Polygamists of Eldorado
Telegraph Magazine, Mar 2005
Under Siege in Eldorado: A storm is brewing in a Texan backwater, where a secretive Mormon sect – accused of sex crimes and forced marriages – is building a new compound. The polygamous colony, and their leader Warren Jeffs, claim they simply want to be left alone to await Judgment Day, when only they will be saved. But their neighbors fear that Eldorado could be another Waco waiting to happen.
Photographs by Misty Keasler
At 1,000 feet above ground level, Jimmy Doyle dips the wing of his single-engine plane so as to give us a better look at his new neighbours, the polygamists.
“They probably won’t be out,” he says. “Usually they hear the plane and go indoors.”
We’re flying over Schleicher County in West Texas, a vast, tan prairie, blotchy with cedar, juniper and herds of livestock. About four miles to our south is the small town of Eldorado where Jimmy Doyle, 68, serves as Justice of the Peace. And below us, tilting into view is the 1671 acre ranch recently purchased by a notoriously secretive Mormon cult known as the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).
As Doyle expected, we can’t see any actual polygamists, but there’s ample evidence of their activity. The ranch has the look of a village in progress, tucked a mile in from the street – a grid of red timber buildings, seven small and three big; a quarry, a cement bulk plant and a huge rock crusher, all joined by dirt roads.
“They built all this in a year,” says Doyle. “They work through the night, 24 hours, every day of the week.” As we circle he points out the meeting hall, the storage facility, and the foundation for a huge temple. “And those small structures are family homes. Well, I say small, they’re three storeys tall. One for each wife, I guess.”
Though not a nosy man, Doyle has nevertheless made over 100 of these flights since March 2004, often for reporters and TV crews from all over the country. “Oh, Fox news, Chicago Tribune, you name it,” he says. At first he was amused by the national interest, but now, like most of Eldorado’s residents, he understands that there’s more to these neighbours than an abundance of wives. “When people talk about Waco or a Jim Jones type situation, I can understand,” he says. “From what I know, the potential’s there, for sure.”
There are many differences between the FLDS and the followers of David Koresh or Jim Jones, but it is the similarities that most trouble Eldorado residents like Doyle, not to mention the many lawyers, activists and tiers of law enforcement who have monitored this situation from the start. Clearly the FLDS are religious extremists in thrall to a despotic leader in Warren Jeffs, a former headmaster from Salt Lake City with – by most estimates – upwards of 80 wives. The FLDS believe that Jeffs is a prophet with a daily dialogue with God and that a terrible day of judgement is soon due, in which only his followers will be saved. From birth, they have been taught that the outside world is peopled entirely by the damned, and must never be trusted, particularly the authorities and the media. They avoid all contact with outsiders – all newspapers, magazines, television, books or radio are forbidden. There is no leaving the ranch except on essential business, which is always conducted by men.
To an extent, the cult’s extreme paranoia is self-fulfilling, since it fuels curiosity about them. And it is curiosity that keeps Jimmy Doyle’s plane circling overhead. The ranch is so well hidden from the highway that it can only be viewed from the air and from time to time, over-inquisitive local pilots swoop in illegally low over the property to get a closer look. They see women outside working, dressed in 19th-century style bonnets and ankle-length dresses. At the sound of the plane, the women run under trees to hide, and those who cannot hide in time kneel on the floor and cover their faces with their hands.
“It’s the women and children I worry about,” says Doyle, making a final round. “I read that they force 14- year-old girls to marry men three times their age and to keep having babies until they can’t. I know we can’t do anything until someone leaves and presses charges, but who knows how hard it is for them to escape? Those poor girls might be hollering for help every day but we don’t know it.”
From the air, Eldorado is a squat, scattering of homes, seemingly cowed by the huge sky. A friendly red state farming town, with a population of 1950 – so small, the locals joke, “we only got one city limit sign” – it has a coffee shop, one school, two taxidermists and seven churches. People have time here, and guns. There are no strangers and nothing much happens. Though the young leave looking for excitement, the elderly return looking to avoid it.
