Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Relocates to Eldorado, Texas Ranch
By Susy Buchanan
ELDORADO, Texas -- This is a town of 1,951 residents, 13 churches, three restaurants, and a motel that fills with hunters during deer season. The town paper, the Eldorado Success, covers high school football, wedding anniversaries and city council meetings — typical small-town stories in what was once a typical west Texas town.
All that changed on March 24, 2004, when the biggest story to ever hit Eldorado debuted on the paper's front page: "Corporate Retreat or Prophet's Refuge?" the headline read. The Success sold 200 copies in a single day, causing a near-traffic jam outside the paper's office, says editor Randy Mankin.
The story Mankin broke concerned the true identity of Eldorado's new neighbors.
In November 2003, David Allen Steed had purchased a 1,691-acre ranch just outside of town, telling locals it would be used as a hunting retreat for business clients from Las Vegas.
But Mankin discovered that Steed was actually an agent for a breakaway Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) and based in an Arizona-Utah border community long known as Short Creek (encompassing the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.).
He began researching the FLDS, and what he would learn would astonish him: stories of "blood atonement," child brides, rabid racism, multiple wives, and a secretive, religious dictator.
The more he learned, the more apparent it became that the folks at the ranch had no interest in hunting at all.
The FLDS is a polygamous religious cult led by 48-year-old "prophet" Warren Jeffs, who teaches his followers (he claims an estimated 10,000) that blacks are the descendants of Cain, "cursed with a black skin" and selected by God to be "the servants of servants."
Since taking over leadership of the group when his father died in 2002, Jeffs has demanded absolute obedience from his followers and preached blood atonement, an early Mormon doctrine dictating the extrajudicial killings of certain sinners. (Modern Mormon officials have said that blood atonement was never actually carried out, but researchers have produced some evidence to the contrary.)
Jeffs says that the government is "wicked," as are outsiders and the mainstream Mormon Church (leaders prefer its full name, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or LDS), and that all will soon be stricken from the earth by God's hand.
An explosive situation appears to be developing.
Gary Engels, an investigator from Arizona, says Jeffs recently predicted that the world would end on April 6 — the day the sect believes Jesus was born — and has instructed his followers to ready a temple for the second coming.
Attorneys general in Utah and Arizona are investigating Jeffs and the FLDS, concerned by allegations of forced marriages involving underage girls.
And former cult members filed lawsuits last July in Utah that accused Jeffs of a litany of crimes, from sodomizing a 5-year-old nephew to making terroristic threats.
But process servers in the civil cases have been unable to locate the prophet, who has not been seen in public for months, and some law enforcement officials worry that any possible encounter with Jeffs could spark violence. Many observers suspect that Jeffs is leading a permanent departure from Short Creek, where there are signs that hundreds of his followers are moving out and bringing the polygamist cult and its problems to Eldorado.
An FLDS spokesman told a reporter last fall that Eldorado was being set up merely as a new "outpost and retreat" for some 500 Short Creek residents tired of negative press attention. But that hasn't mollified the locals, who have not forgotten that they were lied to about the purpose of the ranch.
"There's a new town moving into our county," says Mankin. "They could easily outnumber everyone here in the city if they need to. We're very concerned about that."
The last thing Mankin wants for his town is to see it become another Short Creek — no matter how many newspapers he sells along the way. Even more frightening is the specter of another Waco.
"From the moves I see [Jeffs] make, I think he's unstable," says Mankin. "Mass excommunications, the reassigning of wives, children and families, and a reckless disregard for business. They are gutting that town out there [Short Creek] and are coming here to Eldorado."
All Mankin can do is watch and wait.
Warren Jeffs' empire is, for the moment, headquartered in an area north of the Grand Canyon and south of Zion National Park known as the Arizona Strip, in the isolated community of Short Creek, where time has stood still in many ways since the polygamists moved there during the Great Depression. The FLDS split from the mainstream LDS after the church banned polygamy in 1890 under pressure from the federal government.
