By Karen Brooks
Reprinted with permission of The Dallas Morning News
ELDORADO, Texas – The narrow dirt road cuts away from a padlocked metal gate with a “No Trespassing” sign and an infrared security camera. The road drapes like a ribbon over rolling green hills and seems to go nowhere.
But at the end the trail, hidden from the prying eyes of a judgmental world, immense log cabins and meeting halls rise above the West Texas brush. In their shadows, women in floor-length dresses till soil in a garden the size of a football field as their husbands build a retreat for church members who believe “plural marriage” is the only way to eternal salvation.
This group of polygamists – self-described Mormon fundamentalists apparently seeking an escape from an unholy mess in their longtime homes on the Utah-Arizona border – has raised a big-time stir in tiny Eldorado, where fire-and-brimstone religion may be welcome but multiple wives tend to rankle.
Accustomed to gabbing about the local Eagles football team over the back fences this time of year, the townsfolk of Eldorado are suddenly the state’s armchair experts on fringe religions, moral relativism and separation of church and state.
The local library hasn’t been able to keep up with requests for books about Mormonism after the breakaway group, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, took up residence on the former game ranch north of Eldorado.
“I don’t think they’re here to be our friends, and I wouldn’t trust them as far as I could throw them,” said Thelma Bosmans, 51, whose mother is on the City Council. “Most of the people I talk to are like, ‘We believe in God, and we believe that God has sent them here for a reason: to wake us up from our apathy or to vote and be more alert,’ or something like that.”
The acid reactions baffle supporters in the church’s headquarters in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., home of what is believed to be the country’s largest polygamist community. The group is not considered authentically Mormon by the much larger Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City.
“I don’t understand why people are so concerned about us,” said Barbara Johnson, one of several women married to a Colorado City council member. “There’s so many different religions and types of people in the world. Why is everyone so concerned about this one little religion?”
To some in Eldorado, it’s because of worries that the group’s reclusive and powerful spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, will move in permanently with a few thousand followers and take over the local government. Others say that is too alarmist, and the general consensus is that the polygamists’ arrival means life here will never be the same again.
“It’s the biggest story this town has ever seen,” said City Manager Randy Mankin, the owner and editor of the town’s feisty weekly paper, The Eldorado Success.
Members of the church and officials who have spoken to some of the new arrivals say they came to West Texas to escape mounting pressures in their desert enclave of about 10,000 on the Utah-Arizona border.
Eldorado provided a perfect setting for that, church supporters said. The county has no zoning laws to restrict building, and it’s a hidden piece of land in an isolated area of the country.
Only Mr. Jeffs and his most loyal followers – no more than 200 – will be either living in the compound or using it as a vacation-style retreat, church members said.
It’s unknown whether Mr. Jeffs, who is battling law enforcement, financial questions and bitter former church members in his home state, will move to Texas, although local officials say he has visited the compound a few times.
Mr. Jeffs – said to have dozens of wives – is known to some as “The Prophet,” God’s representative on Earth who arranges marriages through revelation. Church members believe that men must have at least three wives to get to heaven’s highest plane.
He has declined interview requests and hasn’t made any public announcements about his plans for the 1,600-acre ranch, four miles from the Schleicher County Courthouse.
Not even county Sheriff David Doran, who communicates with the group more than anyone else in town, can say how many people are there now and whether they’ll be there permanently.
“They have a constitutional right to be here,” he said. “Right now, I’m standing in between this community and our citizens. … We don’t live in a country where you can bust down someone’s door for no reason, and I wouldn’t want to live in a country like that.”
But Mr. Jeffs’ followers say he doesn’t want to influence Eldorado the way his church controls Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where polygamists make up 80 percent of the population and a church trust owns most of the land. They run all levels of government, including school boards and city councils, and virtually all businesses.
Church members say they and their new Texas neighbors will learn to ignore each other – peacefully.
“Americans in general want to live and let live and believe everyone is different,” said David Zitting, a church member and Hildale mayor. “And as Americans, we often seem strange to each other.”
Many in Eldorado can’t seem to decide whether it’s the strange religion, the scary tales about forced marriages and child brides, or that the church members are so secretive that has them on edge.
Last year, when a Jeffs associate bought the land for top dollar, they told local officials that it was going to be a hunting retreat. Eventually, they admitted to Sheriff Doran that they had lied because they didn’t want to draw attention.
When the Eldorado Success broke the story, complete with aerial photos on the front page, it threw the tiny town into an uproar.
A former member of the group told locals that the group forced young girls into marriages. A county official from Arizona told how the women were made to have babies “until their insides fall out.”
“They scared the daylights out of us,” Ms. Bosmans said. “My mother and I locked our doors and windows for a month after that.”
Adding to the tension are recent child abuse accusations against Mr. Jeffs and fears about a second coming of David Koresh, leader of the Branch Davidian sect that battled federal law officers in a fiery siege in 1993 near Waco.
Mr. Jeffs, 49, was recently sued by an adult nephew who alleged that Mr. Jeffs and his two brothers raped him as a child, and that he has covered up serial child molestations by fellow church leaders. Attorneys for Mr. Jeffs and the church have denied that, saying the civil lawsuit is a vengeful attack by his enemies.
He’s also drawn complaints from dozens of young men and boys who say Mr. Jeffs kicked them out of their home on the Arizona-Utah state line to keep them from marrying girls intended for church elders.
Attorney Rodney Parker, who represents the church and Mr. Jeffs, said that the allegations were false and that for the most part, the boys were older than 18 and dealing with delinquency issues that had made them fall out of favor with the church.
To Eldoradoans, the mysterious “polys” – as the locals like to call their new polygamist neighbors – are the women in floor-length gingham dresses and braided hair occasionally driving pickups down Main Street.
They are the men popping into City Hall to ask about wastewater permits with Northern accents and strange, turn-of-the-century speech patterns in a place drenched in West Texas drawl just 90 miles from the Mexican border.
Since the first buildings were found in March, the group has worked on its private community with an efficiency that has earned the grudging admiration of even the most skeptical of the townspeople.
Group members have brought in rock crushers, built a cement batch plant on the property, erected three huge three-story log cabins and two enormous dormitory-style buildings, an air-conditioned meeting hall, a barn with chickens, a shared garden the size of a football field and a network of roads.
They’re hooking up electricity and water systems, planning on starting their own volunteer fire department, and have their own private cemetery.
For now, local authorities are defending the group’s right to live the religion, and Texas doesn’t outlaw the “spiritual” marriages practiced by men with several wives – unions in the eyes of their church but not the law.
Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott has contacted Utah state officials to discuss the group and allegations of fraud and child abuse that have been made against some church members there. But his office said it would not get involved unless local law officers request help.
Still, as their new neighbors settle in, the people of Eldorado struggle with whether their beliefs in independence and freedom from government persecution are more important than their religious convictions.
“I suspect,” a local preacher remarked to Sheriff Doran during one such conversation, “that before all this is over, our people will end up learning more about themselves than anything else.”