So the arrival of a colony of polygamous zealots, over 200-strong, has caused quite a stir. Every Wednesday afternoon, when the local paper, The Eldorado Success, comes off the presses, a queue forms outside the newspaper’s office, eager to read the latest. “One week, we didn’t run a story on them,” says the editor, Randy Mankin, “and people started ringing up saying ‘Did they get to you already? Did they pay you off?’ It’s like a soap opera. People get addicted.”
The saga began in November 2003 when a businessman named David Allred bought the ranch for $1.2 million, under the company name YFZ. He told the estate agent that he wanted a hunting retreat for the clients of his construction company. It was the perfect cover story – Schleicher County is jumping with deer, and the ranch came with a fully furnished hunting lodge. But by February, local pilots like Jimmy Doyle noticed that the lodge had been razed, and a massive building project was underway. So Mankin did some digging. He discovered that David Allred is linked to the FLDS church and that YFZ stands for Yearning For Zion. “I told the Sheriff, but other than that we kept quiet, because we knew it would alarm people,” he says. “Then Flora Jessop arrived.”
Jessop, 36, is a former FLDS member and virulent anti-polygamy activist from Utah. When she learned of the ranch in Eldorado, she flew in at once to give a press conference outside the courthouse to some 150 residents. The new neighbours, she explained, were nothing short of criminals, welfare fraudsters, child abusers and zealots on a par with the Taliban. Jessop told of how she fled, aged 16, when the church authorities ordered her to marry one of her cousins or be committed to a mental hospital. Ever since, she has devoted herself to helping other ‘refugees’ from polygamy through her organisation Help The Child Brides.
“It’s very difficult to leave,” she says. “You sacrifice your family, your friends, your security, the only home you’ve ever known – what does it take for a young girl to walk away from all of that? And to enter a world where you’re taught everybody is wicked?”
Jessop claims to have several contacts inside the cult – among them, many of her 28 brothers and sisters – but she will not reveal their identities for their own safety. The risks, she insists, are real. For Jessop, the FLDS is a closed world, a “terrorist organisation” of stifling ignorance and fear. Children are deliberately undereducated, girls are forced to marry much older men and teenage boys are thrown out to leave more women for the elders. Husbands live at the mercy of a merciless prophet, and their wives are self-loathing slaves who become so competitive that they turn on each other, sometimes violently. “You’re taught that only way to get eternal salvation is by pleasing your husband enough that he will take you into the celestial kingdom with him,” Jessop says. “And the competition turns wives into barracudas. I know women who have scars on their faces from the beatings other women have given them.”
Not everyone appreciates Jessop’s dramatic style. The FLDS’s attorney Rodney Parker, the group’s only official spokesperson – though he himself is a Catholic – accuses her of fabrication and “making a handsome living off it”. But Jessop is not alone. The charges she makes are not only broadly echoed by several others who have left the cult, but in substance, they have dogged Mormon fundamentalist groups from the outset. (The FLDS is the largest such group with a population of 10,000. There are an estimated 30,000 polygamists in the USA).
In his recent book Under The Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer probes the recurring problems exhibited by these groups, chief among them the forced marriage and rape of young girls. In a high profile case in 1998, a badly beaten Mary Ann Kingston, 16 – from the huge Kingston family clan in Salt Lake County – fled a compulsory marriage to her 32-year-old uncle. In 2000, another clan’s patriarch, Tom Green was found guilty of the rape of a 13 year old. Mormon fundamentalism motivated the abduction and rape of the 14 year old Elizabeth Smart in 2002, in a case that gripped American headlines for months. The list goes on. And there is violence written into fundamentalist thinking. Krakauer’s book focuses on the murders of a mother and her 15-month-old baby, committed by the Lafferty Brothers in 1986, which were sanctioned, in the killers’ minds, by the principle of ‘blood atonement’, a doctrine core to Mormon fundamentalism. By this principle, it is not just permissible, but laudable, to kill should the prophet order it, or should one receive divine revelations of one’s own.
“Yeah it does concern me somewhat,” says Chip Cole, 52, a realtor who owns a neighbouring ranch which, by his reckoning, dropped 30% in price when the polygamists moved in. “But we’re used to taking care of ourselves in West Texas. We’re all armed. When I heard about blood atonement, I just got me a little better firepower.”
