Wanted: Armed and Dangerous

As the FBI chases polygamist Prophet Warren Jeffs, work continues 24/7 on his religion's foreboding new Texas capital

The discovery of Colorado City power-generation equipment at the Yearning for Zion ranch is particularly significant because it provides law enforcement probable cause to obtain a search warrant to enter the compound to look for stolen property.

Such an incursion by authorities into the heart of the Texas fortress, however, is fraught with danger. Jeffs is known to have a cadre of armed bodyguards and a legion of young men eager to impress their prophet. (Only Jeffs can award these young men their initial "blessing" in the church -- the first of the at least three wives they need to enter the highest realm of fundamentalist Mormon heaven.)

Any attempt to arrest Jeffs could escalate into a violent confrontation that would endanger the lives of women and children living at YFZ.

Eldorado, Texas, satirist Jim Runge hopes Warren Jeffs is captured soon.
John Dougherty
Eldorado, Texas, satirist Jim Runge hopes Warren Jeffs is captured soon.
The polygamists are building a sewer plant at the YFZ ranch.
Eldorado Success
The polygamists are building a sewer plant at the YFZ ranch.

Despite the danger to others, Jeffs seems increasingly intent on creating circumstances that could lead to a bloody confrontation, perhaps, authorities believe, so he can follow in the footsteps of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith and achieve martyrdom. Smith was shot and killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, in 1844.

Gary Engels, a special investigator for the Mohave County Attorney's Office, has spent more than a year building criminal cases against Jeffs and his followers. His investigation led to last summer's indictment of Jeffs and eight other FLDS men on charges of sexual misconduct with a minor. Seven of the men charged voluntarily surrendered to authorities, and one was arrested without incident.

Only Jeffs has refused to give up.

"Warren is doing everything possible to attract the attention of law enforcement and force a confrontation," Engels says.

David Allred, one of Warren Jeffs' top aides, acquired the 1,600-acre Texas ranch property for about $1.3 million -- more than two times the market rate -- in late 2003.

Allred told Eldorado residents he intended to build a hunting lodge.

That was a lie.

Instead, church members illegally shot most of the game on the ranch. Blood dripping from the back of a truck attracted a game warden's attention, which led to a citation. It was a rocky start for what continues to be a tense relationship between the FLDS and the local community.

By early 2004, FLDS workers began transforming the ranch into a polygamist spiritual haven that can double as a heavily reinforced fortress to protect Warren Jeffs from arrest.

Laborers are toiling around the clock to construct a new community that will be as self-sufficient as possible. Workers have constructed several large warehouses, built a cement plant and dug a rock quarry where giant saws cut limestone blocks day and night to be used on the temple.

Workers are also installing electric, gas and sewer systems. They have completed construction on a dozen log homes, including a 29,000-square-foot mansion for the prophet. (Jeffs and his huge immediate family of several hundred occupied an even larger dwelling in Hildale.) Gardens have been tilled and orchards planted.

All this work is in addition to building the imposing temple ringed by a 12-foot-high, reinforced block wall.

Only a handful of county and state officials -- including Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran -- have been allowed to set foot inside YFZ. New Times' request for a tour of the property was rejected by Merril Jessop, a top FLDS official.

"We're not interested," Jessop said before hanging up the phone.

A locked gate prevents anyone from traversing the milelong, narrow dirt road leading to the YFZ property from a county highway. The ranch is patrolled 24 hours a day by security forces equipped with all-terrain vehicles and sophisticated radios that scramble communications to prevent eavesdropping. Former FLDS members say security team members are known to carry concealed weapons.

The only entrance to the compound cuts across an easement through a neighboring private ranch -- one of half a dozen surrounding the compound. The perimeter of private ranches creates a virtual moat around YFZ, keeping outsiders, including law enforcement, from easily accessing the property.

More important, the ring of ranches keeps underage girls -- destined to become the plural wives of Jeffs and his select handful of men in the FLDS "priesthood" -- inside the compound. It would be a long, lonely walk to the outside world from YFZ. And even if a girl tried to leave, it is unlikely she could flee without detection.

"You can't approach that ranch from any direction without being seen," says Randy Mankin, the editor and publisher of the community's weekly newspaper, the Eldorado Success.

Mankin and his wife, Kathy, have seized on the biggest story to hit Schleicher County in decades. Their family-owned paper and Web site have carefully documented construction at YFZ with hundreds of aerial photographs. Local residents eagerly buy the paper every Thursday to read the latest update on FLDS developments.

Many Eldorado residents expressed concern about the polygamist compound, about three miles outside of town.

"They got off on the wrong foot when they came in here lying about what they were intending," Jim Runge, a local entertainer and satirist, says about the polygamists. "We can't believe anything they say."

One owner of a neighboring ranch who asked not to be identified says the community is outraged that the FLDS has settled in their midst.

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