Big Love, Texas-Style

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

Jeffs's prophecy did not come to pass, and we're all still here. But so is the temple, jutting above the West Texas plains.

"We were always taught not to go out and build another temple," says former member Mackert. Fundamentalists had always believed God would step in and give them back the mighty temple in Salt Lake City, whence they'd been barred for practicing polygamy. It's almost as if Jeffs, exercising his prophetic prerogative to make up rules as he goes along, has decided to quit waiting for divine intervention. "The temple endowment ceremonies that went on in the Salt Lake temple back before the Mormon Church did away with polygamy are the same ones being practiced in Eldorado," says Mackert.

If the prophesy doesn't come true, it's time to change the prophesy.

One thing locals can agree upon is the polygs' industriousness.
Keith Plocek
One thing locals can agree upon is the polygs' industriousness.
Work goes on at the compound 24 hours a day.
Keith Plocek
Work goes on at the compound 24 hours a day.

While Prophet Jeffs was busy flip-flopping on church doctrine, State Representative Harvey Hilderbran, R-Kerrville, was working to get the state marriage laws changed. "I hope to prevent Texas from succumbing to the practices of taking child brides, incest, welfare abuse and domestic violence," he told the media. Although Hilderbran's bill died in the House, language was added to a child protection bill that did pass and went into effect September 1 of last year.

"We've managed to make it really complicated," says James W. Paulsen, a professor at South Texas College of Law who's working on a paper about the statutes. He points to outright logical slips, such as language saying bigamy is a felony of the third degree, except for when someone is under 16 years old, at which point it's of the first degree, and except for when someone is 16 or older, at which point it's of the second degree. (Think about it for a moment, and try to figure out when it could ever be a felony of the third degree.)

Paulsen also notes that it's now a bigger offense to have sex with your cousin than it is to have sex with your daughter. (Yep, it's in there.)

But his biggest beef seems to be with the discord between the language of the new bigamy statute and that of the anti-gay-marriage amendment. Trying to make it easier to prosecute for bigamy, the state lege expanded the definition to include anyone who "purports" to marry someone while married to someone else. But at the same time, the recent marriage amendment codified marriage as the union between one man and one woman, no purporting about it. "We may have made it impossible to prosecute, by defining marriage in such a way that they can never, through one of their spiritual marriages, be committing bigamy," says Paulsen.

Not that this matters much to Jeffs and his followers, who have a history of following only the laws they consider just. And it's this disregard for the outside world that scares the heck out of former members.

"He's now instructed the people that they are to prepare themselves for the war with law enforcement," says Jessop, who states she maintains contact with family members inside the church.

"The grapevine says that he's not going to go down without a fight," adds Mackert. "He plans on being a martyr. You might as well go down in a blaze of glory and live forever in people's memories."

Most troubling for some is the giant furnace that has been built on the YFZ property. Church members have told local officials it's for treating concrete, a story that checks out, at least in theory, but alarmists like Jessop think it has a much more dastardly purpose.

The FLDS does not believe in cremation, she says, since church doctrine says you need your body to rise from the grave. But that doesn't mean Jeffs wouldn't mind making sure others don't get swooped up in the rapture. "The purpose of that [furnace] is to cremate all of us evil apostates," she says, "so we can't torture him in the next life."

The Houston Press didn't have any luck getting comment from inside the compound. Members of the FLDS almost never talk to the media, and a phone number listed on the YFZ gate for believer Merrill Jessop is no longer working. But when a Press reporter saw a group of eight people standing on the road, gawking at the temple, he pulled over to learn what was what.

"We're the Polygamist Temperance Band," joked one member of the group, still unsure whether the newcomer was a polyg in disguise. Another member explained he had family in Schleicher County. His grandparents were first cousins, he said, and they'd had 12 kids. "I'm related to half the county," he said, "and they did it without polygamy."

Later that night, the Polygamist Temperance Band (more commonly known as the Wurst Band, of Austin) convened at a ranch a few miles from the FLDS compound for a barbecue with 20 or so locals. Over goat ribs, pork sausage and potato salad, talk soon turned to the polygs.

"I've got more respect for a society that accepts polygamy than one that accepts homosexuality," said one middle-aged, barrel-chested man who'd dealt with the FLDS while holding a position on a county board.

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