January 9, 2009
"This quaint setting known as Westcliffe is a place where you can slip under the radar ..."
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WESTCLIFFE • Footprints and car tracks in the snow out front show signs of life in the big house behind the privacy fence and hefty iron gate.
But the occupants aren't ones to mingle or shop in town.
How many there are and what they do is a mystery. Who they are is not.
They are members of the FLDS - Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - a breakaway group from the larger Mormon Church. The FLDS, known for its practice of polygamy, has generated a storm of allegations in Utah, Arizona and Texas that teenage boys are forced to leave their homes to make way for child brides forced into marriage with older men.
No one has evidence that polygamy or forced marriages are going on at the big house, which sits on 35 acres in Bull Domingo Ranch, a development of isolated homesites. In fact, the house was established as a refuge for FLDS widows and their caretakers.
Yet its presence has been drawing unwanted attention to Westcliffe and making some of the town's 462 residents uneasy, especially in light of an April raid at a Texas FLDS ranch where about 450 children were removed by child welfare officials, then later returned to their mothers.
Some locals in this remote mountain meadow village refer to the FLDS as a "cult" and the home as a "compound."
"I don't trust them as far as I can throw them," said Paul Schleser, who lives in downtown Westcliffe, about five miles from Bull Domingo. "They need to have a watch kept on them. I'm sure the federal government is."
"It's not like we're keeping an intelligence file on them. It's no different than someone else buying property," Custer County Under Sheriff Craig Feldmann said.
He met with property owner Lee Steed last year when he went to the Bull Domingo home with zoning officials to investigate massive renovations to the property.
But those were zoning - not legal - issues. He hasn't been back.
"We haven't received any legitimate complaint that is follow-up-able to say they were doing anything illegal," Feldmann said. "It's like someone saying, ‘That's a dope house,' but until you can tell me why, I can't say it's a dope house; it's the same issue. Until they have broken the law or done something wrong, you are not going to get a reaction from me."
Bull Domingo is a 14,000-acre spread of 370 lots, each 35 acres plus, tucked along a maze of hilly, secluded roads. The FLDS property is on the outer edge of the subdivision, an easy jaunt from the public county road. It's accessible, but not inviting.
A metal and wooden fence surrounds the property. An electric gate blocks the driveway that winds to the compound of green-roofed, cabin-style buildings set back from the road and hidden by a high privacy fence. A sign warns trespassers away.
Brooke Adams, polygamy reporter for The Salt Lake Tribune daily newspaper, reported that the Bull Domingo home was a "dump" when Steed bought it for $350,000 at a foreclosure sale in 2006. It's one of five properties in Custer and Fremont counties owned by Steed, an aide to jailed FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, convicted in 2007 of two counts of being an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl by forcing her into marriage. Steed, whose mailing address is in Florence, did not respond to The Gazette's written request for an interview.
Adams visited the site last summer and wrote: "... the grandmothers are supported by a young family and three middle-age women who have their children with them, the youngest of whom is a 15-year-old boy."
Those numbers bother locals Jim and Myke Jones, the parents of five grown daughters, but in different ways.
As a retired architect and developer, Jim Jones is concerned about adequate septic tanks and wells.
Moral issues worry his wife. "The thing that concerns me are the young girls, if they are keeping them like prisoners," she said.
Other residents also spoke candidly about the newcomers they've yet to meet or see.
Longtime resident and flower-shop owner Wanda Christian said the FLDS might have had the wrong impression of Westcliffe.
"They think we're a small community and not very bright and can pull off anything they want to here," she said. "They haven't done anything - yet. But with all the troubles they've caused in other places, we don't need them."
Some people also worry about whether the group's presence could hurt the town's reputation. Three real estate agents turned down requests to talk to The Gazette, including Mattie Burtt, who once complained to other media that the FLDS would bring down property values.
Not everyone is wary, however. Steve Kelly, a Westcliffe concrete finisher, stomped a cigarette butt and shook his head when asked about the FLDS.
"They don't smoke, they don't drink, they don't cuss, they don't do anything like that. I come from an Irish family, I do it all," he said, laughing. "Do I have a problem with it? Not at all. I don't have a problem with anybody."
Blue jeans and sweaters are the uniform in this high-altitude, laid-back town. That attitude may explain why the FLDS would come to the area, said Schleser, a retiree drawn to Westcliffe for the serenity.
"We're kind of live-and-let-live," he said.
Naomi Yoder has found that to be true. A Mennonite, she's used to standing out in her long dress and bonnet, but she feels accepted in the community, which also has Amish residents. Nevertheless, she has some concerns about the FLDS.
"I would consider it a cult, and as such, there are innocents who are deceived and perhaps at times taken advantage of and misled," she said. "There would be concern from me for the people as a group."
But, she added, "As far as a person on the street, I would not hold any ill will or wish them harm. We would not at all refrain from doing business with them."
Custer High School senior Brandon Heising, 17, thinks people might be too quick to pass judgment.
"Freedom of religion, right? It's part of the Constitution and Bill of Rights," the teen said.
"Everyone deserves a chance."