Sheriff investigates Mormon polygamists in Westcliffe
Two months after a mass raid of a polygamist Mormon compound in Texas piqued the nation’s interest, a similar sect in southern Colorado is flourishing — and in fact some speculate that the tiny town of Westcliffe in southwest Colorado may become the next polygamist nerve center in the United States. A compound there already hosts an estimated 30 members of the breakaway Mormon sect, and an aide to jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs has already shelled out more than $1 million for nearly 200 acres of land nearby.
So far, Jeffs’ aide, Lee Anthony Steed, has bought 35- and 40-acre plots, including two compound facilities. And Steed isn’t done. According to the local sheriff, Steed is looking to purchase at least two other large properties, a move that has law enforcement officials concerned about a mushrooming polygamist community in their back yard.
Westcliffe is a small, historic town in Colorado’s Wet Mountain Valley, some 60 miles west of Pueblo. With a population of 417, the town is home to several religious groups, including Mennonites and Amish — and now members of the polygamist Mormon church, known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS.
Custer County Sheriff Fred Jobe first learned that the polygamists had put down roots in Westcliffe in the spring of 2006, when the FBI contacted him to be on the lookout for Jeffs. The leader of the Mormon breakaway sect was on the lam from federal police on charges of conducting underage marriages, and he had spent one or two nights in Westcliffe, where several of his "spiritual" wives were living with a caretaker named Wendell Musser. Jobe never encountered Jeffs, but he did hear from Musser when the young man was searching for his own wife and child — who had been taken from him by fellow FLDS members after he was arrested in Colorado Springs for driving under the influence. Jobe was unable to help Musser, but the entire episode alerted him to the growing Mormon polygamist presence that had taken "hold," as he says, in his own back yard.
Shortly afterward, in August 2006, Jeffs was apprehended in Las Vegas. The high-profile case culminated in a 10-year prison sentence for acting as an accomplice to rape when he forced a 14-year-old girl to "spiritually" marry her 19-year-old cousin. He is currently housed in the Utah State Prison near Salt Lake City. Two months ago the sect again made headlines when the Texas Rangers raided an FLDS ranch in Eldorado, Texas; 437 boys and girls were removed from the compound on suspicion that they had been abused; they have since been ordered returned to their parents.
In Colorado’s Custer County, Jobe says he believes that members of the FLDS compound in Eldorado were moved to Westcliffe after the raid, adding to the growing polygamist population.
"It is one thing to have one property, but it seems they are moving here in great numbers," he said last week. "We don’t know what is on their mind. Are they going to build a temple? I am assuming that there will be enough of them someday to build a temple."
A maze of metal fences and a hefty iron gate
The main FLDS compound in Custer County is about five miles northeast of downtown Westcliffe, a small stretch of liquor stores, restaurants and hair salons. The 35.2-acre parcel contains a four-bedroom, log-cabin-style facility with a green roof; the facility was originally built as a home for retired nurses. Steed purchased the property in 2006 for $350,000, and people starting moving in shortly after. Today the compound is surrounded by a maze of white metal fences with wooden slats; the entrance to the property is barred by a hefty iron gate.
On my visit to the compound last week, two adolescent boys wearing blue shirts and black slacks were shoveling the ground near what appeared to be a septic tank. When I attempted to speak with them, the boys jumped into a golf cart and sped from view. Construction on the main site and other properties appears common. Russ Kerr, a neighbor, says that last year there were bulldozers running at the compound until late in the evening, and that he regularly heard four-wheelers and gunshots. He says that there may have between 30 and 40 people at the property last year; Jobe estimates 20 children are currently on site.
Jobe has launched an investigation into the FLDS presence in Custer County, since he suspects that they are violating zoning laws by hosting potentially dozens of people in the home that should have no more than eight (two per bedroom). Keeping a close eye on that site, he says, will send a message to Mormons whose families include multiple wives. While the practice is illegal in Colorado, law enforcement typically has a difficult time finding an entree into polygamist sects, since it is nearly impossible to prove that people are engaging in polygamy. Thus police tend to pick up on other violations to make headway — or they rely on victims to report crimes associated with polygamy, like rape or abuse.
"We are trying to let them know that by following through with zoning, we are making sure that they will be watched," says Jobe, who recently brought up his concerns with the FLDS sect at a statewide meeting for county sheriffs. Another sheriff in Delta County, about 60 miles east of Grand Junction, has also reported that polygamists had moved into the area.
Jobe’s largest concern, he says, is the children of the FLDS: "They brainwash the women and the kids. They hold onto the young girls and kick the boys out. Then the boys are stuck on the street with an eighth-grade education. The boys don’t know how to survive."
Last month Custer County commissioners held two closed-door sessions to review the sheriff’s investigation. Jobe says that he has also spoken with a representative from the county’s Department of Human Services about the potential for polygamist women to sign up for welfare as single mothers, a move that can sap county dollars. So far none is known to have enrolled in the program.
Most neighbors adopt live-and-let-live attitude
In addition to the Westcliffe compound, Steed has purchased more land in a nearby subdivision. He also recently bought another plot with a barn and a home on it from an Amish man; the sale hasn’t been completed, but Jobe estimates that the tract is around 160 acres.
Efforts to reach Steed were unsuccessful. However, in adjacent Fremont County, Steed owns land between Cañon City and Salida, and another compound just outside Florence; a visit to the site last week showed that the facility looks very similar to the Custer County compound, with a home shielded by a large iron gate and winding fences, as well as parked semitrailers. Steed receives all of his mail at this address, as reflected by official documents on file with Custer County. Jobe says he believes that Steed is looking to purchase more land in nearby Wetmore.
In spite of the rapid pace that Steed is acquiring property, other than Jobe, not many people in Westcliffe appear too concerned.
"This hasn’t affected daily life one iota," says Jim Little, editor of the Wet Mountain Tribune, a weekly newspaper that recently published a story about the Custer County compound. "Westcliffe tends to attract a lot of weirdos anyway. This is another element of that."
Little says that he hasn’t received one letter regarding the story; several locals contacted for this piece either declined to comment or said they didn’t mind the polygamist presence. Even Jobe says that the FLDS have proven to be good neighbors; one older woman reported that a few members of the sect helped her repair her roof.
Yet Kerr, the neighbor, worries only that more polygamist compounds would change the historic character of the Wet Mountain Valley.
"The people that settled it live here," he says. "It would chop up the valley."
Jobe, meanwhile, will keep an eye on more land purchases. "They tend to want to be by themselves," he says. "We want to be watching them."
Slideshow photographs by Bob Spencer.
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