From 'hunting retreat' to a polygamous enclave

Published: Sunday, April 20 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Later, they asked a friend, Joe Christian, a computer tech who lived adjacent to the YFZ ranch, what he made of it. Christian hadn't a clue, actually. His new neighbors had been reclusive, leaving him to puzzle over all that nonstop building. We should take some aerial photographs, he suggested; the Doyles agreed.

The photos intrigued Randy and Kathy Mankin, who published the town's weekly paper, The Eldorado Success, so they did a background check on the buyer, Allred. Initially, they saw no red flags: He was, as he'd claimed, a builder from Washington County, Utah. Still, why build such large residences on so remote a ranch?

Then, in late March, the paper got a call from Flora Jessop, an anti-polygamy activist from Utah who'd been raised in the FLDS and who, as a teenager, had run away from the sect. A polygamist group, she'd been told, was rumored to be establishing another enclave in west Texas.

In Randy Mankin's mind, polygamy had already taken its place on history's ash heap. But the caller wouldn't stop asking questions. When Mankin finally relinquished the name of the buyer, he heard a silence on the line, then:

"It's them...."

"Them," Jessop went on to explain, was the FLDS, a renegade, splinter group of Mormons that by the 1930s were practicing polygamy (the ticket to heaven, followers believed) in secret ceremonies for "spiritual brides" that circumvented bigamy laws in the U.S.

In recent years, sect members and their prophet, Warren Jeffs, were being investigated by authorities in the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., for allegedly marrying off girls as young as 13 to much older men with multiple wives. Women and girls who fled the sect — and boys who'd been forced out or abandoned — told stories of forced marriages, incest and abuse; some who left called the FLDS a destructive cult.

The March, 25, 2004, story atop the Success' front page — "Corporate retreat or prophet's refuge?" — sent shock waves up and down Eldorado's dusty streets. Everyone wanted to know: Were these outsiders like the Branch Davidians, whose compound near Waco was stormed in 1993, resulting in the deaths of 80 people?

Would they kidnap their sons and daughters? Brainwash them? Would they try to conquer Eldorado by ballot, voting as a bloc for judges, commissioners and school and hospital board members sympathetic to their ways?

At the local library, paperback, cassette and hardcover copies of "Under the Banner of Heaven," an unsparing look at similar sects, suddenly were in demand. The local paper featured articles almost every week on the FLDS and posted online audio clips of Jeffs ranting in a steely monotone about the Beatles being covert agents of a "Negro race."

Locals, buzzing regularly over the property in their planes, snapped photos of FLDS women in long pioneer dresses tending gardens, men digging small graveyards, erecting thick walls around their temple, and building enough dwellings to establish a mini-city.

"They never shut down," says Gloria Swift, who runs the Hitch'n Post Coffeeshop with her husband, Jerry, in town. "Even when you drive by that ranch at night, you see this glow of lights from the highway. They're out there with heavy machinery, building, 24 hours a day."

The sect's members, meanwhile, shunned nearly all contact with outsiders, including the media, insisting they wanted to be left alone to practice their religious beliefs in peace. The women didn't shop in local stores; the children were home schooled on the ranch.

As a group, sect members bought most of their merchandise in the much larger city of San Angelo, 45 miles up the road past sun-baked fields of cotton and mesquite trees. There, they shopped in bulk for warehouse staples and were often seen at the Lowe's home-improvement store hauling away dozens of appliances at a clip.

When drivers waved to the men, who occasionally came to town in their trucks to buy propane, housewares or tools, they didn't wave back. They did maintain a cordial, if not friendly, relationship with Curtis Griffen, who ran Eldorado's only fuel depot with his father.

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