The Polygamists Are Coming!

Nervous West Texas townsfolk brace for the arrival of a sect of Mormon fundamentalists and their many wives

It was a high-noon scene straight from a vintage Hollywood Western, complete with a small town in panic, menace on the horizon and a mysterious stranger sounding the alarm. Under a bright March sky, more than 150 West Texas ranchers and townsfolk gathered at midday outside the old limestone courthouse in Eldorado, voices low, eyes flitting to the north where danger lurked.

One woman carried a large sign that read "The Devil is Here." Others spoke of fears for their daughters, while men talked of armed resistance. The local sheriff, wearing a white hat and Colt .45 automatic, talked about keeping cool heads and not jumping to dire conclusions.

"Our stance is innocent until proven guilty," Sheriff David Doran said.

Ross Chatwin, above, is among the Mormon fundamentalists booted from the sect by "prophet" Warren Jeffs, pictured below with his father, former prophet Rulon Jeffs.
John Dougherty
Ross Chatwin, above, is among the Mormon fundamentalists booted from the sect by "prophet" Warren Jeffs, pictured below with his father, former prophet Rulon Jeffs.
Fundamentalists leaders say this compound near Eldorado will be used as a religious retreat. Locals are not so sure.
Nicole Frugé/ San Antonio Express-News
Fundamentalists leaders say this compound near Eldorado will be used as a religious retreat. Locals are not so sure.

Then the newcomer in town, a thin woman in jeans and a blue-denim blouse, introduced the good citizens of Schleicher County to their new neighbors, a secretive sect of polygamists from the Rocky Mountain West.

"I don't think they are coming. I think they are here," declared Flora Jessop, 34, an anti-polygamy activist who fled the sect as a teenager. "My grandfather was one of the founding members. I was born and raised in the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. I have 28 brothers and sisters still inside the group."

The portrait that Jessop painted as the people pressed in close to listen was bizarre, frightening and reassuring all at the same time.

"They are not a threat to your children; they are a threat to their own children," she said of the polygamists, mentioning in passing child abuse, forced marriage of teenage girls, child labor, welfare fraud, tax fraud and other horrors. "They have a commune in Canada. They use it to mix up the blood. Birth defects are starting to become noticeable. If a young girl starts to get rebellious, wants to get out, they'll send her to a foreign country."

Another visitor from Arizona added a few more words, leaving a final unsettling image. "They won't be stealing your cars or selling drugs to your kids," said Buster Johnson, an official from Mohave County, Arizona. "But their women don't get educated past the fourth grade. They start having babies at 14 and continue until their insides drop out."

Afterward, the stunned locals milled around in the courthouse parking lot, trying to make sense of it all. One thing was certain: With the arrival of a sect of fundamentalist Mormons, life in Eldorado, an isolated agricultural settlement three hours west of San Antonio, was going to be different.

"It just scares the heck out of us locals. You see visions of Waco, but not knowing is the scariest part," said Joe Christian, 60, who owns a ranch not far from the 1,600-acre site acquired by the fundamentalists this spring. "I feel so strongly about this. I hope they are like cockroaches, that when you put the light on them, they run."

For one man, frontier justice would serve as a reliable last resort if things got out of hand. "I'm just gonna keep my gun loaded. We take care of ourselves here. Always have, always will," Mike Calcote said.

More than a century after the Mormon Church finally broke with the practice of plural marriage, an estimated 30,000 polygamists hold out in isolated pockets around the West, clinging to a revelation received by the original prophet Joseph Smith. The largest group and one of the most secretive is the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, which owns and occupies the adjacent towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, just south of Zion National Park. But for the hugeness of the houses and the quaint hairstyles and ankle-length dresses of the women and girls, this isolated stop among the scenic vermillion cliffs might not warrant a second glance.

"It's small-town America. There's very low crime. Children are fairly free to walk the streets. We have zero unemployment," said Colorado City Clerk Kevin Barlow in a recent interview in his office. "Most of the people here hold to fundamentalist beliefs, old-fashioned if you will. You might even call it Colonial America. Love and help your neighbor. Things you wouldn't find everywhere."

But even with all the blond kids bouncing merrily on backyard trampolines or riding on donkey carts in the streets, this is one version of small-town America that Norman Rockwell never put to canvas. Some 8,000 to 10,000 polygamists live here, led by an intense and reclusive self-described prophet who rules with Old Testament severity from behind the 8-foot-high walls of his family compound.

A church trust owns most of the city land, and the church also controls the municipal governments, police department and public school district. Outsiders are often shadowed when they cruise city streets.

The "prophet," Warren Jeffs, formerly the principal of a private academy near Salt Lake City, became the sect's absolute leader two years ago after his father's death. One of his main duties is to arrange marriages according to divine revelation. Like the prophets before him, Jeffs regularly assigns teenage girls to marriage, often to much older men.

He is reported to have numerous "spiritual wives" of his own, some of whom were as young as 17 when they conceived his children. While the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints now excommunicates polygamists, for the fundamentalists, plural marriages hold the keys to heaven.

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