Cole has tried to be a good neighbour. “I hollered at ’em over the fence, ‘Hi I’m your new neighbour!’ But they just turned and left – those ladies with the bonnets, grabbing their kids and shooing them inside. Then the bad press started coming out in the Success and three of the men came by my office one day. To allay my fears, I guess. It was cordial enough. They explained how plural marriage was core to their beliefs. So I asked whether one lady could have plural husbands too, and they all shook their heads, ‘No, no, no’”.
Cole’s first concern is that the fundamentalists might drain the aquifer and pollute the water. He keeps cattle on his land and “I’m not sure there’s enough water to sustain, what is it, 200 people? A thousand? I know they’ve already been cited with 29 non-compliance notices by the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality, and they’ve not been fined a dollar to my knowledge.”
A more prevalent fear in Eldorado is that the FLDS will drain the public purse, particularly the welfare budget, owing to a legal loophole whereby all wives after the first (who is legally registered), are unregistered “celestial wives”, and therefore eligible for benefits as single mothers. For years, a FLDS community has been doing exactly this in the area of Short Creek on the border of Utah and Arizona, about three hours drive from Las Vegas. They call this fraud “bleeding the beast”. It amounts to an annual windfall in public funds of about $6 million.
The Short Creek area contains the twin cities of Hildale (Utah) and Colorado City (Arizona), home to the biggest FLDS community in America, numbering roughly 10,000. It is where the FLDS first took root in the 1890s, to preserve the doctrine of plural marriage when the mainstream Mormon church buckled to federal pressure and renounced the practice. Though the first settlers were few in number, they were bolstered by the knowledge that Mormonism’s founding leaders, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were both rampant polygamists (with 33 and 57 wives respectively, by some accounts).
Life in Short Creek was turbulent at first. In 1953, Arizona’s governor raided their community, tearing families apart and arresting the men on the grounds that polygamy was illegal. But the raids backfired terribly. They not only deepened the fundamentalists’ sense of persecution but they created a PR disaster – front-page images of the state separating children from fathers – that convinced all future governors to turn a blind eye on polygamy thereafter. So a half century passed, relatively free from state interference, and the FLDS multiplied at a terrific rate, by a combination of dogged breeding and a tradition of illegally young wives. And today the polygamists have complete control of Short Creek. The police department, schools, hospital and all other services are run by polygamists, and virtually all of the land on which their homes and business are built belongs to a church trust called the United Effort Plan.
They might have remained under the radar in Short Creek, and never troubled the people of Eldorado, were it not for the reckless leadership of Warren Jeffs, the reigning ‘prophet’, under whose rule, the FLDS has taken a dark, fanatical turn. The rot began during the 90s, the era of his father, ‘Uncle Rulon’, who was not nearly as benign as he sounds. Rulon once had all the dogs in Short Creek rounded up and shot, following a Rottweiler attack on a child. It was Rulon who reduced the leadership of the church from a seven-man council to one individual. And it was Rulon who banned all television, books, newspapers, magazines and radio. When he died in 2002, Warren quickly capitalised on his father’s work – he married a third of his father’s 75 wives and then, claiming divine revelation, manipulated the senior bishopric to transfer the entire United Effort Plan trust into his name. Rulon’s reign would soon be a fond memory.
“He just started banning things, one after the other,” says Ross Chatwin, 35, who lived under Warren Jeffs’ rule until his excommunication in 2003. “He banned music, the colour red, he banned stripes and anything to do with black people – he calls black people ‘filthy’. All sports and games – anything competitive is banned. And pictures on clothing, like floral patterns. The word ‘fun’ is banned. Loud laughter is banned, but smiling is OK. He always says you have to carry ‘the smile of the prophet’ to get into heaven. And no paintings. The only picture you can have on your wall is of him. And he’ll send a group of boys around your house, called the Sons of Helaman to check that you’re obeying the rules. People are terrified.”
The punishment for straying from the rules is excommunication, a terrible penalty both in this life and the next. For when Jeffs excommunicates a man – and it is men that first suffer his wrath; women and children suffer the consequences – he first evicts him from his home (which is often built on church land), then instructs his followers to shun his business, so ruining his career, and finally, he ‘reassigns’ his wives and children to man deemed more worthy, often a blood relative of the excommunicated, a brother or a cousin. The beleaguered husband is told to ‘repent at a distance’ – that is, to move away from the community but to keep paying the exorbitant tithes and pray that God might some day readmit him to the priesthood. And though that day never comes, the FLDS community is so deeply indoctrinated that not only will wives accept their ‘reassignment’ without protest, but their husbands will frequently encourage them to leave, in the vain belief that with obedience and prayer, their family might be restored.
