Texas game warden got peek inside polygamist ranch

ELDORADO, Texas (AP) — Before there was the SWAT team raid, the 439 children seized from mothers in frontier-style dresses and 19th century hairdos, and tales of underage sex and bigamy — there was a man from Utah with blood in the back of his pickup.

William B. Johnson was pulled over along a lonely stretch of West Texas highway in February 2004 for having an obstructed license plate and was asked about the blood-spattered bed of his white Ford. The Hildale, Utah-native said he’d been hunting, and reluctantly led Texas game warden Marco Alvizo onto a secretive religious compound to prove it.

It was authorities’ first glimpse of the “Yearning For Zion” ranch, their first hint that members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism that believes polygamy is the key to heaven — were in town. A raid four years later left the church’s ecclesiastical head, Warren Jeffs, and 11 other sect members facing charges including sexual assault and bigamy. Jury selection in Jeffs’ trial begins Monday.

But when Alvizo first went with Johnson to the ranch that had recently been purchased by the FLDS, he had no idea what was behind the battered green gate. When he pulled up to the property north of Eldorado, men, women and children scattered, scrambling indoors.

“That’s when we knew something was going on because all the people who were out front immediately disappeared when they saw my vehicle,” Alvizo recalled. “We were like ‘Holy cow, what’s going on here?”’

It wasn’t until April 2008 that the FBI and police stormed the compound amid allegations underage girls were being forced into bigamist marriages. In addition to temporarily taking the 439 children into protective custody, authorities seized mountains of documents, including Jeffs’ personal journals. Images of church women in prairie dress and men in largely identical, long sleeve shirts flooded national TV airwaves.

Seven of the sect members have been convicted so far. Jeffs is charged with two counts of sexual assault of a child and is being held without bail. Prosecutors allege he had sex with two underage girls. If convicted, he could face up to life in prison.

The 55-year-old who considers himself to be God’s spokesman on Earth has hired — only to quickly fire — a series of prominent Texas attorneys. None have been willing to discuss the type of defense he may mount. Jeffs will be tried separately for bigamy in October.

The Texas attorney general’s office is prosecuting the case and won’t discuss its legal strategies, either.

Jeffs’ church has over 10,000 members and controls a construction and land trust worth over $110 million. Records from 2004 indicate Jeffs had 58 wives, but Utah-based private investigator Sam Brower says he has seen documents indicating Jeffs married at least 87 times.

“We refer to these as marriages, but really it’s arranged child abuse,” said Brower, who spent seven years investigating Jeffs and whose book, “Prophet’s Prey” will be released in October.

For decades, the church had its base in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, across the border in Arizona. But with the attorneys general of both states promising to crackdown on polygamy in 2003, Jeffs began looking for a new place to expand.

Texas was ideal because of lax zoning laws. Also, at the time, girls as young as 14 could marry in the state with parental consent. A 2005 law raised Texas’ minimum age for marital consent to 16.

The church began buying up property choked with mesquite and scrub brush. “This is where they got the best deal on the land. We know they looked all over this part of Texas,” said Randy Mankin, editor of the weekly Eldorado Success newspaper.

“I wish we could go back to ’04,” Mankin said. “I can’t go anywhere now without people asking me how many wives I have, once they find out I’m from Eldorado.”

The church acquired nearly 1,700 acres and crews began work on a four-story temple of white limestone grand enough to host the second coming of Christ: “where He can appear in honor and glory to His faithful people,” Jeffs wrote. Zion is what his followers call the promised land.

While he would turn up sporadically at the Texas ranch, Jeffs was living underground, evading separate charges in Arizona and Utah. He crisscrossed the country, moving between safe-houses he dubbed “places of refugee.”

Jeffs made the FBI’s “10 Most Wanted” list before being arrested on a Nevada highway in August 2006. The Yearning For Zion raid two years later prompted the Texas charges.

The building at the Texas compound has continued even following Jeffs’ arrest. FLDS representatives have since bought two more swaths of land and a concrete company in a nearby town. Several phone messages to an FLDS spokesman and a Utah attorney who has represented the sect in past civil cases seeking comment and permission to visit Yearning For Zion were not returned.

Johnson, the church member who first accompanied Alvizo on the ranch, was one of Jeffs’ drivers, though the FLDS prophet was not seen during the warden’s visit.

Residents at the time claimed to be building a corporate hunting retreat. During his visit, Alvizo recalled that on the second floor of one of three log cabins residents said was being built to house construction crews working on the retreat, there were rows of industrial shelving, neatly stacked with food. A butcher’s station and walk-in freezer with carcasses of red elk and black-buck deer were in the back of the room.

Alvizo cited Johnson for hunting without a license, and he paid a $263 fine. The warden also alerted James Doyle, Eldorado justice of peace, about what he had seen.

“We knew that they were lying out their teeth. With those dormitory buildings, it wasn’t just a hunting ranch,” Doyle said. “If you had enough people to fill all those dormitories, they could kill every deer in the area in half an hour.”

But exactly what was going on remained a mystery. Construction proceeded so quickly that rumors abounded that a palatial retreat was being built for Las Vegas high-rollers — and financed by mafia-money. Then came a press conference in Eldorado by Flora Jessop, a Utah anti-polygamist activist who grew up in the FLDS but fled as a teen.

The mafia wasn’t in town, she explained. The new neighbors were actually FLDS.

“That’s when the light-bulb went on,” Alvizo said. “Suddenly, it made sense.”

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