ELDORADO, TX – Government officials have seized a large ranch in Texas where a polygamist Mormon sect leader sexually assaulted young girls, claiming he was a prophet of God.
In 2003, Warren Jeffs—a leader in the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) sect—purchased over 1,600 acres of ranchland near the small west Texas town of Eldorado. Jeffs and his likeminded followers quickly developed the property, which they named the “Yearning for Zion Ranch.”
At the time, local residents were shocked that the polygamist group, which originated in Utah and Arizona, had founded the ranch.
“When I first heard they were out there, I thought, ‘You’ve got to be kidding,’” said Randy Mankin, an Eldorado city administrator, according to a 2004 media report. “I mean, we’re talking about polygamy and things that were supposed to be over and done a long time ago.”
Despite locals’ amazement, the FLDS group near Eldorado swelled to 700 members at its peak. Facilities built on the ranch included a large temple, a massive meeting house, and numerous residential buildings.
“Spiritual marriages” are central to FLDS doctrine, according to reports. Jeffs taught his followers that men must have at least three wives in order to go to heaven, while women are the property of their husbands. These teachings are similar to ones once held by the mainstream Mormon Church.
By 2008, government officials found evidence of widespread sexual abuse at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, especially against underage girls. Eventually, over 460 children—including several abuse victims—were removed from the ranch after a court order.
Then, in 2011, Jeffs was tried in a Texas court and found guilty of sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault of children. He was sentenced to life in prison. Several other FLDS members were incarcerated due to similar charges.
“The conviction and sentencing of Warren S. Jeffs is another milestone in this investigation in which seven other members of the FLDS have been convicted of the sexual assault of children, resulting in sentences ranging from six to 75 years,” a 2011 statement from the Texas Department of Public Safety said. “It sends a clear message to would-be pedophiles: The sexual exploitation of children will not be tolerated in Texas.”
On Wednesday, Texas law enforcement officers served a “Demand for Possession” order to the ranch’s remaining residents. The order, which was issued by a judge last month and obtained by MyEldorado.net, says the entire ranch property “has been forfeited to the State of Texas.”
According to local reports, the gates of the ranch were open and being guarded by Texas officers on Thursday morning. Though only eight adults reportedly still lived at the ranch, state and local officials are in the process of removing personal possessions and equipment from the land.
On Thursday, the Texas Department of Public Safety explained in a press release that the ranch residents are willing to leave the land.
“At approximately 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 16, the Schleicher County Sheriff’s Office and the Texas Department of Public Safety met with current residents of the property and provided them with copies of the court orders applicable to the forfeiture—the residents have agreed to vacate the property,” the release says.
“Law enforcement personnel are working with the occupants of the ranch to take all reasonable actions to assist with their departure of the property, to preserve the property, and to successfully execute the court order,” the statement continues.
Flora Jessop, a former member of the FLDS who later fled from the controversial sect, told Reuters that Texas deserves the ranch property.
“For being the first ones to step up and put these men in prison for the crimes they have committed against the children,” Jessop said. “We have yet to have Utah and Arizona step up and do that same thing.”