Big Love, Texas-Style

Polygamists live in a compound on our state's dry western plains

Warren Jeffs is currently charged with a bevy of crimes, including sexual misconduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual misconduct with a minor. The latter charge arose from his role as the prophet in arranging marriages of underage girls to older men. He has not been seen publicly since 2004; the FBI is offering $50,000 for information leading to his arrest.

An estimated 10,000 people believe Jeffs is the direct mouthpiece of God. For them, his word is law. He can excommunicate members on any whim, damning them to hell for all eternity. This power engenders a fierce, potentially violent loyalty to the prophet.

"These are dangerous, homegrown terrorists," says anti-polygamy activist Flora Jessop, who left the FLDS 20 years ago at the age of 16. After being forced to marry her cousin, Jessop hightailed it out of Short Creek and eventually landed in Phoenix, where she now does outreach work with others who've left the church. "The women and girls are hunted if they try and leave," she says. "Their women are their biggest commodity."

...and the temple, built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looms in the distance.
Keith Plocek
...and the temple, built by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, looms in the distance.
Locals such as Philip Meyer think not enough is being done to stop the polygs.
Keith Plocek
Locals such as Philip Meyer think not enough is being done to stop the polygs.

To skirt the law, men in the FLDS take one wife legally and the rest "spiritually." In Short Creek, this situation has had the benefit of qualifying all the extra spiritual wives for welfare, since the law sees these unwed mothers as classic examples of need. "Bleeding the beast" is how the FLDS refers to this practice of defrauding the government. It's considered a virtue.

And when every man needs at least three wives for salvation, it doesn't take much arithmetic to figure out there are going to be some guys left over. "In nature, you see the dominant buck drives away the weaker and the juvenile bucks, so he can have all the does," says former member Brian Mackert, 39, who is now a Baptist minister. Many of these excommunicated men, these lost boys of polygamy, wind up on the streets, convinced they're going to hell, living a lifestyle that'll ensure they get there sooner rather than later. "I'm a son of perdition," Mackert mocks. "Me and Satan are going to do the Texas Two-Step in the Lake of Fire."

Philip Meyer swears he saw Warren Jeffs last December. "We had a four-inch rain that day," says the Eldorado convenience store owner. "After a big rain you like to drive out in the country, see if any of the dried draws or creeks are running." While he and his son were on the road to the compound, they saw a man who looked like Jeffs locking the gate and hopping into a white pickup. "There wasn't no doubt who it was," says Meyer. A call to the FBI got him a call back the next day, but "that guy's clear out of the country. No telling where he's at by then."

Two years after local pilots first noticed construction work atypical of a hunting retreat on the acreage recently purchased by YFZ Land, the people of Eldorado have learned a lot about their new neighbors. They've learned YFZ probably stands for Yearning for Zion, a nod to the notion that only church members will be left when God wipes the wicked from the earth. They've learned about child brides and lost boys, devout followers and excommunicated apostates. They've learned the FLDS has a history of taking over towns, voting in mass blocs, putting church officials in civic positions. And they've learned there isn't a whole lot they can do about it.

"This is the United States," says Justice of the Peace Doyle. "And I don't kick in your door and you don't kick in mine and we don't kick in theirs. They're citizens of the United States and we've got to have a probable cause."

Doyle has been on the YFZ property a number of times for official business, including a trip when he donned his coroner's hat and pronounced one of Warren Jeffs's wives dead. She'd had cancer and assured local officials she'd been receiving care at a San Angelo hospital. Doyle says a truck met him at the gate and led him straight to her house, another truck following close behind.

The JP can't speculate as to whether the prophet visits his Texas followers, but he says, "Warren Jeffs is a coward and he's scared and he doesn't travel. He has a bodyguard stay with him 24 hours a day."

Meyer believes Jeffs comes and goes regularly from the compound, and even though there isn't much evidence to back this up, his is a belief shared by many townspeople still reluctant to adjust to life down the road from a settlement of polygamists. When the local newsweekly, The Eldorado Success, first broke the story about the polygs, the children of the only other Mormon family in town were taunted by their peers. In a move almost as metaphorical as literal, their father packed up his mainstream Mormon family and moved it to another town after getting a new job.

But the responses haven't all been laden with worry. Last year, local satirist Jim Runge caught word Warren Jeffs had declared April 6 the day of reckoning. It was the 175th anniversary of the founding of the Mormon Church by Joseph Smith, and news media, armed with the same information, began flooding into town, their flashbulbs waiting for the apocalypse. Upon arrival they were greeted with a message Runge had posted on the marquee in front of city hall: TOMORROW IS CANCELLED.

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