When the Polygamists Came to Town

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Tony Gutierrez / AP

Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

When a new neighbor moves into Eldorado in Schleicher County, Texas (pop. 2,800), the customary welcome from the locals is a cake and an invitation to church or a community event. But residents found the newcomers distant and unresponsive to their gestures of friendship. Four years ago, posing as Utah businessmen, David Allred and a small group of companions said they had come to Eldorado to build a hunting and game preserve in what was once the Red Cheek Ranch. That wasn't surprising. While most people in Schleicher County work in the oil field support business, some ranch or farm, and others have turned to eco-tourism offering mountain bike trails, wildlife tours and stargazing parties. Soon, enough, however, the community discovered Allred's real plans.

"We flushed them out in six weeks," says Randy Mankin, editor and publisher of the weekly El Dorado Success, circulation 1,200. Sitting in an old office chair amidst an archive of yellowing newspapers and modern computer equipment, he says the massive construction at the Red Cheek site sparked suspicions. When the paper checked Allred's Utah connections, it discovered that the men were in Eldorado to set up a large gated compound for the Fundamentalist Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a religious group that believes in "celestial marriage" — polygamy. The FLDS admitted to town leaders they had lied and townsfolk became wary.

A year after the FLDS arrived, Eldorado city officials held a town meeting. "The citizens got a little restless," Mayor John Nikolauk said. "We gave them a chance to talk and let them vent and then I said, 'Here's the deal. They are not going away, we have to do the best we can.'" One angry woman demanded the town leadership do something because the FLDS were practicing polygamy and living in sin. Nikolauk responded: "Two thousand years ago this young fella stood up in defense of a whore and said he who is without sin cast the first stone. I know there are some sinless folks here so why don't you stand up so we can applaud you." That calmed the anger. For a while too, the town feared that the newcomers would take over the local government. When that did not happen, the mayor said the community developed a "detente" with the FLDS leaders, who nevertheless assiduously kept non-believers off their Yearning for Zion Ranch.

But Eldorado remained focused on the FLDS. The local paper, the Success, has been key to keeping it in the news. When Mankin and his wife Kathy (who is the office manager and reporter — their son covers sports) bought the paper in 1994 they were committed to covering hard news. The FLDS story became a steady feature on the paper's pages. "It's four miles from our front door and our job was to educate the readers," Mankin says. The paper did more, uncovering FLDS plans for compounds in Colorado and South Dakota long before other, bigger media, and offering detailed stories on the history and practices of the group.

While the Success stayed on top of the story, Mankin's neighbor Sheriff David Doran was quietly working his own leads, developing an informant inside the FLDS community, where few outsiders were allowed. Doran traveled to Utah and met with state and local officials, including law enforcement officers who were members of the FLDS community. The sheriff also paid visits to the YFZ Ranch because he was occasionally called on by its residents to be a notary or to remove illegal aliens the FLDS found crossing their land, and even once to investigate a traffic death, making him one of the few Eldorado citizens to see inside the compound.

Mayor Nikolauk, a retired Air Force colonel and a member of the Upper Colorado River Authority, also had some contact with the FLDS leadership, especially when they ran afoul of Texas environmental rules. They were dumping raw sewage into one of the wide "draws" — the dry stream beds that can suddenly fill in heavy rains, sending water downstream to the Colorado River, a vital source for agriculture and recreation. The FLDS hired a Dallas engineer to design a sewage plant for them, but they wouldn't allow him on the land, Nikolauk said, so an arrangement was made to haul sewage to the city plant. They always paid their bills — in cash. "I established rapport with two or three of them," Nikolauk says, but few members of the community were ever seen in town at the feed store or coffee shop.

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