Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Relocates to Eldorado, Texas Ranch

'Welfare fraud, child abuse, spousal abuse — prosecute the damn stuff!' says Pennie Petersen, who fled the FLDS religion when she was 14.
(Jackie Mercandetti)

Old Wives' Tales
"If they start taking child brides [to Eldorado], then I have a problem with that and we will do something," promises David Doran, sheriff of Texas' Schleicher County. Forced marriages and statutory rape will not be tolerated.

Those who have fled Short Creek understand why.

Pennie Petersen is an outspoken blonde with laughing eyes and a no-nonsense demeanor who has helped several women escape from polygamy. One of those women was her sister, Ruth Stubbs, who was married at 16 to Rodney Holm, a Short Creek police officer who was 32 and had two other wives. Stubbs bore him three children, two before she turned 18, but then she fled.

Stubbs filed charges against her husband, with Petersen's help, and Rodney Holm was convicted in Utah for unlawful sexual conduct with a minor and bigamy, both felonies.

Petersen was not so lucky with two other sisters, who were married to William Black and both pregnant before they turned 15. Black and the girls have vanished.

Petersen herself began running away from Short Creek when she was 9 years old, hitchhiking or riding a horse to Kanab, Utah, a distance of 38 miles.

"The police were nice and would let me play pool and eat pizza before they took me back," she says, smiling. "Then my father would beat me until I couldn't crawl. Then I'd do it again."

She turned 14, found out she was to be married to a 48-year-old man who she says had previously molested her, and ran away for good.

Petersen advocates education as an important element to any sort of solution in Short Creek. Currently, many boys and girls never make it past the eighth grade, and even then their schooling is done in private, religious schools under the supervision of Jeffs.

"I'd like them to educate the women that they can be and do everything. If they do that [FLDS is] gonna lose a lot of girls," Petersen maintains.

"Show my 17-year-old daughter a 70-year-old man and tell her that's going to be her new husband, she'll tell you, 'Hell, no,' and beat the crap out of you."

What Petersen and her sister escaped was a life Pam Black says she lived until she was excommunicated by FLDS in 1998.

A coltish redhead in her 50s who married at 17, Black says FLDS women lack a fundamental sense of self-esteem. "The only time I ever felt loved in my life, the only time anyone ever sent me flowers, is when I had a little baby to love me back. If you have a baby, that's your sanity." She would have 14 children in 22 years.

Mental illness among the women of Short Creek is common, she says, a reaction to oppression and the relentless pressure to produce as many children as possible. Black claims that many women in Short Creek are on Prozac.

"I think every woman here goes berserk just from having so many children. I went crazy and beat my oldest child once, kicked him and hit him because I was just so angry," she admits.

Black is fearful about what may come to pass in Short Creek and Eldorado. Attention from law enforcement and media, she says, has only served to strengthen Jeffs' hold on his people. Persecution has been a part of their faith since the days of LDS founder Joseph Smith (who married an estimated 33 women), who was shot and killed by a mob in 1844.

"Jeffs is going to be a martyr. His exodus from Short Creek has already made him a martyr," she warns.

Watching Over
A few weeks before Christmas, newspaperwoman Kathy Mankin steps into a small plane with a telephoto lens on her camera.

The Piper 180 shimmies down the runway at the Eldorado airport. Gradually the small wings take hold in the air despite the crosswind. Pilot J.D. Doyle greets the weather with a grin.

Doyle is a self-described "high-tech redneck," a technology instructor at the local high school as well as a pilot. Like many who have flown Eldorado's skies this past year, he keeps watch on the burgeoning compound just four miles from his town.

Eldorado is a tolerant place, Doyle explains, pointing out a monastery at one end of the county and a convent at the other as the plane moves toward the ranch. Religion has never been such an issue before. Nothing has.

As the plane circles, Kathy steadies her camera and begins shooting. Fifteen hundred feet below her is a startling sight.

