12.04.12

The New Polygamists on the Block: Warren Jeffs’s FLDS on the Move?

As Texas moves to seize their ranch, followers of Warren Jeffs might be migrating north—to a tiny town in South Dakota. Not everyone’s rolling out the welcome mat, writes Matthew DeLuca.

A secluded compound in South Dakota may be the next stop for some of the devoted followers of convicted prophet Warren Jeffs, say people with ties to his Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints. The state of Texas moved last Wednesday to gain control of a ranch held by the group, and what will come next for the media-shy followers of Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting two girls, remains unknown.                  

One clue can be found on the outskirts of tiny Pringle, South Dakota, population 112, with one bar and one post office to its name.                                   

More than twice that number—about 200 to 250 people—already live on the FLDS compound, which was built in 2003 not far from Pringle, according to Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler. The compound has received permits for six residential structures with a total of 61 bedrooms. It was purchased by David Steed Allred, the same Jeffs follower who purchased the land for the Yearning for Zion ranch near Eldorado, Texas, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The Texas purchase was funded through money laundering and was used to facilitate “bigamy, sexual assault, and aggravated sexual assault,” Texas alleged in the 91-page affidavit attached to the seizure warrant filed last week.

Efforts to contact Allred through the United Order of South Dakota, which currently holds the Pringle-area property in a common-law trust, were unsuccessful. Rodney Parker, a Utah-based attorney who has represented the church in the past, did not return requests for comment.

A nuisance for some neighbors and an occasional troublemaker for the county treasurer’s office, the South Dakota compound has mostly escaped notice since news of its existence broke six years ago. That could change if families are forced or choose to leave the Texas ranch. Some 700 of Jeffs’s most elite followers are thought to have lived at the Yearning for Zion ranch at its height. The compound had a soaring white temple building and amphitheater, as well as its own school, residences, and water-and-waste treatment facilities. It isn’t clear whether the seizure warrant means the followers who have remained there will have to leave. Members of the insular religion may choose to relocate to the FLDS home base in the adjoining cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Or they may choose to go to other smaller locations, in Mancos, Color., or South Dakota.

Moving to Pringle would be a journey of some 1,017 miles from Eldorado. An employee at Pringle’s Hitchrail Bar and Restaurant said, “nobody around here knows anything,” when The Daily Beast called to ask about the nearby compound.

Cookie Hickstein knows more than most. She moved to the area in 1999 and was one of only a handful of homeowners close to the compound before she moved away this summer—a move motivated primarily by the inconveniences caused by the compound’s constant construction work, she said. The retiree moved to another South Dakota town about 65 miles away to find some peace and quiet.

‘We watched them build these homes, and you thought they were hotels or something, full of room after room after room.’

“It’s a dead end,” Hickstein said of the road leading to the compound. “They had to go right past my house every time they went in, every time they went out.”

The community built earth berms to block the view into the compound, and put up fences through the two plots of land cut in half by the main road that make up the compound.

“We watched them build these homes, and you thought they were hotels or something, full of room after room after room,” Hickstein said. The community members also erected a guard tower that extends just above the tree line, she said. “When that went in I was like, ‘Oh, my Lord.’ They have it up above some trees so you can see it but don’t think about it. When we looked down there, 24/7 there was somebody in the tower.”

An aerial photograph taken by a South Dakota pilot and published in a local paper in September appears to show a massive foundation now being dug at the wooded FLDS compound. Sam Brower, a longtime FLDS investigator and author of Prophet’s Prey, estimated that the hole at the time of the photograph was 150 yards long and 100 yards wide, and perhaps as much as 40 feet deep. “They just put a lot of effort into that property,” Brower said, adding, “We only know this heavy equipment has left Texas, and there’s a lot of heavy equipment now in South Dakota.”

Custer County planning director David Green told the Custer County Chronicle in September that he was more concerned by something else in the photograph outside the massive gouge in the earth—what appeared to be the construction of two new buildings for which he said the compound did not have permits.

Isaac Wyler, an FLDS apostate who continues to live in the mostly church-controlled town of Colorado City, Ariz., said of the Eldorado residents, “I’ve heard on the grapevine that a lot of them, especially the workers, have gone up to the Dakota compound.”

Wyler’s father Marvin left the FLDS church as Warren Jeffs came to power in 2002, but said he still believes in the tenets of the faith as they were taught before Jeffs. He said church members will want to move somewhere far from media scrutiny. “They’re going to wherever they need to, where there isn’t a thing like that,” he said. “I don’t think they’re abandoning the Texas compound particularly so much as it was a shift of workers to different projects.”

