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Polygamous Cult Loses Texas Ranch, Faces Huge Judgment

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) suffered two major defeats in March and April, as authorities in Arizona and Texas, respectively, found a church-controlled community liable for $5.2 million in damages in a religious discrimination case, and seized a sprawling Texas ranch that church members had acquired as a sanctuary and retreat.

FLDS, a racist, polygamous cult formed by fundamentalists who split from the Mormon church over its decision to abandon “plural marriage,” has been in decline since the 2011 conviction of its president and prophet Warren Jeffs for raping his 12-year-old “spiritual bride” and sexually assaulting a 15-year-old member of his cult.  

On March 20, a federal jury in Phoenix sided with a non-FLDS family that claimed that authorities in the FLDS-dominated area known as Short Creek discriminated against it for religious reasons.

In what the family’s lawyers characterized as a deliberate effort to drive outsiders from their mostly polygamist community, local authorities loyal to FLDS denied the Cooke family, which moved to the area in 2008, access to utilities including water, sewer, and electric hook-ups. Now, the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., which together comprise Short Creek, owe Jinjer and Ronald Cooke a total of $5.2 million for discrimination, retaliation and interference.

These days, Short Creek is nearly empty of FLDS members, who have engaged in a quiet exodus since summer 2012, when the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil rights lawsuit against the community, alleging that its municipal leaders operate as an “arm of the FLDS” and engage in “a pattern or practice of illegal discrimination against individuals who are not members.”

Among other things, the DOJ’s suit alleges that city leaders and the Colorado City Marshal’s Office (which serves both Colorado City and Hildale) have turned a blind eye to harassment of non-FLDS residents, and been complicit in the enforcement of Jeffs’ commands, including one edict banning children from playing and dancing and another prohibiting families from owning pets. Apparently prompted by the DOJ’s suit (which is ongoing and distinct from the Cooke’s lawsuit), FLDS members who once lived in Short Creek have relocated to remote towns in Colorado, Idaho, Nevada, South Dakota and Texas.

One place they have not gone is the Yearning for Zion (YFZ) Ranch, a 1,600-acre FLDS-owned property outside of Eldorado, Texas, that Jeffs intended as a sanctuary for church members should they ever be driven from Short Creek. On April 16, the Texas Department of Public Safety took possession of the ranch, bringing to a close a series of legal actions against the cult that began in 2008, when authorities, acting on a tip that turned out to be false, raided YFZ Ranch and found evidence of widespread underage marriage and sexual abuse.

This January, the ranch, which included a temple with a built-in bed where Jeffs sexually assaulted female members of the cult, was found be an asset in a criminal enterprise. Once home to Jeffs and an estimated 800 of his followers, the property, which has been valued at $19.96 million, was reportedly nearly empty by the time it was seized in April.