There's a rock quarry, rock crushing plant, barns, sheds, fruit trees, a garden, a concrete plant, a giant crane and stone cutting area, chicken coops, a gravesite, eleven large buildings that appear to be multi-story residential halls, a guard station, a commissary, the foundation of a massive temple, and a meeting hall larger than the Eldorado airport. All were built within the last nine months.

That they are coming to Eldorado is no longer a question in anyone's mind — not in Texas or even in Arizona. "Our concern is that if leadership leaves [Short Creek], there's a lack of a safety net for those who are left behind," says Andrea Esquer, spokesperson for Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard.

Jeffs has abandoned his walled compound in Short Creek, and appears to have little interest in seeing that town prosper.

The FLDS is selling large parcels of land north of the town and reportedly entertaining any reasonable offer.

Crises have hit several local institutions. In years past, FLDS followers were encouraged to take out as many loans as possible and told the world would end before they would have to pay them back. Civilization survived, but the Bank of Ephraim didn't, collapsing last November.

Meanwhile, teacher paychecks from the Colorado City School District reportedly began bouncing last fall, allegedly because FLDS got the district to hire far more of its members than were actually needed, draining the district's coffers. Nevertheless, the district owns a private plane that is used to transport school board members to meetings.

How many will move to the Eldorado compound — known as Yearning For Zion (YFZ) Ranch — and what their plans are remain the subject of much speculation. Gary Engels estimates that between 400 and 500 men from Short Creek have been dispatched to Texas to help with construction.

Jon Krakauer, who wrote about Jeffs in his 2003 book Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, has been watching the YFZ Ranch with great interest. He spent this New Year's Day in West Texas, flew over the compound, and believes he photographed Jeffs himself at a temple dedication ceremony surrounded by followers.

"Jeffs is becoming increasingly paranoid. He has several civil actions against him and I expect sometime soon a felony warrant for his arrest," Krakauer says. Utah's interested in prosecuting Jeffs on statutory rape charges for fathering children with at least two women under the age of 18.

But no matter where any charges may be filed, Krakauer predicts "the drama's going to be played out in Texas," calling Eldorado "ground zero in the effort to bring Jeffs to justice."

Ben Bistline, the local historian who has written two books on Short Creek, fears any attempt to arrest Jeffs on criminal charges would be disastrous. "If they try to go into that compound they'll have a Waco," he says matter-of-factly.

"It's like trying to serve a warrant on the pope."

But nobody in law enforcement, especially Sheriff Doran, wants to talk about Waco. That was 12 years ago and 260 miles away. Doran says he hasn't seen any weapons or any signs of violence from anyone at the YFZ Ranch. No criminal charges have been filed against Jeffs, and if they are, Doran says he'll know how to handle it.

Krakauer sees it differently. "I've been called an alarmist," he says, "but there is a very, very real possibility of a tragedy on a massive scale."

Whether or not legal proceedings provoke any kind of confrontation, FLDS members have been enduring a situation for years that will likely be exported to Eldorado as part of their culture, no matter what happens to Warren Jeffs.

Even if Jeffs is removed as prophet, "it's not like [the FLDS] will transform into the Unitarian church," says Krakauer. "It's still going to be a bad place for women and kids."

Gary Engels agrees. "I look at these 14-, 15-, 16-year-old girls, and I know they will never have a future," he says. "I'd like to see the government make this place a priority, make an attempt to bring 20th-century beliefs back in."

Engels sees a long road ahead for those who choose to leave. People who join cults most often have a life before the cult that they can work to reclaim, but FLDS members know next to nothing about the outside world. "With these people there's no place to take them back to."

Pam Black remembers well the first time she ever touched a black person — a friend's foster child — whose skin she had been taught all her life bore the mark of the devil.

"I was so afraid," she says, shuddering with her memory. "But when I held that little baby, a shift happened in my heart. How could anybody tell me God doesn't love this little child?"

When so much of the world has been called wicked and disobedience is punished by eternal damnation, Black says those who want to help people coming out of polygamy don't know where to begin.

"People here are brainwashed," she says, and it brings her to tears.