy activists charge that young women are being held against their will and forced into plural marriages.

The pressure has driven the church to seek a new outpost in Eldorado , according to Rodney Parker, the group's attorney and de facto spokesman. Church officials will not speak with reporters.

"The State of Utah 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 else."

Utah 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 Utah in 1896.

The 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.

But that secrecy began to crumble earlier this year when Jeffs , 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.

Former members portray an authoritarian world in which Jeffs demands tributes of $1,000 per month from each male church member and decides where each man may work.

The 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 Jeffs ' 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.

Any member who resists Jeffs ' rulings risks expulsion from the church, shunning by other family members, and, followers are repeatedly warned, eternal damnation.

Flora Jessop , 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.

"When 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 Jessop , who has been trying to free her 18-year-old sister from the group.

Parker, the church attorney, denied that any members were being forced to do anything against their will.

"There 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 Utah , 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."

At first, church officials said that the Eldorado ranch would be used as a "hunting retreat." Later, they conceded to local officials that the compound would house the elite members of the church.

The distaste of some lifelong residents here for their new neighbors is palpable.

"I 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,' " said Thelma Bosmans , 51, a teacher's aide at Eldorado Middle School . "But how can we welcome someone with so many people under his control? How can you condone teenage girls' being married to 60-year-old men?"

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