The men in Western shirts and jeans who appeared in the west Texas town of Eldorado in 2003 said they were shopping for land to build a corporate hunting retreat. The 1,691-acre former exotic game ranch was just what they were looking for. Set amid rolling hills of rocky scrub dotted with mesquite trees, oil rigs and goat ranches, it was remote, and the land was cheap.
But the sheriff and other residents of Schleicher County soon discovered that their new neighbors had much more on their agenda than deer hunting. Leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a renegade sect that broke with mainstream Mormons (who banned polygamy in 1890), were under siege by authorities in Utah and Arizona. Their enclave of 10,000 based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., openly practiced "plural marriage"—their ticket to heaven, they believe—via clandestine ceremonies for "celestial" brides to circumvent bigamy laws.
Yet polygamy, though illegal, didn't spark the crackdown in recent years. Church members, including their prophet Warren Jeffs, were under investigation for marrying off girls as young as 13. Women and girls who fled the group, and boys pushed out or abandoned, told stories of forced marriages, incest and abuse. Some who left called it a destructive cult.