In the most significant action Texas has taken against the property of convicted Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints leader Warren Jeffs since a Child Protective Services raid in 2008, the state filed papers Wednesday to seize the sect’s isolated ranch.
The 91-page affidavit attached to the search and seizure warrant describes a multi-year history of alleged criminal activity facilitated on the 1,691-acre compound, alleging that leaders there used the property to engage in money laundering, harbor Jeffs while he was a fugitive, and practice sexual assault and bigamy. The seizure warrant was taped to the compound’s front gate Tuesday and released to the public Wednesday.
The filing, which initiates a civil forfeiture process against the property, marks “a great day,” said Sam Brower, a Utah-based private investigator and longtime researcher of the FLDS church. “This is not a religion,” he said. “It’s a criminal organization that rapes children.”
The announcement Wednesday is the latest in an on-again, off-again series of actions Texas has taken against Jeffs and his followers, who form an ultra-hardline community that practices polygamy and is not recognized as legitimate by the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints based in Salt Lake City, Utah. Nine members of the FLDS church, including Jeffs, have been convicted of sexually assaulting children at the ranch where Jeffs gathered elite members of his sect.
Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the state attorney general, called the filing “simply the next step” in its prosecution of indicted FLDS members.
Prosecutors used DNA evidence last year to prove that Jeffs had fathered a child with a 15-year-old girl he had wed in a “celestial marriage.” Prosecutors also played for jurors what they described as a tape of Jeffs sexually assaulting a 12-year-old. Listed on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for a time in 2006, Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison in August 2011.
Living behind bars has not done much to loosen the white-knuckle grip the 56-year-old self-proclaimed prophet holds on the men, women, and children who populated the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, which was built on property purchased in 2003. The compound, the entrance to which is guarded by a formidable white metal gate, houses its own school, residential buildings, water and sewage treatment plants, clinics, and school, allowing the occupants to maintain a self-sufficient community.
A temple building and temple annex are the center of the community’s religious life—though not one moment of life is left without religious significance for Jeffs’s followers. A recent investigation by ABC News found that Jeffs’s jail-cell directives included orders for followers to destroy their children’s toys. He has reportedly banned corn and dairy products from their diets while he eats prison food. Female members of the sect wear full-length pastel prairie dresses and keep their hair, which they never cut, in 19th-century styles.
Building a religious sect insulated from the rest of the world was always Jeffs’s goal, Brower said.
“Just recently, Warren—from prison, mind you—sent out the edict that the people should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”
“We are establishing secret places where each person that goes there is placed under oath and covenant to keep it secret and sacred,” Jeffs said of the ranch in 2003 “Priesthood Records” obtained by officials and cited in the affidavit. Jeffs refers to the Eldorado ranch with the code word “R17” in the documents cited in the affidavit, referring to it in one instance as being in “a very isolated condition.”
Jeffs also has banned followers from accessing the Internet, reading newspapers, or watching the news, Brower said. Nevertheless, the community has carefully constructed mechanisms for spreading information among its members that likely kicked into gear when Texas declared its intention to seize the ranch.
“This system that they have sends out messages simultaneously to thousands of members on their phones. They’ll get a phone call and there will be a recorded message,” Brower said. “Just recently, Warren—from prison, mind you—sent out the edict that the people should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. He gave them instructions to put together backpacks, load them with provisions and all kinds of things, and that the end was coming soon.”
Such warnings are typical of Jeffs, Brower said. Yet whether to avoid the end of the world or for more mundane reasons, many of Jeffs’s followers may already have fled the area, people familiar with goings-on at the compound told The Daily Beast.
“As far as I understand it, the branch was being abandoned,” said Susan Hays, who served as attorney ad litem for a number of FLDS children after Texas law enforcement raided the property in 2008 and scooped up 439 children under the age of 18. (The children were ultimately returned to their homes.) Some people may still be living on the compound, however, Hays said.
Carolyn Jessop, a former FLDS member and ex-wife of church leader Merrill Jessop, also said the YFZ compound has been emptying in recent months. The author of Escape, a memoir recounting her flight from the FLDS, Jessop describes herself as “a product of six generations of polygamy.” She fled the church and her powerful husband in 2003, taking her eight children with her.
“When they were buying property, things were getting really scary, so I got out a year before that,” Jessop said. Jeffs was talking to his followers about something he called the “center place.” “To me that meant compound,” Jessop said. “That scared me to death. I knew that getting off a compound would not be a possibility.”
The affidavit released on Wednesday alleges money-laundering practices that stretched over years and were used to finance the purchasing and maintenance of what became the YFZ ranch, some of them from around the time Jessop describes.
FLDS leaders bought the West Texas ranch “in a failed attempt to establish a remote outpost where they could insulate themselves from criminal prosecution for sexually assaulting children,” the Texas attorney general’s office said in a press release on Wednesday. The affidavit “details how the purchase of the ranch itself and the construction of a massive compound on ranch property were financed with the proceeds of illegal money laundering.”
Finances might have been the ranch’s undoing in more ways than one. “They’ve been doing a lot of building since the raid,” Jessop said of activity at the compound since 2008. “They went through a period where they were moving a lot of people around out there, and we had a lot of people disappear from the community, and we don’t know where they are.”
“The numbers probably quadrupled out there” a couple of years ago, Jessop said, before starting to drop again. “I heard they were pulling people off the ranch.”
Jessop said she thinks the building and maintenance expenses involved in keeping more people on the ranch was probably too heavy a burden. “I suspect that the reason they pulled people off the ranch was the financial part of it,” Jessop said. “They put a lot into building. I think they got top heavy and just could not afford it.”
“My understanding is the population has been declining there as of late, but it’s hard to say because during the original raid on the ranch in 2008 they were saying there were 150 to 200 people there,” Brower said. “The FLDS know how to make themselves scarce.”
It was not clear on Wednesday whether Texas officials would seize the property immediately or allow sect members to continue to live there. “I think the best course of action would be to take it now,” Brower said. “Once the FLDS knows that the government has control, my best guess is that they will just abandon it and leave. Warren Jeffs will probably give the order to abandon it and leave, and in the meantime they’re probably destroying all sorts of evidence and records.”
Whether seizure of the ranch will improve the lives of the women and children subject to Jeffs’ capricious prophesying is an open question. “My concern is the same as it’s always been: what is Texas doing to secure the well-being of the family?” Hays said. “I don’t understand how this is going to help the well-being of these women and children.”
Coached by Jeffs, FLDS members also may think they do not have much to fear from Texas officials, Jessop said. “As of right now, they haven’t shown any interest or concern in legal action with Texas,” she said. “Their whole thinking has been, ‘God is on our side.’ There’s a lot of magical thinking going on.”
The faithful could find refuge in similar, though smaller, FLDS locations in South Dakota and Colorado if the YFZ location is abandoned, Brower said. “I’m not naïve enough to think that the FLDS is going to say, ‘OK, we give up,’” Brower said. “Each time something like this happens, it takes a toll on them, and hopefully it will help to eradicate it somewhere down the line.”