Racist cult 'prophet' Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) is on the move, and a tiny West Texas town fears another Waco.
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.
"There is not another town, municipality or city that is anything like this. There is nothing like this in America," says Gary Engels, the investigator with the Mohave, Ariz., county attorney's office who has been working in Short Creek since last fall. Engels had done his polygamy homework before his arrival, but still was surprised at the extent of control Jeffs has over the population.
"It's like a fiefdom and everyone lives and survives by the will of Warren Jeffs. He can take away your family, your business, and your home. What king has ever had that power?" he asks.
At first glance, Engels looks and acts like a cop out of central casting. His hardened exterior comes from years on the streets as a homicide cop, and it's precisely this stubbornness that makes him an ideal man for what has to be one of the loneliest jobs in the county. No one in Short Creek wants him there.
"I'm here to investigate any and all crimes that may or may not have taken place," Engels says from behind his desk in the trailer Mohave County installed him in last fall. The trailer is shared by Child Protective Services and social service workers, the idea being that a distraught polygamist could come in for benefits and use the opportunity to talk with Engels about spousal abuse, statutory rape, forced marriage or any other crimes without arousing suspicion.
Well, that's the idea. It hasn't happened as of yet, and Engels doubts it will anytime soon. He hopes that "over time they will get used to me."
It's a tough town for Engels. The police are followers of Jeffs and are not warm to Engels' presence among them. They follow him regularly, and they carry guns.
Rumors about a cave in the cliffs filled with a stockpile of weapons have been circulating for years. The cave exists, but Engels can't say for sure what's inside. He does offer this: "We do know that in 1982, 150 assault rifles were brought here as well as a few hundred thousand rounds of ammunition."
What happened to the weapons is unclear.
Threats come Engels' way every so often, which he takes as a sign he's getting to the locals. Still, he is cautious.
"They are totally, completely, 120% loyal to Warren. If he told them someone needed to be killed, the fringe people would take it upon themselves to do so." Engels says. "The biggest thing they are taught is obedience and to not question anything." Anything at all.
Gary Engels estimates more than 300 men have been excommunicated under Jeffs' rule. With staggering birth rates and multiple wives, the number of people whose lives have been torn apart is in the thousands.
Richard Holm lost his $700,000 home, two wives and 10 children to excommunication in November 2003, and the experience has nearly broken him. Needless to say, Warren Jeffs is a bit of a sore subject.
Holm squints into the sun as he tells his story, doing his best to curse like a sailor. Despite the intensity of his anger, he doesn't have the appropriate vocabulary to let it emerge. He's been taught all his life to be subservient, to push strong emotion from his soul and "keep sweet" for the Lord.
And so, when rage comes roiling out of the balding 50-year-old, the best he can muster is to call the man who stole his wives and children a "stinkin' bastard." The words fly from his mouth like bullets.
Holm had not only pledged his life to this religion, but also a good chunk of money. Over the past 25 years, Holm estimates he's tithed upwards of $10 million, profits from construction and other businesses he has overseen.
And then one day, in one phone call, the world as he knew it ceased to exist.
The call came from his wives' father (Holm had married sisters), and it let him know, third-hand, that God had deemed him unworthy of the priesthood.
Apparently, the Lord woke Jeffs that morning and delivered a list of sins that Holm had committed. Jeffs then called Holm's father-in-law, who was asked to relay the bad news to Holm. Holm was ordered to give up his wives and children and leave the community immediately to "repent from afar."
Jeffs tells men he excommunicates that if they can come up with a list of their sins that matches the list Jeffs received from the Lord, they can return.
It's a cruel game. Of course, the lists submitted by the hopeful men never quite equal what the Lord said, and Jeffs amasses a collection of deep, dark secrets as the men describe in detail, on paper, every bad thing they have ever done.
Holm was no exception. "I packed an overnight bag, hugged my family and went to my motel fully expecting to only be gone a day or two. I wrote [Jeffs] a letter that night and dropped it off at his house. Then I tried calling him. Warren would not answer my calls. I wrote him six detailed letters about my life, not only my challenges but also my faithfulness."
Six weeks later, Holm changed his mind about trying to get back in favor with Jeffs.
Holm learned his wife and children had been reassigned.
"I got a phone call from that little bastard brother of mine saying he was now married to my two wives," Holm remembers, tightening his shoulders.
"I told him how rotten and wrong he was. Then I had to get out of town or I would have killed the bastard."
Holm suspects his brother, Edson, received his wives as a reward.
"Edson had given one 17- and two 18-year-old daughters to Warren, who married them to three of his buddies." Looking back, it all made sense.
"Ed turned in three daughters in one fell swoop and here was a way to reward him. That was so stinkin' wrong, and it convinced me that we're dealing with an evil stinkin' bastard."
Holm has visitation with his children each week. The visits are loving, but tense.
The prophet tells Holm's children that apostates like their father are "the worst of beings, and the terror and pain they will suffer cannot be described."
For his part, Holm says he is buying a home with a swimming pool, a pool table and a big-screen TV, all things that are forbidden to his children. He hopes to offer the kids glimpses of a different world, and allow them to choose which to be a part of when the time comes.
But he is not overly optimistic about their fates.
Holm has three daughters and one son who are in polygamous relationships and won't have anything to do with him, including grandchildren he is not allowed to see.
And lately he's become especially fearful of losing his 18-year-old daughter.
He's told her he wants her to experience courtship and to marry someone of her own age and choosing. He's told her that if Jeffs marries her off against her will, he'll come for her, even if she is taken to Texas. But Holm fears she is "leaning the wrong direction."
Swimming pools and big-screen TVs can't compete with the influence of Warren Jeffs, who says polygamy and obedience can turn young women into goddesses.
"There's been a seduction taking place where [Jeffs] seems to represent this exotic celestial world in a compound where everything you want is at your fingertips," says Holm. "But it's a mirage, and she doesn't seem to realize that those walls are there to keep her in as much as they are there to keep the world out."
Holm says each of the girls at school received a special note last fall.
"There is a place for each one of you in Zion. When you are ready, I will come and get you personally," it said.
The note was signed "Warren S. Jeffs."
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.
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.