“I don’t want to minimize the level of danger,” said FBI special agent Eric Barnhart. “He is armed and dangerous, but he’s also trying to escape further incarceration. Don’t approach him. Call it in, and let us check it out.”
Lyle Jeffs, 56, was arrested in February with 10 other fundamental polygamists in connection to a more than $12 million tax fraud scheme, wherein high-ranking members allegedly cashed in on government subsidies, such as food stamps, at the expense of FLDS families, who nearly starved.
On June 9, despite adamant protests from prosecutors warning of a high-flight risk, U.S. District Court Judge Ted Stewart released Jeffs on house arrest in Salt Lake County, Utah, ruling it would be unconstitutional to hold him until the October trial.
Just days later, Jeffs disappeared. Authorities found his ankle monitor covered in olive oil.
As the search enters its fifth month, Barnhart said it’s likely Jeffs has entered one of the group’s countless “houses of hiding” – a term the FLDS uses for a network of secretive holdings scattered throughout the country.
One such refuge is a 180-acre property 10 miles north of Mancos, surrounded by densely wooded national forest land above Joe Moore Reservoir, off Forest Service Road 559.
“We know a lot of their properties are remote,” Barnhart said. “But the world has gotten smaller. It’s only a matter of time until they make a mistake.”
Breakaway groupThe FLDS splintered from the Mormon Church when it banned polygamy in 1890.
The breakaway group moved to an isolated area on the Utah-Arizona border called the Short Creek Community, where it is mandated male members have at least three wives to attain salvation.
Long considered a fringe religious community, the FLDS entered a new era when self-proclaimed prophet and literal “mouthpiece of God” Warren Jeffs assumed leadership in 2002.
Jeffs demanded “perfect obedience” from his 10,000 or so followers, banning all media and contact with the outside world, excommunicating younger male members so that older higher ranking members could have their “spiritual brides,” all the while allegedly orchestrating multiple massive tax fraud schemes.
Former members have accused Jeffs of serially raping children aged 5 to 16 years old, both boys and girls. It is believed he has as many as 70 wives, many underage, and hundreds of children.
In case the need arose to evade authorities, Jeffs directed his loyalists to secretly buy properties around the country, according to investigators who follow the group and multiple news reports.
Evidence that the polygamist colony spread to Southwest Colorado came to light soon after David Steed Allred – a son-in-law of Warren Jeffs – purchased two 60-acre properties, one in 2003 and another in 2004. Allred paid nearly $1.4 million for the properties around the same time he bought a 1,600-acre compound in Eldorado, Texas. Both, he said, would be hunting retreats for the most privileged members.
It didn’t take long to find out Allred’s claim was a ruse, said Tom Vaughan, former editor of The Mancos Times. Scores of FLDS followers traveled to this small mountain town 30 miles west of Durango.
“Immediately upon buying it, they were out there building day and night,” Vaughan said.
Secret inhabitantsScott Davis, Montezuma County property assessor, said his visits to the site are tense. He is escorted to only select areas and has never been allowed inside a building.
Most unsettling, Davis said, was that among the obvious signs of life (construction equipment, new vehicles), there were never any people around. Buildings were boarded up and window blinds drawn.
“When people don’t want you inside, they are generally hiding something,” Davis said.
It eventually became clear the Mancos property was not destined to become the stronghold for the FLDS. Instead, the Texas location, which was raided in 2008 after allegations of child rape were made, held that special designation.
“But there’s still been this question all along: how does this property play in the asset game of the FLDS?” said Vaughan. “There’s no production there, no economic activity. We now know Warren was there (when he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted list). So to me, it seemed a logical place that was intended as a hideaway.”
After Warren Jeffs’ 2006 arrest and subsequent life sentence for raping two girls, impregnating a 15-year-old, the controversial sect has mostly receded from the national spotlight.
And the Mancos property, which once boasted a heavily guarded watchtower that would alert a 24/7 ATV patrol, too, has quieted. News reports that reference the holding trickle off sometime around 2008.
But in 2014, the FLDS purchased another 60-acre parcel, effectively linking the total 180 acres. It has built up and torn down a number of structures with seemingly no rhyme nor reason, and maintains a massive greenhouse, raised garden and solar panels, said Vaughan, who lives in Silver City, New Mexico, but photographs the compound every time he visits Mancos.
Davis, who also monitors the FLDS with some regularity, said there are a number of residential structures, cabins and storage sheds on the property. He said there are also hints of an underground bunker.
“There’s a lot of cement produced on-site, but no evidence of it being used on the surface or leaving,” Davis said. “We all believe they’ve built an underground bunker. I would put money on it, and I’m not much of a betting man.”
No one homeAttempts to reach former members of the FLDS who might provide insight on the purpose of the Mancos property were unsuccessful.
However, a recent visit reinforced what Davis, Vaughan and others say: undeniable signs of activity yet no people in sight.
“I guarantee they knew you were there,” said Sam Brower, a private investigator who broke the story in the early 2000s when the FLDS bought property in Mancos, and helped track down Warren Jeffs. “They have motion sensors, high-tech cameras. They want to present that it’s dead and quiet, so it’s misleading when you go out there.”
Brower said women and children are instructed to stay inside during the day. Though he hasn’t visited Mancos in a few years, Brower, who has investigated the FLDS since the early 2000s and published the book Prophet’s Prey, shedding light on the group’s abuses, deduced the property is likely reserved for elite members to indulge in certain “opulent” lifestyle activities, i.e., vacations with favorite wives.
As for the whereabouts of Lyle Jeffs, Brower said, “Mancos is as good as any place to look,” though there are hundreds of possibilities, including in Canada and Mexico.
He said FBI evidence released this summer showed that Lyle Jeffs – a man believed to have eight wives and 60 children – had disobeyed his brother Warren’s commands while he was on house arrest. Not long after, Lyle disappeared.
“The big thing to remember is: People want to look at FLDS as a religion, and that’s a huge mistake because they are not a religion,” said Brower, a practicing Mormon. “They are a criminal organization that holds assets any way it can.”
Larry Everett, a neighbor to the compound on County Road 40, said he didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary this summer. At such close proximity, even he can’t speculate how many people live there or what goes on day to day.
“Nobody knows,” he said. “It’s a strange deal.”
The FBI said it has not contacted the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office, as there is no explicit indication Lyle Jeffs is in Mancos. It is offering up to $50,000 for information leading to his arrest and conviction.
The Sheriff’s Office increased patrols of the compound when Warren Jeffs was missing but has not done so for Lyle, a spokesman said.
For Davis and Vaughan, the mysteriousness of the compound continues to perplex, and the two have taken a kind of personal vigilantism on patrolling the place.
Davis said the FLDS pays its yearly property tax of more than $11,000 – usually delivered in cash and in person by members of the loyalist group The United Order – which is “a little suspicious.” But the property is in good standing.
Still, a picture of Lyle Jeffs hangs above his desk.
“I’m always on the alert with them,” Davis said. “I just have a huge, huge problem with people like them. They are ruining lives left and right, members of their own church.”