In this June 5, 2008, photo, Anne, 3, and Ephraim, 7, play as their brother Zachery, 9, mother, Zavenda Young and father Edson Jessop watch outside the wood shop at the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas.
The San Angelo Standard-Times reports members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints settled in a remote area near Eldorado, Texas, and isolated themselves on their self-built compound, the Yearning for Zion Ranch.
But it wasn’t the way they moved in that grabbed people’s attention. It was how they left.
“We figured out pretty quick that something was going to happen when you got about 75 or 80 (law enforcement officers) running around town,” said Michael Kent, manager of Kent’s Automotive shop in Eldorado.
After an anonymous tip alleging physical and sexual abuse of children prompted law enforcement to raid the ranch, a sudden rush of interest by news outlets put the small West Texas town — about 45 miles south of San Angelo with a population of roughly 1,700 people — in the national spotlight.
Authorities breached the ranch’s gates in April 2008. More than 400 children were taken from the ranch, resulting in the largest child custody case in U.S. history. They were later returned by order of appellate courts, including the Texas Supreme Court.
The 1993 standoff between the Branch Davidian Christian sect and the federal government in Waco, Texas, was at the front of people’s minds, said longtime resident J.D. Doyle. The 51-day Waco standoff ended with the compound being destroyed by fire, leaving nearly 80 people dead including more than a dozen children. Eldorado residents feared someone from the YFZ Ranch — especially a child — could get hurt by the feds, either directly or indirectly, Doyle said.
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran attributes the safe outcome of the raid to a working relationship and open lines of communication between authorities and leadership at the YFZ Ranch.
“I believe that’s what kept everything calm,” he said, theorizing FLDS members had a vested interest in communicating with them because of controversy surrounding their sect in Utah. “We had a large-scale raid with a lot of people with no incident, and that’s a big accomplishment in my opinion. Not just for us, but for law enforcement dealing with a large group in general.”
Like the call that initiated the raid, Doran said the sheriff’s office received a call by a former FLDS member — whom he described as a “polygamist activist” — who let them know about their new neighbors in 2004. An FLDS member had bought the land in 2003 and initially said it would be a hunting retreat.
The sheriff dug a little deeper to find out who they were, learning about their religion, visiting Utah law enforcement and talking with FLDS members in Utah.
Doran said authorities’ main interest sprang from an emergency management position. They wanted to know how many people lived on the property and what was being built to know if the county would be equipped to handle a three-story structure fire or respond properly in the aftermath of a tornado.
“Initially, we were always told there’s anywhere between 250 to 300 people” on the ranch,” he said. “That’s the impression that we had. At the peak of 2008, I guess prior to the raid or about the time of the raid, there was probably pushing the number 700 out there.”
Residents say it took a couple of months after the raid for things to settle down in their normally quiet town. But people from all over now knew about Eldorado.
“It’s always funny because I would call a place halfway across the United States for parts, and I’d tell them my shipping address and, ‘Oh, you’re from that little town Eldorado. with all the Mormons,’” Kent said, furrowing his brow in displeasure. “It was like, could we be famous for a chili cook-off or something?”
Seclusion is not hard to find in West Texas. The region covers 39,731 square miles of diverse topography including dense scrublands and agricultural fields.
The YFZ Ranch is a 1,691-acre tract with space enough for a self-sustaining community and an orchard filled with trees of apples, peaches and pears.
Now empty, all that remains is a towering white stone temple and numerous buildings, a majority that were used for housing.
The state of Texas seized the property in April 2013 after church leaders stuck by polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs’ “answer them nothing” order and did not contest the forfeiture filed by then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott in 2012.
Jeffs, who was known to visit the YFZ Ranch, is serving life plus 20 years in prison for raping two girls — one age 12, the other 15 — he had taken as polygamous brides. Jeffs must serve at least 45 years in prison before being eligible for release, at which time he will be 100 years old.
Abbott said the numerous cases of child sexual assault perpetrated on the ranch made the property “contraband,” and a default judgment of forfeiture was signed in January 2014 by 51st District Judge Barbara Walther in San Angelo.
The district was collecting about $400,000 annually in taxes from the property before it was seized, said current Superintendent Robert Gibson.
A copy of Jessop’s Utah judgment was filed with the Texas courts July 17, 2012, through a legal tactic known as domesticating, which gives the Utah judgment the same effect as any other judgment in Texas. He did not, however, obtain a lien or any judgment against the YFZ Ranch or its owners before the state seized it in 2014, according to a 2015 article by The Eldorado Success.