The Polygamists Are Coming!

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

In Colorado City and Hildale, however, where some regard Jeffs as a megalomaniacal dictator, the fears expressed in Eldorado do not seem so far-fetched.

"If I lived in Eldorado, I would be very concerned, but I don't know what they can do to stop them," says Ben Bistline, a former church member who recently wrote a critical history of Colorado City. "I understand it's a very small town. Jeffs could move 3,000 there overnight and within six months he'll have political control of that county. That's a real danger. That's what they've done here."

Bistline, who grew up in the church and left years ago, has a very dark view: "It's all about money, sex and power. I think Jeffs is trying to make himself scarce in Colorado City. The Utah attorney general wants to talk to him, and I think there is some federal interest. He's awfully nervous."

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.

As a sign of the crisis gripping the church, other former members are publicly denouncing Jeffs and are fighting his efforts to break up their marriages and force them from their homes. Because a church trust owns almost all the land in Colorado City, those who build homes on church property face loss of their entire investment if they fall out of favor and are evicted.

Chatwin, who was born into the faith, was excommunicated last year. In a stunning break with custom, his sole wife risked eternal damnation by refusing to be assigned by Jeffs to another man.

"The choice was hers. My wife could have done that, but I was very blessed because she didn't. She said, 'I don't know if my husband has done anything wrong. I won't leave him,'" said Chatwin, who is also resisting in court the church's attempt to evict him.

Chatwin denounces Jeffs as a modern-day Hitler.

"The similarities are very close. Warren Jeffs wants absolute control, even of your sex life. In my opinion, absolute power absolutely corrupts, and that's exactly what has happened," he says.

Chatwin also says that the prophet is behaving like a man about to bolt. "I heard that he said the Lord is through with Colorado City and Hildale. It really looks like he's preparing for a mass exodus," he says. "He's going to take his 500 elite and their families and move to either Mexico or Texas. A year from now, Warren will be in total hiding. He's very, very paranoid."

Chatwin says although Jeffs is not a threat to outsiders, he represents a real danger to his more devout followers.

"It could turn into a really ugly situation here very soon. If we wait too long, we could have a Jim Jones situation on our hands," Chatwin says. "He could tell all of his followers, 'This is what the Lord wants you to do. Drink the punch.' And half the people in this town would drink it and commit suicide. And he could do it if he gets backed into a corner."

Another of the recently excommunicated is Richard Holm, a wealthy Hildale businessman who says he contributed more than a million dollars to the church in the past five years. "He's on a purge campaign to end up with a pure people, and that doesn't allow anyone he deems as sinful," Holm says of Jeffs.

Holm was a longtime faithful church member until last year when he abruptly lost favor with Jeffs over unspecified sins in his past. "I had respect for him, but I didn't kiss his ass," Holm says. "He never gave me a reason. He said if my wives stayed with me, they'd go down with the wicked."

After being exiled from the church, Holm in late December saw his two wives and seven children reassigned to a younger brother who remains within the sect. Another man was given his house.

Holm now denounces Jeffs as a false prophet and an evil man.

"When he takes the most sacred people to me and puts them into absolute adultery, that brings out the reality of his deviousness and cunning," Holm says bitterly over a bowl of soup in a restaurant in St. George, Utah.

Holm has also heard the rumors that Jeffs and others will soon go to Texas. "He said this community has a curse, that he's going to Zion and that Zion is Texas," says Holm of the recent scuttlebutt.

Holm doubts Jeffs and his followers are a threat to anyone there. There's no danger of violence, he says, as long as law enforcement officials do not resort to any strong-arm tactics, as they did with the Branch Davidians outside Waco a decade ago. That armed standoff took the lives of more than 75 people, including Branch Davidian leader David Koresh and four agents with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

"I've studied the David Koresh thing, and there are some striking parallels. David Koresh also purported to be a holy man, no different than Warren Jeffs. He's got the same delusional state of mind," Holm says. "He personally would be no threat, but he's got a group of armed bodyguards who will do their best to protect him, to see that he's not hurt or arrested." Lately, Jeffs has been dodging law enforcement officials from Utah who have a particular interest in allegations of forced marriages of teenage girls to men far their senior. The church lawyer says that all marriages are strictly voluntary.

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