Big Love, Texas-Style
ELDORADO, TEXAS -- James Doyle rears back on the stick, and his Piper Cherokee 180 flops into the air, hastily rising above the dry cedars and prickly pears of Schleicher County. Doyle is a rural justice of the peace. He sets bails, judges misdemeanors, declares deaths and even pilots out-of-towners who'd like to take an overhead look at the West Texas dust.
Not ten seconds after takeoff, the white temple looms ahead, its disproportionately small cupola resting at least 90 feet above the surrounding ranchland. Built by a sect of Mormon polygamists, this stone homage to God looks like a mirage, like it belongs anywhere but here. But there it stands, defiantly miraculous, stupendous.
Doyle isn't very interested in the temple. He's seen it plenty of times, as has practically everyone else in town. Its top is visible from the highway, no plane necessary. But what you can't see from the ground is an entire town, nestled from outsiders in the small valley that runs through the middle of the polygamists' 1,691 acres. From on high you can see the cement plant, the dairy, the silos, the quarry, the trucks and the SUVs; the chicken coops, the orchards, the water and propane tanks; the irrigated fields, made arable from tons of manure, and the three-story houses, built log-cabin-style, save for one modification.
"In all of the buildings, the first floor has concrete walls," says Doyle, idling the engine for a better view. "It kind of makes you wonder if they're not preparing themselves." The JP doesn't draw the connection outright, but any talk of religious fundamentalists' hunkering down in Texas brings to mind images of Waco, where federal agents raided the Branch Davidian compound in 1993, resulting in dozens of deaths.
Doyle's new neighbors belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, a sect disowned by the mainstream Mormon Church. The fundies disagree with Salt Lake City on several key points of doctrine, including plural marriage and racism. (The mainstream church outlawed polygamy in 1890. It allowed blacks to become priests in 1978. Both decisions were no-goes for the fundamentalists.)
Last year the FLDS prophet, Warren Jeffs, was placed on the FBI's Most Wanted List. He's been charged with facilitating the marriage of underage girls; several charges of molestation have also been tacked on. Jeffs is said to travel with an entourage of devout followers, men armed and ready to do anything to protect their ticket to salvation.
It was just over two years ago that the citizens of Eldorado learned the church had bought some acreage outside their West Texas town and the polygamists -- sometimes called polygs ("puh-LIGS") or plygs ("pligs") -- started arriving. They came from an area on the Arizona-Utah border known as Short Creek, where until recently they exercised complete control over the twin towns of Colorado City and Hilldale. But now Short Creek is unraveling, one fundie at a time, and Prophet Jeffs has decided Zion belongs among the oil-derricked plains of Schleicher County.
The polygs weren't born in Texas, but they're getting here as fast as they can.
There are some 30,000 fundamentalist Mormons in the United States, although the most famous believers are quickly becoming the fictional Henricksons, of HBO's new series Big Love. The show paints a sympathetic portrait of actor Bill Paxton's dealings with his three wives, although, as the season progresses, more and more weirdness -- incest, molestation, extortion -- is coming to light.
When the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlawed the practice of polygamy, the move, a condition of Utah's being granted statehood, was dictated as much by politics as by belief. It opened a rift in the Mormon community like no other. For many, the doctrine of plural marriage was an integral part of their religion. These fundamentalists took to the hills and set up sects, sure theirs was the one true path to salvation.
(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not respond to requests for comment for this story, although a release on its Web site quotes President Gordon B. Hinckley as saying, "I wish to state categorically that this Church has nothing whatever to do with those practicing polygamy.")
Many fundamentalist Mormons believe a man must have three wives to achieve salvation. This is called practicing the principle. A wife, in turn, must be married to a man who has at least two other wives, since women can enter the realm of heaven only if their man is already there. (If a wife dies before her husband, she's stuck in a celestial holding pattern until he passes.) But the husband also has to want her to come, calling out her name after death. No one wants to spend eternity with a nag, so this inevitably leads to a situation where a woman must kowtow to her man's every need in the present life, lest he choose to leave her behind in the next.
The largest sect of fundies is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, currently led by wanted man Warren Jeffs. Warren wrested control of the church after the death of his father, Rulon, in 2002. (Those who've seen Big Love will recall that fictional prophet Roman is often followed by his tall, brown-haired son, who looks like a handsome version of the real-life Warren.)
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
"Everybody's got the right to hump," countered his son. "It's not like you've got to participate."
Another local insisted freedom of religion is necessary for democracy, although his wife did express concern the polygs would eventually have enough voters to take over the county.
But nothing was going to stop these folks from having a good time on a Friday night, gnawing on barbecue, drinking beer and passing around a guitar. And it's not like they can't have a little fun at the expense of their neighbors, as was evident when local crooner Jon Cartwright picked up the guitar and started finger-plucking some blues in E:
Plural girl blues. Plural girl blues.
Anniversary today, can't remember whose.
But them first few weddings I remember well,
Lucille, Elizabeth and Annabelle,
Then Gracie and Maude, I think Jennifer
After that it's kind of a blur.
Plural girl blues. Plural girl blues.
Hey Lord, I got them plural girl blues.
Oh, you'd never believe how hard it gets,
With 13 wives and 40-something kids.
You can't even think with all the noise,
And you'll be plumb wore out, spanking the boys.
Plural girl blues. Plural girl blues.
Gotta head up to Wal-Mart and buy a hundred pairs of shoes.
Well, I got this one wife that I won't mention
Says she don't get enough attention.
I said, "Woman, Good Lord Almighty,
Don't I see you every other Friday?"
Plural girl blues. Plural girl blues.
I got 13 pages of honey-do's.
No one outside the church knows for sure why the FLDS chose to hole up in Schleicher County, but there's plenty of room for speculation. The mind-your-own-business attitude of West Texas had to have been attractive. The land was relatively cheap, especially since the church didn't bother to buy all the mineral rights. (Although this oversight actually means a consortium of oilmen could decide to stick a derrick smack-dab in the middle of the property, a move that would please anti-polygamy activists to no end.) And Eldorado is also a safe distance from the Arizona-Utah border, where the FLDS is taking some serious heat for its dealings.
The Arizona Attorney General's Office recently took over the financial affairs of the Colorado City Unified School District, which had been under FLDS control for years and was used as a slush fund for the church. Reporter John Dougherty of the Phoenix New Times, a sister paper of the Houston Press, brought many of the transgressions to light over the course of a three-year investigation. Among the district's extravagances was the 2002 purchase of a Cessna P210 for $220,000. (Big Love's prophet owns a similar aircraft.)
But the town's problems don't stop there. When Warren Jeffs declined to appear in Utah court last summer to defend himself against civil charges, the state responded by assuming control of the United Effort Plan, a church trust with $111 million in assets. The UEP owns practically all the land in the Short Creek area, and church members have since refused to pay their property taxes, gearing up for a showdown should the state try to evict them. And just four weeks ago, federal authorities took two church members into custody, citing them with contempt of court for refusing to help apprehend the prophet.
All of this attention makes isolated Schleicher County look mighty attractive to a group of polygamists who just want to be left alone. So far they seem to be minding their manners: Schleicher County hasn't seen a significant rise in welfare payments, and the YFZ property taxes have been paid on time. But the county has a population of only 2,700, while Jeffs has an estimated 10,000 followers scattered across North America, so there's still the fear of a political takeover. And there's still the fear the prophet could hunker down in his white temple and dare the feds to come and get him.
And that wouldn't be pretty.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.