El Dorado, Texas -- The population of this drowsy West Texas town hasn't done much but dwindle in recent years, so its residents grew pretty curious in March when a pilot shot some aerial photos showing construction of several huge dormitory-style buildings on a sprawling ranch just outside town.
The curiosity soon changed to concern when anti-polygamy activists from Utah showed up for a news conference to reveal the identity of the group that had bought the 1,600-acre ranch: the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS, a secretive Mormon sect that practices polygamy and marriages involving underage teenage girls.
Now, with construction on the buildings nearly complete and the first of an expected 200 church members about to take up residence, the 1,951 residents of Eldorado are trying to make their peace with new neighbors many regard as followers of a strange cult.
"Our biggest concern was that we wouldn't be dealing with another Waco problem here," said Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, referring to the Branch Davidian siege in Waco in 1993. "We have talked to them about polygamous marriages and underage brides and made them very aware of Texas laws governing sex with a minor. They told us they didn't plan on practicing that in this community."
But the practices of the church have drawn increasing interest from law-enforcement officials in Utah and Arizona, where an estimated 10,000 church members live in two small towns that straddle the state line. A local police officer who is a member of the sect was convicted last year of bigamy and unlawful sex with a minor for taking a 16-year-old as his third wife.
Ron Barton, a special polygamy investigator for the Utah attorney general's office, confirmed that the leader of the church, Warren Jeffs, 47, is under investigation for allegedly fathering children with two 17-year-old girls.
Meanwhile, some former church members expelled from the group by Jeffs are accusing him of running a mind-control cult, while anti-polygamy activists charge that young women are being held against their will and forced into polygamous marriages.
All of that pressure has driven the church to seek a new outpost in Eldorado, according to Rodney Parker, the group's attorney and de facto spokesman. Church officials will not speak with reporters.
"The state of Utah has a polygamy czar who's down there looking in people's windows and camps out in front of the leadership's homes sometimes. That's part of it," said Parker, referring to Barton, the investigator. "There has been a stepped-up effort to try to create laws that would ensnare these people. So part of the reason for the move is to establish a new foothold somewhere else."
Utah officials estimate that up to 60,000 residents practice polygamy in defiance of rulings by the Mormon church and state laws that forbid it but are rarely enforced. The mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemned polygamy as a condition of statehood for Utah in 1896.
The FLDS church, founded in the 1930s, is believed to be the largest polygamous sect, and for years it has prospered as a closed society whose members are forbidden to watch television, read newspapers or use the Internet to maintain contact with the outside world.
But that secrecy began to crumble earlier this year, when Jeffs, regarded by his followers as a prophet and infallible leader, expelled 20 church members for failing to follow his dictates and evicted them from their church-owned homes.
Former members portray an authoritarian world in which Jeffs demands tributes of $1,000 per month from each male church member and decides where each man may work.
The leader also decides whom each woman will marry and how many wives each man will take based on divine revelations only he can receive. Girls as young as 15 have been married to men in their 30s, 40s or older on Jeffs' command, former church members say. Families are expected to have many children and to take advantage of state and federal welfare programs to support them.
Any member who resists Jeffs' rulings risks expulsion from the church, shunning by other family members and, followers are repeatedly warned, eternal damnation.
"They say, `If you don't marry this 80-year-old man, you are going to hell,' so a 15- or 16-year-old girl is told it's time to get married and an hour later she's married," said Ross Chatwin, 35, one of those expelled by Jeffs in January. "The fathers agree because they feel they are ensuring their own salvation, getting brownie points for themselves. It shows the submission (Jeffs) is looking for."
Chatwin said he was expelled because he could no longer make the $1,000 monthly payments and because he wanted to take a 17-year-old as a second wife without Jeffs' approval.
Flora Jessop, 34, another former church member who now devotes herself to what she calls "rescues" of young women seeking to leave, said followers are effectively brainwashed and unable to free themselves.
"When you're born into this stuff and it's the only thing you know, and you're taught that if you don't abide by this law, you damn yourself to hell, it's not a matter of submitting themselves voluntarily," said Jessop, who has been trying to free her 18-year-old sister from the group.
Parker, the church attorney, denied that any members are being forced to do anything against their will.
"There are marriages that occur out there under the age of 18," Parker said. "But to say that anyone's being forced, that something is happening that is not consensual, is just not true. Legally in Utah, a young woman is considered old enough to make her own decisions regarding marriage at the age of 16, as long as she has her parents' consent."
Jeffs is "under investigation" for having conceived children with two 17-year-olds, said Barton, but investigators have not been able to serve him with subpoenas or other legal papers.
"Warren Jeffs is so insulated that I have never seen him," said Barton, the Utah investigator. "His house has 8-foot solid masonry walls around it. He can come and go in vehicles with tinted windows."
The group, Barton said, "has created sort of a prison situation for themselves in Utah, a self-imposed prison. I suspect the Texas facility is a place for them to go where they perceive they will have more freedom."
At first, church officials claimed that the Eldorado ranch would be used as a "hunting retreat," but later they conceded to local officials that the compound will house the most elite members of the church.
The distaste of some lifelong residents here for their new neighbors is palpable.
"I feel like some UFOs landed here and now people are saying, `OK, they're here, there's nothing we can do, let's welcome them,'" said Thelma Bosmans, 51, a teacher's aide at the Eldorado Middle School. "But how can we welcome someone with so many people under his control? How can you condone teenage girls being married to 60-year-old men?"