The FLDS further distanced itself from the LDS when the church reversed a longstanding position and began allowing blacks to become priests in 1978. Jeffs has described the day blacks were given the keys to heaven as a victory for the devil. He says the LDS "became the great and terrible church on the earth" and will be destroyed by God.
Despite longstanding laws forbidding polygamy, the group has been largely left alone since a disastrous 1953 raid on Short Creek by Arizona law enforcement became a public relations nightmare for then-Gov. Howard Pyle. The media told stories of families and children torn apart, and the public was outraged.
Pyle's attempt to eradicate what he called "the wicked theory that every maturing girl child should be forced into the bondage of multiple wifehood with men of all ages" would end his political career.
That a devout religious sect wishing to be left alone with their faith would choose to settle in Short Creek is understandable. The red rocks of Canaan Mountain loom like sentries above the town. The vast cerulean sky is dark and crisp at 6,000 feet.
There is also a harsh edge to the wind that turns the cheeks of the women ruddy and tousles their carefully constructed braids.
Clad in frocks and simple dresses, they appear trapped in an endless episode of "Little House on the Prairie." Dust stirs under their footfalls, swirling their long skirts as they walk the quiet streets.
Although it's hard to study their faces at any length because they're quick to turn away from strangers, there's a sense of déjà vu with each high forehead, pointed nose, and reddish-gold mane.
In Short Creek, it's not uncommon for your sister to be your cousin or your uncle your stepfather. The lack of new blood — this is a sect you must be born into — explains the recurring facial structures.
In a more tragic way, it also explains the town's baby cemetery, a large plot of land devoted exclusively to the headstones of newborns and infants.
Marriage between close relations can bring out the worst in genetics.
'Obey the Prophet'
Short Creek is completely dominated by Jeffs. FLDS members control the city government, the police force, the schools, and every aspect of life.
"Obey the prophet when he speaks and you'll be blessed," Jeffs has said. "Disobey him and it's death."
In late 2004, Jeffs asked his disciples to stand if they would be willing to die for him. No one remained seated.
"He asked them would they die for him. Well, that's a veiled question," says Richard Holm, a former elder in the FLDS church who was excommunicated in 2003. "'Would you kill for me?' is the subtle question within that question."
In the two years since he became prophet, Jeffs has ordered all dogs shot; closed the town zoo; forbidden television, holidays, movies and music; banned laughter; forbidden swimming and water sports, and sent "God Squads" of young men to inspect residences and report any violations of his edicts.
Marriages are arranged and performed exclusively by Jeffs in order to keep his chosen people pure. "The devil is trying to get people to go out and marry and mix with the world," he preaches, "even different colored people. That is why we marry only who the prophet says."
Strangers ("gentiles") touring the town are met with glances ranging from hostile to fearful. Outsiders, residents have been told, are "wicked."
Everywhere visitors go in Short Creek, they are shadowed by an entourage of men in SUVs and pickups watching their every move, taking note of where they go and who they speak with — a silent intimidation of both the visitors and anyone who accommodates them.
Not that there's much in town to draw a tourist.
Short Creek has a restaurant that sells religious books and homemade soup.
The supermarket shelves offer eight-pound "family packs" of hamburger meat.
There's a drugstore that's devoid of condoms but offers $1 ovulation testing and free popcorn.
Houses are ramshackle and look like modular gerbil cages, one mismatched habitat slapped onto another to accommodate burgeoning families and multiple wives. (FLDS believes that three wives are necessary to reach the highest level of heaven.)
Short Creek also has a "launching pad," a grassy field near the baby cemetery that has been used several times as a gathering place when the prophet declared the Lord was coming to destroy the wicked and "lift them up."
Colorado City historian Ben Bistline says he remembers three separate occasions the community was told to gather for lift-off. "People were scared to death that the end of the world was coming," Bistline says.
"They were crowding the supermarkets, loading up with food," Bistline recalls. "I saw a little girl reach into her mother's basket and take something out. 'Can I eat this, mommy?' she asked. Her mother told her, 'No, honey! That food's for heaven.'"
When the Lord failed to appear, the prophet pronounced his flock unworthy and urged them to pray harder.