A 1,700-acre West Texas ranch owned by a religious sect that practices polygamy is the target of seizure efforts by the Texas Attorney General’s office. It’s the latest chapter in a long legal battle between the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the State of Texas.
In this affidavit filed in the 51st State District Court, the Attorney General says the ranch was bought with the proceeds of illegal activity to establish a location where children could be systematically abused outside the eye of law enforcement.
In 2008, the state removed more than 400 children from the compound outside Eldorado, Texas – which the FLDS calls the Yearning For Zion Ranch. The seizure wound up costing $12.4 million and created one of the largest child custody battles in United States history. Most of the children were eventually returned to their mothers, but the state secured felony convictions against nine men.
Among those men was Warren Jeffs, the spiritual leader of the FLDS. He was sentenced in 2011 to serve at least 45 years behind bars for sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl and a 15-year-old girl. Jeffs had claimed both girls were his “spiritual wives.”
A lawyer for the FLDS said seizing the ranch would victimize innocent rank-and-file members of the church living on the property.
“They’re not the ones who have perpetrated these alleged crimes,” attorney Rod Parker said in a phone interview. “They’re just caught in the crossfire between Texas and Warren Jeffs.”
“Unless the objective of the state of Texas is to just drive these people out of Texas once and for all, I fail to see the logic of trying to destroy this community of people who are essentially the victims,” Parker said.
But the community may already be shrinking at the YFZ Ranch, according to local law enforcement. David Doran is the Schleicher County sheriff.
“Over the past several months, all operations out at the YFZ Ranch, as far as construction and ongoing work and stuff like that, has come to halt," Doran said. "We don’t know the numbers, but we have seen a decrease in the population out there.”
The Attorney General's affidavit is largely based on the work of Marcos Martinez, an investigator with 18 years experience probing financial crimes. Much of the document cites so-called “Priesthood Records” discovered at the Yearning for Zion Ranch, diary-like records that already helped secure a conviction against Jeffs for child abuse.
"This will be a major gathering place of the saints that are driven. You can see it is well isolated," the Priesthood Records state in an entry from 2003, the year the land was purchased. "We can build as we wish without inspectors coming in."
Another entry from earlier in the year says, “The wicked, in their mind, feel like if they could destroy the records or get them turn over [sic] to the authorities, they could destroy us and they know there is laws, wicked laws, un-righteous laws passed by the government that could put us in jail, many of our people."
Martinez said the FLDS tried to keep the purchase out of the eyes of authorities by making small cash transfers to bank accounts in San Angelo. Federal law requires banks to fill out a “currency transaction report” for any deposit greater than $10,000. Those reports could raise a red flag to law enforcement. Evading reporting requirements by making many smaller deposits is an illegal form of money laundering known as “structuring” or “smurfing.”
In one case, the affidavit says 175 cash deposits under $10,000 totaling $1.5 million were made to an FLDS bank account at a Bank of America in San Angelo.
The state also alleges that FLDS members used the ranch to hide Jeffs while he was a fugitive on the FBI’s Top 10 Most Wanted List.
Today’s filing in civil court is just the beginning of a process that could result in the state seizing the Yearning For Zion ranch. The court must first hold a hearing and give the FLDS a chance to oppose the seizure.