FLDS members earned a reputation for the quality of their construction work while in Texas, said Judge James Doyle, justice of the peace in Schleicher County, Texas. Many members of the church build their own homes, and construction work provides both a source of income and means of self-sufficiency for men in the community. In Texas, it also allowed them to build structures like the gleaming white Yearning for Zion temple without interference.

If finding a quiet place to practice their religion is their goal, the South Dakota compound, along with the holdout in Mancos, Colo., may be one of the largest secluded FLDS-controlled locations left for the church to go. Brower said Jeffs turned suspicious of concentrated communities for his believers after a 2008 Texas Child Protective Services raid scooped up 439 children under the age of 18. The children were all ultimately returned to the ranch.

Doyle said he conducts weekly flyovers of the Yearning for Zion ranch. He took his plane over the compound the day after Texas announced its move to seize the ranch last week.

“The last couple months, a lot of the heavy equipment and stuff have moved out and you just don’t see much circulating around town. You don’t even see a lot of movement out there on the ranch,” Doyle said. “There’s no construction-type equipment, no dump trucks.” There were about half as many cars on the ranch on Thursday as he used to see, he said.

“We used to see women and children walking down the road once in a while, but you don’t see any,” Doyle said of his most recent fly-over.

The 150-acre compound in South Dakota is not likely to ever hold as many FLDS members as the sprawling 1,691-acre Yearning for Zion ranch, said Flora Jessop, an activist who fled her own polygamous marriage in the FLDS when she was 16 and wrote a book called Church of Lies about the treatment of women in the group. She expects that the rural compound may be one of many locations to which members scatter. “It makes no sense to me that they would all unite on the Pringle, South Dakota, property unless they have any sort of assurance that nothing’s going to happen in Pringle, South Dakota,” she said.

Sheriff Wheeler described the compound as a self-sufficient community with its own food supply. “We get complaints once in a while when they start working after dark,” Wheeler said.

Jim Farmer owns two plots of land surrounding the FLDS site. In the past, he has had his differences with the FLDS members who live there. During a May 2012 meeting of local residents, Farmer said it would be “irresponsible” not to do something about the noise that seemed to continually emanate from the FLDS compound, according to an article in the Custer County Chronicle.

When reached by The Daily Beast, Farmer struck a more conciliatory tone, saying that he has sat down one-on-one with community leader Ben Johnson in the past and talked out disputes in a neighborly fashion. Repeated attempts to reach Johnson directly and through family members were unsuccessful.

Johnson, who has been cited by local officials as well as in numerous press reports as the compound’s main spokesman, has been out of contact for several months, said Sheriff Wheeler. While he tries “to keep an open line out there,” in case any abuse complaints ever arise on the compound, Wheeler says that with Johnson out of the picture, he has not had a primary contact. Even when he does speak with men from the ranch, Wheeler said, he does not get more than their first names.

“My interactions have been curt and cordial,” planning director Green said of his dealings with FLDS members at the compound. “No extra words used. Everything is to the point.”

“It’s certainly rural enough the people could slide in and out, and unless you were sitting on your porch waiting for a bus at night, you wouldn’t hear anything about that,” Green said. He has been on the property to inspect waste-water systems and road work. While he mostly deals with men on the property, he has seen a few women. Asked if they were wearing the same pastel prairie dresses and swept-up hairdos common to polygamous brides in other FLDS communities, Green replied, “Is there anything else they wear?” In other words, yes.

Custer County Treasurer Dawn McLaughlin told The Daily Beast that the FLDS community near Pringle is currently two years behind on their taxes, having failed to pay for 2010 and 2011. Members at the compound previously ran into trouble when they fell behind on their 2008 and 2009 payments as well, according to the Rapid City Journal. Those tax problems were resolved when the compound residents agreed to pay their overdue tax bills and fix a public road in exchange for two new building permits from the county, both for agricultural buildings. The compound paid the $181,272 due for 2008 and 2009 in May 2012, McLaughlin said.

“The residents of Custer County were asking, ‘Why are they building all these fabulous buildings and their taxes aren’t being paid?” McLaughlin said.

Green said that no new permits have been issued to the compound while taxes have been past due.

Former area resident Cookie Hickstein said she did not often see FLDS women and children outside the compound when she lived down the road. She remembers that she would occasionally see children take cover when she drove down the main road through the two fenced portions of the compound on the way to visit a nearby property. “Kids out would run and hide,” Hickstein said. “A little boy tried to hide under some brush, and it was just so sad to see these kids hiding. They’re so afraid.”