From 'hunting retreat' to a polygamous enclave

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

"They were always nice, polite," Griffen says. They bought thousands of dollars in fuel each month, always paying their monthly bills on time, in cash. "From what I could gather, they had no intention of creating problems here in town. In all my dealings with them, they seemed like any other regular customer."

Most other Eldorado residents, however, remained wary. Owners of neighboring ranches were warned to keep an eye out for young girls fleeing the compound. Some days the sheriff, David Doran, stood at the gates, in view of the sect's sentries, peering at the group through binoculars. (As time passed, Doran established a rapport with the sect's leaders; he was one of a handful of outsiders ever allowed inside before the raid.)

State Rep. Harvey Hilderbran became alarmed by reports from Eldorado, former sect members and the Utah attorney general. In 2005 he pushed into law a bill that raised the legal age of consent to marry in Texas from 14 to 16.

"Every now and then you'd hear something about alleged child abuse, but there was never any hard evidence of it," says Randy Mankin, publisher of Eldorado's local paper.

As the months passed without incident, the townspeople's fear of the group morphed first into a generalized disgust of the sect's polygamous practices, then a morbid curiosity with the now-finished, gleaming white temple (which had 4-foot-thick outer walls of poured concrete), and its priesthood rites, marriage ceremonies and secretive ordinations.

When Jeffs, the self-styled prophet, predicted Armageddon in 2005, an Eldorado resident paraded in front of the ranch's outer gate in a grim reaper costume. Caps were sold in town with ELDORADO: POLYGAMY CAPITAL OF TEXAS stitched across them. A resident songwriter had a local hit with "The Plural Girl Blues," a tune about polygamy.

"People would stop each other on the street and ask, 'So, what's the latest on our polygamists?"' recalls J.D. Doyle, the pilot. "They'd ask, 'How many houses do they have now?' Or, 'Have you ever met one yet?' See, those people were like an itch on the back of your neck, and you needed a way to make light of it."

Gradually, interest waned, except for those times that reporters came to town, or when Jeffs made headlines in Utah with his legal troubles. (Last year, he was convicted in Utah for being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl for forcing her to marry her cousin.)

Indeed, the taxes the county collected from the YFZ ranch — the sect's property at one point was valued at $8 million — was a boon to a community of sheep and cattle ranchers and cotton farmers. And yet, the nagging doubts, the scuttlebutt and rumors about what was going on behind the fences and walls of the sect's compound wouldn't die.

A Mormon who had lived in town with his family for years moved away with his wife and children, after first writing a letter to the editor of the local paper that said the FLDS was not representative of mainstream Mormons.

"Those people came under false pretenses to our area," says Lynn Meador, 62, a local sheep and cattle rancher. "Even though they brought

a lot of things to our community, I think people deep down were afraid this thing would end up like Waco. We were all just waiting for the other shoe to drop."

It came in late March, when a 16-year-old girl reportedly called a local domestic abuse hotline to report that a 49-year-old man had married her, impregnated her at 15, and beaten and choked her repeatedly, according to court documents.

In one of several phone calls to the hotline, the girl said her husband had broken her ribs. But church members had warned her not to flee — otherwise she would be found and locked in a room, according to an affidavit signed by an investigator for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

On April 3, hundreds of agents — a SWAT team, FBI agents, Texas Rangers, San Angelo police, highway patrol, and sheriff's department officers from four counties — raided the YFZ ranch, backed by an armored personnel carrier, K9 dog units and ambulances. For six days they searched the compound for evidence of child abuse and illegal marriages, hauling away a cache of computers, photographs, and birth and marriage records.

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