Small-town Texas was polygamist cult's safe haven

ELDORADO — To the polygamist followers of Warren Jeffs, West Texas must have looked like a safe retreat.

There was cheap land, a remote location and a live-and-let-live attitude among the 2,000 locals.

"They found a bargain and there was probably more privacy in a place like this," said Eldorado Mayor John Nikolauk. "I think they thought they had a found a place where they wouldn't be threatened."

In 2004, residents were appalled to learn to that polygamist followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) had paid $700,000 for the 1,691-acre former hunting ranch.

The industrious sect went to work and built the equivalent of a small town among the sheep ranches that surround Eldorado.

Schleicher County records show the property is now appraised for $21,109,730, making it the area's fourth-largest taxpayer.

The sect's own tradesmen constructed the entire compound, including the monumental 79,000-square-feet limestone temple.

The stone for the temple was quarried on site. The group also built an estimated 30 residential structures and another 30 outbuildings, some as large as 30,000 square feet.

"The scale is massive," said Texas Department of Public Safety spokeswoman.

"You don't how huge some of these buildings are until you are out there. They have a log-cabin feel but they're the biggest log cabins you've ever seen."

The YFZ (Yearning For Zion) Ranch also includes an orchard, dairy, workshops, vegetable gardens and a medical clinic operated by a doctor in the sect.

In arid West Texas, residents marveled last week at the lush green lawns bordering the temple that were visible in new aerial photographs.

Sewage and trash from the compound are trucked four miles to Eldorado, one of the few aspects of day-to-day life where locals intersected with the polygamists.

Early on, word about the sect's beliefs and its secretive ways made Schleicher County residents queasy.

The women, who wore old-fashioned dresses and kept their long hair pinned up, were rarely seen by curious townsfolk. Only the men, who wore blue jeans and western-style shirts, drove their pick-up trucks into Eldorado to pick up occasional necessities or to deal with local officials.

"Their guy would usually come into town and be real friendly, pay their bill and chat with the ladies in the office," Nikolauk said. "But you knew they didn't want you coming out to their place, that they wanted everything to stay private out there."

Women would sometimes leave the ranch to shop with their husbands at Sam's Club in San Angelo or to visit the doctor or a hospital. Many household items appear to be shipped directly to the compound. None of the wives were ever seen alone by Eldorado residents.

"There were people who wanted the sheriff to go out there and lynch them or run them off of the property but cooler heads prevailed," Nikolauk said. "Unfortunately, the sheriff is getting beat-up all over again. But you just can't barge onto property on a guess."

Sheriff David Doran said last week that he worked hard to forge a relationship with the sect's leaders.

But he said he never heard evidence of crime until a 16-year-old girl reported allegations of sexual abuse to a crisis hotline in late March.

When Doran was allowed inside the outpost, the children were always whisked indoors by the adults on the ranch.

But while Eldorado residents weren't sure what was happening inside the compound, they soon learned that the sect's leaders were resourceful businessmen.

"It almost seems mutually exclusive," said Randy Mankin, editor of the Eldorado Success. "We had to learn that these men could be superior businessmen, superb craftsman, own a number of businesses and have plenty of federal contracts at the same time they had these beliefs that seemed to be way out of the mainstream and even repugnant.

``But they were all born into this. It's ingrained in them from the minute they're born,'' Mankin said.

For Nikolauk, it seemed that conflict was inevitable.

"We knew there was a capability for something bad to happen but we didn't know what we didn't know," Nikolauk said.

"We didn't know about the rape room in the temple. We didn't know how many children were out there. But if you look back at their history, there shouldn't have been any surprises."

Hanna is a staff writer for the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram.