From Hunting Ground To Polygamist Ranch

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints make their way down a road on the Yearning For Zion ranch in Eldorado, Texas, Wednesday, April 16, 2008.
The guy didn't look much like a hunter. He was beanpole tall - scarecrow-ish, some might say, with a high, collegiate forehead and a reluctant handshake. Even in a pearl-snap shirt and jeans, this cowboy somehow seemed better suited for a college lecture hall than a saddle.

Still, he wanted land - lots of it - for a corporate hunting retreat. Said he might build a lodge, to entice some big-roller clients of his in Vegas. North of town, the old Isaacs ranch - rocky and dotted as it was with rusty oil rigs, cactus and gnarled mesquite trees - caught his eye. It was plenty cheap, he said, and plenty remote.

But it didn't take long for the sheriff and everyone else in Schleicher County to figure out that their new neighbor, David S. Allred, president of YFZ Land, LLC, had much more on his mind than the hunting of whitetail.

After the closing in November 2003, dozens of Allred's associates arrived to make improvements on the property. Sunday to Sunday, day and night they toiled, completing three, three-story houses - each 10,000 square feet - within weeks. Soon, a cement plant shot up. Then fields of limestone were miraculously plowed into fertile farmland. And then, a superstructure unseen in these parts - a temple, masterfully clad with limestone quarried onsite - ascended into the west Texas sky.

And that, as it happened, was only the beginning.

The YFZ Ranch - which, as the townspeople would come to learn, stood for Yearning for Zion - would mushroom into a bustling, parallel city: a 1,691-acre, self-sustaining enclave carved, literally, into a rock pile for the innermost circle of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, FLDS, a 10,000-member sect that has continued to practice polygamy after it was banned by the Mormon Church in 1890.

Here, there would be enormous dormitories for enormous families, a cheese factory, a medical clinic, a grain silo, a commissary, a sewage treatment plant - and watchtowers with sentries, infrared night-vision cameras to monitor gated entrances, and 10-foot-high compound walls topped with spikes.

There would evolve a saga of "plural marriages," racism, underage "celestial" brides and allegations of child abuse, turning Eldorado upside down with frightening tales, rumors, and a flood of reporters and investigators. A raid on the polygamists' compound - the largest of its kind in more than a half century in the West, involving hundreds of law enforcement agents - would lead to the removal of 416 children and set up a child custody confrontation of unprecedented dimensions.

The episode would also fire up debate in the courts, and in this community of 1,951 residents, over the state's duty to protect children from alleged abuse and over the limits of basic constitutional rights like religious liberty and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure.

In the end, the residents of Eldorado would lose a measure of their rural innocence and find themselves conflicted, caught between their love of traditional, family values and their powerful, west Texas beliefs in civil liberties.

On a chilly evening in January 2004, J.D. Doyle, a pilot, and his father, James, the local justice of the peace, climbed into their Piper twin-engine plane and took to the skies over Schleicher County to see if recent rains had greened the grazing fields owned by friends who were cattle ranchers.
(AP Photo/Donna McWilliam, file)
But as they flew over the YFZ property four miles north of Eldorado, they noticed something different: Down below, jutting up between scatterings of cedar bushes and outcroppings of limestone, were three, enormous, cabin-style barracks with enough room to accommodate two football teams.

What were those doing on a hunting retreat?

Later, they asked a friend, Joe Christian, a computer tech who lived adjacent to the YFZ ranch, what he made of it. Christian hadn't a clue, actually. His new neighbors had been reclusive, leaving him to puzzle over all that nonstop building. We should take some aerial photographs, he suggested; the Doyles agreed.

The photos intrigued Randy and Kathy Mankin, who published the town's weekly paper, The Eldorado Success, so they did a background check on the buyer, Allred. Initially, they saw no red flags: He was, as he'd claimed, a builder from Washington County, Utah. Still, why build such large residences on so remote a ranch?

Then, in late March, the paper got a call from Flora Jessop, an anti-polygamy activist from Utah who'd been raised in the FLDS and who, as a teenager, had run away from the sect. A polygamist group, she'd been told, was rumored to be establishing another enclave in west Texas.

In Mankin's mind, polygamy had already taken its place on history's ash heap. But the caller wouldn't stop asking questions. When Mankin finally relinquished the name of the buyer, he heard a silence on the line, then:

"Oh, my God ... it's them ... "