ELDORADO, Texas — The state of Texas wants to seize the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch, which gained international attention in 2008 after the state raided it and temporarily removed hundreds of children over allegations of child sex abuse.
The ensuing investigation resulted in a dozen indictments and nine convictions of men living at the ranch for crimes relating to child sex abuse involving underage marriage. Among those convicted was the compound leader and the church's prophet, Warren Jeffs, who was sentenced in Texas last year to life in prison.
The Yearning For Zion Ranch owned by the Utah-based sect is located in a remote area near Eldorado, Texas, outside of San Angelo.
The Texas Attorney General's Office on Wednesday filed a search and seizure warrant in the 51st District Court of Texas to claim the 1,691-acre property. In a 91-page affidavit, Texas attorneys claim Jeffs authorized the purchase of the ranch property because he "sought a rural location where … the systemic sexual assault of children would be tolerated without interference from law enforcement authorities."
Randy Mankin, publisher of the Eldorado Success newspaper, said when state officials went to the ranch Wednesday to serve the warrant, no one from the ranch would open the gate.
"No one came to the gate to meet them so they taped the document on the gate, and also served Warren Jeffs in his prison cell," he said.
When the FLDS Church bought the property in 2003, church officials claimed it was going to be used as a "hunting retreat." But a small city was soon built on the land. The property, which is gated off and not open to the public, includes a temple, a temple annex, several large residential buildings, a school, a clinic, shops, warehouses, a water treatment plant and several commercial buildings.
According to Jeffs' "priesthood records" seized by Texas officials, Jeffs wrote of his new YFZ property in 2003, that he believed he and his followers could conduct their business without being detected.
"These places must be kept secret and sacred, and those who dwell there and here must be full of the Holy Spirit to keep the hedge of protection around us. The devil knows where we are, but through our faith the wicked and the righteous can be blinded and not find this place, except they (be) appointed. I am ready to move some people here. It’s getting close."
In addition to sexual assaults on children, money laundering and the harboring of Jeffs — once a wanted fugitive on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list — other crimes were committed on the ranch, according to Texas authorities. Because of those crimes, prosecutors say that under Texas law, they "can seek to seize property that was used to commit or facilitate certain criminal conduct."
After arrest warrants were issued for Jeffs in Utah and Arizona in 2005, he told his top advisers they needed to "go into hiding among the wicked," according to Jeffs' personal records seized by Texas authorities.
In addition, Jeffs told his followers he needed to start wearing disguises, get false IDs and obtain a fast car for getaways, according to court documents. Many of these entries were allegedly made from the YFZ Ranch, according to authorities.
In June 2005, Jeffs wrote in his "priesthood records" that he believed law enforcers were headed for the YFZ Ranch, saying: "And we can now expect a government raid."
Because of that, he instructed his followers to "to collect all 'training' disks and transcripts of any 'training,'" according to the affidavit. Texas officials believe the training disks were related to child marriages and child sex abuse.
Approximately 439 children were removed from the ranch in April of 2008 when social workers and police responded to a call from someone claiming to be a pregnant 16-year-old in an abusive, polygamous marriage to an older man. Texas officials alleged a pattern of abuse at the ranch with girls groomed to be child brides and boys growing up to be sexual perpetrators.
The children were returned to their families two months later when an Austin appeals court and the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state acted improperly, and that the children were not at immediate risk of abuse. The phone call that sparked the raid was believed to be a hoax.
Texas has spent more than $4.5 million in prosecuting the cases against Jeffs and 10 of his followers following the raids. Jeffs was convicted of sexually assaulting two minors whom he took as spiritual brides.
Jerry Strickland, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the new warrant begins the final chapter in the state's five-year-old case against Jeffs.
"This is simply the next step," Strickland told the Associated Press.
He said it was too early to speculate about what the state would do with the property if given ownership. The group will have a chance to contest any seizure and has 20 days to respond to the warrant before the case moves into the courts.
Sam Brower, an author and private investigator who has looked into the FLDS' dealings for years, called the warrant "validating."
"The FLDS is a criminal organization. And they've finally taken steps to show that and seize the YFZ Ranch," he said.
Brower believes the remaining members of the FLDS Church at the ranch are already in a "heightened state of paranoia" because of recent commandments from Jeffs, who reportedly continues to lead his followers — estimated at 10,000 — from behind bars. Brower predicts that ranch members will just walk away from the compound.
"I think this is probably going go be taken as part of (Jeffs') prophecy that the end is at hand. They'll take that to heart and just leave," he said.
But Brower is also worried that it could turn into something worse.
"When you have a mad man sitting in a Texas prison cell with nothing to lose whose giving these crazy, bizarre end of the world predictions, and ordering his people to do crazy things, it's worrisome," he said.
Mankin said he had noticed a decrease of activity at the ranch recently, but nothing that would raise red flags. He conceded, however, that tensions may start to rise again by the time it reaches the court stage.
"The one thing we've come to expect from Warren Jeffs, is expect the unexpected."
Contributing: John Hollenhorst
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company