Pierre, S.D. • A South Dakota legislative panel on Wednesday backed a measure meant to address concerns about a polygamous group’s Black Hills outpost by making it a misdemeanor not to report births and deaths.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 12-1 to send the measure to the chamber's floor. Republican Rep. Tim Goodwin, the sponsor, said the measure is a "tiny step" to start enforcement at the compound, which was founded by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
"Finally, we're at least doing something," Goodwin said.
State law currently requires births and deaths to be reported, but there's no penalty for failing to do so. The Department of Health said in 2017 that no such records had been filed from the compound's address in the previous 10 years.
One former resident, though, said births occurred at the site, including two of her own children. She said the sect didn't allow her to get the documents for daughters born in 2008 and 2010.
The group, also known as the FLDS, opened the 140-acre compound near the town of Pringle more than a decade ago. Known to the faithful as "R23," the compound sits along a gravel road and is shielded from view by tall pine trees, a privacy fence and a guard tower.
The FLDS is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the faith abandoned the practice in 1890 and prohibits it today.
Warren Jeffs, considered by the group to be a prophet who speaks for God, is serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered to be his brides. His brother, Lyle Jeffs, was sentenced to prison in 2017 for his role in carrying out a multimillion-dollar food-stamp fraud scheme and for taking off his ankle monitor and fleeing from home confinement while awaiting trial. He was caught nearly a year later after pawn shop workers spotted him and called police.
The group has long been based out of a remote community on the Utah-Arizona border, but the sect has been losing control of the municipal governments and police departments in sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona.
In 2017, Goodwin sought to have lawmakers look into the South Dakota outpost, including how many people lived there, whether it had a home-schooling program and whether residents were involved in polygamy or sex trafficking. Lawmakers decided not to, though, with one top legislator saying it was up to law enforcement to investigate.
Goodwin's legislation would make it a misdemeanor not to file a birth certificate within one year or to fail to notify the county coroner and sheriff of a death within 48 hours.
A company tied to Seth Jeffs, who authorities have said led the sect’s South Dakota Black Hills compound, last year purchased about 40 acres of land in northern Minnesota. Seth Jeffs, who took a plea deal in the food-stamp fraud case, applied in August to build a 5,760-square-foot building on the Minnesota land.