The Polygamists Are Coming!

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

But the raid, which received heavy newspaper coverage, proved a public relations fiasco. Images of families being torn asunder sparked broad public sympathy.

"The raid was widely perceived as religious persecution by overly zealous government agencies, and it sparked a great outcry in support of the polygamists," wrote Krakauer. Within three years, Pyle had been voted out of office, and all the polygamists who had been arrested, as well as their children, were back together in Short Creek.

Now, after a half-century of relative peace, the polygamists are again under the legal gun, awaiting only the prophet's impulse to remove to West Texas. Already, they have constructed three large dormitory-like structures on the property purchased this spring by the YFZ Land Corp., whose name is thought to signify "Yearning for Zion." Two more buildings are planned, and an orchard and large garden are already in the works.

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.

Their chosen sanctuary, Eldorado (rhymes with Play-Doh) is a more conventional slice of small-town America. The city of 2,000 residents and eight churches is the only incorporated municipality in Schleicher County. Sheep, goats and cattle, wheat and alfalfa, and a little oil and gas support the local economy, and about a half-dozen mainstream denominations worship here.

"It's a pretty standard West Texas town. We've got Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, you name it. There are no Mormons that I know of," said Mayor John Nikolauk.

Eldorado became aware of the newcomers this spring after local pilots noticed the construction of the large structures on the recently sold game ranch just north of town. When a local reporter did some checking and came up with the fundamentalist Mormon polygamists, shock and confusion followed.

"That first week, it was like a UFO had fallen out of the sky," says Randy Mankin of the Eldorado Success, which broke the story. Since then, he says, things have calmed down. "It's gone from anxiety and fear to anxiety and joking. I heard a fellow today say he's already qualified because he's been married three times."

The subject has been talked to death in the morning coffee klatches.

"I think that for someone to have more than one wife would be cruel and unusual punishment," cracked Gene Jones, 65, a retired oilfield worker who meets daily with the other old-timers at a local convenience store.

But some in Eldorado have not lowered their guard.

Councilwoman Dora Bosmans, 75, who carried the sign announcing the satanic arrival, remains on high alert. "We feel it's like a Trojan horse thing. They are going to be here, and we are going to accept them, and then all of a sudden they'll march down to the courthouse, register to vote and take over the town," Bosmans says. "They have a right to believe whatever they want to, but when it's polygamy and child abuse and child brides, that's wrong, and that's where the devil comes in. That's evil, and the devil is evilness."

After initially claiming that the project was a corporate hunting retreat, the fundamentalists have come clean with Sheriff Doran, admitting it will be used as a "religious retreat." In one visit to the site, the sheriff spoke with church elder Ernie Jessop. "He said, 'We're trying to get away from all the publicity and hype in Arizona and Utah,'" Doran recalls. "He said, 'We are hardworking, honest people. We are a closed society. We don't want to expose our children to outside corruption. We want to raise our children by our own beliefs.'"

More recently, Doran met with four church leaders at their request.

"We had a two-hour meeting in my office. I asked a lot of questions," he says. The fundamentalists told him the retreat will accommodate no more than 200 people, among them the closest followers of the prophet.

"I asked them if Warren Jeffs is coming. They did not say either way. They indicated that Warren Jeffs does whatever he chooses," the sheriff says.

In addition to reviewing Texas laws on homeschooling, welfare and environmental issues such as water and septic system requirements, the sheriff broached the touchy subject of polygamy and underage brides. The sheriff says he advised polygamists that in Texas it is a felony for an adult male to have sexual relations outside of state-recognized marriage with a girl 16 years or younger.

"They said it won't be their practice, although it might have happened in the past," he says.

Doran and a deputy will be driving out to Colorado City in the near future to get a firsthand look at the fundamentalists' enclave.

Neither Jeffs nor church members speak to reporters, but church attorney Parker says the Texans have nothing to fear. "If they give the fundamentalists a chance and get to know them, they'll find out they are peaceful and honest people who are not very different from people in that country. These are rural Western people. They'll find they have a lot in common," Parker says.

And, Parker says, even though he does not know what the church plans to do with the Eldorado retreat, fears of a large-scale invasion are misplaced. "They are certainly not planning a wholesale move to Texas. That's just not feasible or realistic or consistent with the work I've been doing there for many years, trying to protect the property in Utah," he says.

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