So far Jeffs has excommunicated 150 men – which means roughly 500 women have lost their husbands and roughly 1500 children have lost their fathers. “It’s a desperate situation,” says Flora Jessop, “and there are fresh excommunications every week. The whole community is traumatised.”
Chatwin is one of the rare few who dared to defy Jeffs. Rather than submit to his excommunication – for supposedly wronging a customer (Chatwin is a used car dealer) – he resolved to stay in his home, and his wife and six children stuck by him. The battle went to court in March 2004, and Chatwin prevailed. So now he still lives in his Colorado City home, albeit under bizarre circumstances – he shares the house with his brother, who remains loyal to Warren Jeffs, so their two families do not speak. Their children do not play together. “I can hear him playing tapes of Warren’s speeches upstairs, so I just turn the TV up to drown him out,” Chatwin says. He believes that he is safe from blood atonement only because his case has received such media attention.
Most often, however, the excommunicated end up like Richard Holm, who at 52 has lost his family, his business, his home and everything in it. A senior FLDS council member at one time, he repented at Warren’s bidding, ever hopeful that the punishment would be withdrawn. Then six weeks later he received a call from “my bastard brother” to say that he had been assigned Holm’s two wives and seven children. Recently Holm learned that one of his wives is pregnant.
“Warren is like a sniper in the long grass,” he says. “He takes you out, and you don’t know where it came from. He has the power of life and death over people.” And yet Holm willingly succumbed to that power. Until he himself was excommunicated, he too believed that Warren was a prophet. To this day, fewer than 10 excommunicated men, by Holm’s estimation, have dared speak against Warren.
Holm likes to think it is his rage, and that of other ruined men, that drove Warren to abandon Short Creek and seek refuge in Texas. In truth, there are many factors. As quickly as the building has advanced in Eldorado, so the forces have been gathering against the so-called ‘prophet’.
Utah’s Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, announced in August 2003 that he was determined to go after Jeffs. In July Warren’s nephew Brent Jeffs filed a civil case against him, charging that when he was 12, Warren and his two brothers repeatedly sodomised him at the school where Warren was headmaster. Another case that hangs over Jeffs’ future is that of the ‘Lost Boys’ – four young men out of approximately 400 who have been discarded by the community since 1998 to leave more women for the older men. The official reasons given are trivial crimes such as smoking a cigarette or wearing a short-sleeved shirt. Many are dumped in nearby Las Vegas by their own parents, with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.
Private investigator Sam Brower, who helped Ross Chatwin fight his eviction, is now assisting the attorneys in both the Brent Jeffs and Lost Boys cases. He senses a day of judgment looming for Warren Jeffs. “He’s gone into hiding. He knows we’re closing in on him,” he says. “He moved out of his high-walled compound in Short Creek to a place called Mancos, Colorado, and he hasn’t made a public appearance in months. He just records audio tapes that his bishops distribute among his people. I think he’s just waiting for construction at Eldorado to be completed.”
Brower believes that Eldorado will be Warren’s final refuge. He has been draining money out of the Short Creek community more than ever lately – recently he demanded an additional tithe of $1000 per month per household. And it is widely known in Short Creek that only the chosen few will be summoned to Eldorado, their Zion.
“It’s significant that they’re building a temple,” says Brower. “This group has never built a temple before. They have a prophecy which says, ‘with the laying of the last stone on the temple, the people will be raised up to Zion’. Eldorado could be Warren’s last stand.”
At Shots, Eldorado’s only coffee shop, the four o’clock regulars have convened, their accents twanging around the table. The subject at hand, yet again, is Warren Jeffs.
“They say he’s crazy,” says DJ Garvin a retired rancher. “Heck, I’d go crazy if I had 80 wives.”
“One more wouldn’t hurt. You think he’ll take mine?” laughs Gene Jones, a telephone engineer.
