Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas empty 10 years after raid

(Eric Gay | AP Photo) Wendell Jessop, 10, left, stands on the porch at his home with sisters Pearl, 12, and Yvone, 16, on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, Friday, March 27, 2009.

Eldorado, Texas • They kept to themselves, but everyone in town knew who they were.

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 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.”

“Numbers that we never did fathom that was out there,” he continued.

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 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.

Because the state is exempt from paying taxes on the property, Schleicher County has not collected tax money on the YFZ Ranch since its seizure.

“With the state taking it over, it really, really hurt,” Doyle said. “Hurt this whole community bad. The state’s taken it over … and they haven’t done a damn thing with it for the most part of it, except let it rot.”

An experienced pilot, Doyle said from the air he could see the poor shape of the existing buildings made mostly of wood. He has flown over the ranch numerous times — often for media outlets wanting aerial photos of the property.

“The county’s losing taxes, the city’s losing taxes, the school’s losing taxes and the state is just letting it rot,” he said. “Plus, we’re still stuck with it because the sheriff still has to guard it.”

Billy Collins, former superintendent of Schleicher County Independent School District, said at the time of the seizure, the district expected to lose 5 percent to 10 percent of its operating budget because of the state’s tax exemption.

The district was collecting about $400,000 annually in taxes from the property before it was seized, said current Superintendent Robert Gibson.

The Schleicher County Sheriff’s Office is tasked with upkeep of the property; the sheriff estimates it costs the county $10,000 a year. The cost would be higher if not for his volunteer work on the property, inmate labor used when available and help from city and county departments, he said.

“The State Attorney General’s Office reimburses the expense to the district attorney’s office for the utilities,” he said. “And the county is covering the expense for any maintenance that may occur out there like broken water lines, water well issues.”

He said the county will not be reimbursed until a sale is made.

Doran was appointed conservator of the property in 2014 by 51st Judicial District Attorney Allison Palmer, who he said has done an amazing job behind the scenes of overseeing the property.

Other than a major grass fire on the property about a year and a half ago, upkeep has been limited to repairing water lines, caring for the orchard and making sure the property remains viable for sale.

The property is valued at about $25 million — down from the roughly $33.3 million it was worth when seized in 2013, according to the county’s appraisal district.

It’s unknown what plans the state has for the property other than to sell it or whether any serious buyers are looking to sweep up the multimillion-dollar ranch.

Willie Jessop, former bodyguard and onetime staunch supporter of Jeffs, is in a dispute with the state of Texas. He claims he has a legal interest in the YFZ Ranch and should receive money from a sale.

Jessop is seeking to collect on two separate multimillion-dollar judgment liens — one for $24.45 million and another for $8.5 million — he won in a Utah court in 2012 against the FLDS church and several of its members. The lawsuit was not contested and rendered a default judgment.

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.

The lawsuit against Texas was originally filed in July 2015 but was dismissed based on the state’s claim of sovereign immunity, which holds that a state cannot be sued without the state legislature’s consent.

Leveled against Palmer, in her official capacity as DA, and Kent Richardson, acting on behalf of the Attorney General of Texas, the lawsuit is being heard in the 13th Court of Appeals.

Palmer and Jessop’s San Angelo attorney Rae Leifeste could not be reached for comment.

While the property waits in limbo and debate continues over who should benefit from a potential sale, Judge Walther granted a request made in early March from the Texas Attorney General’s Office to remove several sets of human remains buried at the YFZ Ranch Cemetery, The Eldorado Success reports.

Among the buried is the body of Barbara Jeffs, one of Warren Jeffs’ wives, which will be relocated to an area around the Utah/Arizona border.

Seven bodies must be relocated, and relatives of the deceased were given two options — bodies could be moved to a place of their choosing or reburied in the local cemetery, Doran said.

“Some of the family members wanted their loved ones to stay in the county because that’s where they passed,” he said. “So the county donated four cemetery plots and the state’s paying for the removal and transportation and I believe the permits. The county is paying for the reburial.”

The overall expense is $3,000 per person. The remaining three bodies will be relocated elsewhere at the family’s expense.

Unlike hundreds of their peers, the last remaining FLDS members on the YFZ Ranch will be removed from the property quietly and without public fanfare.