- The Washington Times - Friday, March 18, 2005

ELDORADO, Texas — With the legal heat rising against its leader in Arizona and Utah, a splinter group of polygamous Mormons is hurriedly building a new community in sparsely populated West Texas. But the arrival of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — marked by a temple tower rising out of the rocky terrain and prickly pear cactus — has been about as welcome among locals as a new species of rattlesnake.

“I think there’s reason to be apprehensive, but they’ve done nothing to warrant any kind of great fear,” said Schleicher County Judge Johnny Griffin. “But it’s the unknown. … It’s the secrecy that bothers most people. I just hope nothing happens.”

The congregation, known as FLDS and led by reclusive prophet Warren Jeffs since his father’s death in 2002, is one of several groups that split from the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the decades after it renounced polygamy in 1890.

The FLDS began migrating 77 years ago to a remote area along the Utah-Arizona state line, where its members live in almost complete seclusion. Members are not allowed newspapers, radio, TV or the Internet — and are forbidden to speak with reporters.

The sect, which may have as many as 10,000 members, has a history of polygamy that’s long been an open secret in Utah. In civil suits filed recently by former members there, Mr. Jeffs is accused of sexual misconduct and of assigning young girls as wives to older men.

But authorities say the accusations aren’t sufficient to produce criminal charges because they can’t get anyone to talk about Mr. Jeffs.

“For three years now, he’s been doing everything he can to keep people from cooperating with us and to take steps to avoid our efforts,” according to Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who recently held a town hall meeting about the church with Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

For Larry Donaldson, who has a ranch just up the road from the FLDS site in Texas, Mr. Jeffs’ move stirs memories of the fiery demise a decade ago of David Koresh and his followers at the Branch Davidian compound outside Waco.

“That’s just the thing I thought of,” Mr. Donaldson said from his pickup truck, a rifle resting on the seat next to him to take care of predators coveting his livestock.

The new complex just north of Eldorado, about 160 miles northwest of San Antonio, includes roughly a dozen concrete-and-log apartment buildings plus other structures around the fortresslike temple, about 80 feet tall, that’s nearing completion.

The main entry to the property is a dirt easement blocked by a locked metal gate. A quarter-mile down the path there is a small guard shack, and someone equipped with binoculars has been spotted atop a construction tower that gives a bird’s-eye view of the 1,691-acre tract.

The number of church members in Eldorado is unknown, and while they have been seen only sporadically, they are easily spotted in the town of just under 2,000.

Men and boys wear buttoned-up long-sleeve shirts. Long, loose-fitting pastel-colored dresses are worn by women and girls, who also have long braided hair.

“They don’t say much,” said Tammy McGinnis, 28, who works at a Shell convenience store not far from the compound where some church men have purchased gasoline. “I said hello to one. He just looked down.”

Randy Mankin, editor of the 1,100-circulation Eldorado Success — the town’s weekly — said his newspaper has been following the construction of the compound for about year. Mr. Mankin took a call from a woman named Flora Jessop inquiring about a land purchase; she heard it was related to the FLDS.

Five months earlier, a company called YFZ Land LLC spent nearly $700,000 for a former exotic game ranch, prompting chuckles from locals who figured some greenhorn got snookered into paying about twice the value of the place.

Miss Jessop, who said she escaped from the church nearly two decades ago and devotes her life to helping others to do so, showed up in Eldorado a week later. She claims she still has contacts within the church, and worries that the congregation’s fierce loyalty to Mr. Jeffs might one day result in violence.

Yet George Arispe, the Schleicher County sheriff’s chief deputy, noted that none has been reported at the site, and that the people he has seen are “hardworking folks” and “awesome contractors, great at what they do.”

Judge Griffin is torn between what is viewed by many as a threat to his county and his respect for the rights of privacy and religious freedom. And Mr. Doyle said he can’t see any criminal charges “until one of the girls comes into my office and raises her hand and swears they’ve been molested by so and so, and that’s never going to happen.”

Associated Press reporter Travis Reed in Hildale, Utah, contributed to this report.

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