Nothing like a neighbourhood cult to get the conversation going. The local entertainer, Jim Runge, insists that the polygamists have benefited Eldorado. “They’ve put us on the map, which is good news for our Olympic bid,” he says. But behind the jokes, there are real concerns. DJ Garvin worries that the polygamists will burden the local hospital, for instance. Gene Jones fears that they’re so numerous they could “take over the council and elect all their own people like they did up in Utah.”
When I express these concerns to Sheriff David Doran, he shakes his head. “I know people are worried. But I met with the FLDS leaders at the ranch, and they assured me, ‘we won’t be a burden, we just want to be left alone.’”
Doran is the picture of a small-town Sheriff – an affable moustachioed man of 41, with a cowboy hat and a gleaming gold star badge. Having been on the YFZ ranch and visited Short Creek as part of his research into the FLDS community, he has a lot to say about the new neighbours, a lot of rumors to quash. Today he is driving us up to the YFZ ranch gate, about a mile from the community proper – which is as close as a reporter can get – and he seems keen to stress how the FLDS has impressed him.
“There sure are a lot of neat things about their community,” he says. “I mean, they seem like good Christian folks when you meet them. Very polite and quiet spoken. You don’t hear them swearing, they don’t drink. And their children are blonde haired and blue eyed – they got a race of kids there that are just beautiful. And they raise them with skills. The education isn’t very good, but I guarantee you, when those kids come out, they can build a home from scratch. They’ve got carpenters, electricians, masons, farmers – you name it they can do it.”
Doran was recently re-elected to a third four-year term in what was essentially a referendum on his handling of the FLDS situation. He won 903 votes to 411, which “in Eldorado is a heck of a big turnout.” And his winning strategy is clear – look, listen and wait, but first, tamp down the kind of hysteria that spreads so swiftly in a small town.
Suspicions have run high in Eldorado ever since the fundamentalists lied about making the ranch a hunting retreat. Texans think of themselves as a proud, straight-shooting people, especially out west in cowboy country. But this mistrust is somewhat tempered by a fierce respect for private property rights. As Chip Cole says, “I may not share their belief system but they’ve sure got a right to be landowners. And so long as they are good stewards of the land, what they do there is their own business.”
Rights are a theme to which the Sheriff keeps returning, as though to remind himself. “We’ve got a constitution in this country,” he says. “That’s what America is all about. And until I see them breaking any laws, or a witness files a complaint, then I have to respect those rights.” He is echoed by Brooks Long of the Texas Rangers, a statewide force dedicated to investigating major felonies. The Rangers recall all too well the bitter experience of Waco. “David Koresh was stockpiling arms and this group aren’t doing that,” says Long. “I’ve seen no evidence that they’re violent. Matter of fact, I’ve seen evidence of more crimes committed in any other neighbourhood in America than in this community.”
There will be legal hurdles down the line. Texas law forbids legally married men from living “with a person other than his spouse under the appearance of being married” – which applies to most men in the FLDS community. And the group’s lawyer, Rodney Parker admits that brides as young as 15 are common in the FLDS community, even though the age of consent in Texas is 17. But without a witness and a complaint, there will be no investigation. “We just had the Catholic church covering up abuse by their priests,” says Long. “We didn’t just kick down the doors of every church and round up all the priests, did we? So we’re not going to do that here.” Both Long and the Sheriff are unswayed by the argument that women on the ranch are too afraid to come forward, or that their freedom of movement is curtailed. They dismiss both Flora Jessop and Ross Chatwin as media seekers.
“My priority is not to listen to hearsay,” says Doran, “it’s to keep my line of communication open. That’s partly what went wrong at Waco. The communication broke down.” And this may best explain why Doran is so quick to emphasize the positive about the group. He is in a sensitive position. As the only Eldorado resident to have met with the FLDS, Doran has become the cult’s de facto spokesman to the town and visiting media. And he knows that while the rank and file are shielded from newspapers, the elders read their press attentively – they get the Eldorado Success delivered each week. So it pays for Doran to watch his words.
“Where would trashing them get me?” he asks.
Communicating with the FLDS is never easy – phone calls go unanswered, faxes unreturned, questions unanswered. But Doran appears to have succeeded up to a point. In October he was getting along well with the YFZ ranch’s appointed contact, Ernie Jessop (no immediate relation to Flora Jessop – surnames in polygamous societies signify clans rather than families). They got on so well, the two even exchanged food – Doran gave him two boxes of cantelopes and he received tomatoes and onions in return. Shortly afterwards, however, Ernie Jessop was excommunicated and Doran has been referred to his father Merrill instead.
Perhaps Doran’s tolerance for the fundamentalists is not so unusual – they have more in common than either would admit. Doran, too, comes from a small, inward-looking community, somewhat remote from and alienated by the throb of mainstream American society. He once told me that the FLDS is “just so foreign in Eldorado, they might as well have built a Buddhist temple.” When he attended a sheriff’s convention in Dallas, Doran was so unnerved by the size of the city that he was afraid to leave his hotel. “I never travelled the trains without my gun,” he says.
They even share many of the same spiritual values. The difference is more one of degree. “One of the things I hear a lot in the Christian community in Eldorado is ‘if only we were as faithful to our religion, as they are to theirs’,” says Doran, making a virtue of their extremism. “Maybe that’s why God sent the fundamentalists here, I don’t know.” It’s a question he has prayed on frequently – why Eldorado, what is God’s purpose here? Certainly one effect of the FLDS’ arrival has been to galvanise the congregations of all the denominational churches in town – the Church of Christ, the Assembly of God, Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians. Pastor Andy Anderson, who tends the largest flock in town, has noticed higher attendances over the past year.
But for Doran, there was a particular moment last year when he felt God’s purpose was being revealed in part. One of Warren Jeffs’ wives, Barbara Barlow, had been suffering from cancer, and Ernie Jessop thought she had better personally explain her illness to Doran so as to avoid any speculation that a death on the property might create. And with this breakthrough – speaking to one of the cult’s women, one of the prophet’s wives, no less – Doran felt that “God had opened a door. So I tried to plant a seed. I gave her a crucifix and just basically witnessed to her about Jesus and what it is to be saved,” he says. “She didn’t reject what I was saying.”
Months later, Doran learned from a source within the YFZ compound that after his every visit to their site, every building that he enters or object he touches is later cleansed, literally rubbed with olive oil and rededicated to God. Just as Doran saw Barbara Barlow as destined for hell as an unbeliever, the fundamentalists think much the same of him.
When we arrive at the gates, two propane trucks are parked side by side. “You’re lucky to see this,” says Doran, excitedly, as though we’ve chanced upon a rare and exotic bird. “They transfer all their fuel to their own truck, outside on the street. They don’t let any delivery trucks into the compound.”
As we pull up, two men from the cult quickly hide behind their truck. And Sheriff Doran keeps driving. “If you weren’t with me, I’d say hi. But I know they hate media.”
We continue to a higher point with a distant view of the ranch rooftops, and we watch a blazing sunset fill the sky. Somehow the Sheriff’s insistence that everything is under control, no laws are being broken does nothing to alleviate the sense of a gathering storm around the FLDS’ perimeter fence. Warren Jeffs is feeling the heat more than ever. At the time of going to press, he has fired his lawyer, Rodney Parker, which is an ominous sign, particularly as lawyers in Maryland, Utah and Texas are busy taking depositions against him. A private investigator is on his trail. Allegations of abuse are rising to a clamour. And all around is talk of looming cataclysm.
“I think blood will be shed before this is over,” says Richard Holm. “He’s setting up his martyrdom one way or another. At his last public appearance, in September, he spoke at the main church in Colorado City. He said ‘how many of you will die for me?’ And the whole congregation stood up. It was his first appearance in nearly a year, so you can imagine how many people were there. Thousands.”
Ross Chatwin believes that the community is so fearful and desperate that the worst is possible. “I think if Warren wanted to start a mass suicide, then there’s 3,000 of them right here who would do it. They’d do anything.”
Sheriff Doran, however, dismisses such notions as sensationalist. He has crept to a halt in the patrol car and killed the headlights because “at night, they have guards drive the perimeter in four-wheelers.” In the distance, the lights for the rock crusher have flashed on, and great clouds of dust from the machine are wafting into its beam. “I asked them about suicide,” he says, his eyes fixed on the rock crusher. “They said they don’t believe in it.”
He drives a little closer, grabs a set of binoculars from the back seat and watches.