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Life at polygamist ranch was austere, controlled

It was a year ago that the outside world got its first glimpse beyond the battered green gate of the YFZ Ranch. And the view was mesmerizing:
Image: Guy Jessop
Guy Jessop stands at the gate of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' Yearning for Zion ranch near El Dorado, Texas, in May 2008.Lm Otero / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

It was a year ago that the outside world got its first glimpse beyond the battered green gate of the YFZ Ranch. And the view was mesmerizing:

Women in pioneer-style dresses, their hair swept up in braids. Men who married multiple times — sometimes, it was said, to underage girls. Children snatched by authorities from their mothers, for fear that they might be abused.

Officials had come looking for an abused teenage girl named "Sarah." Since then, it's become clear Sarah didn't exist, that calls made to a domestic abuse hot line were probably faked.

All but one of the children back with families
And since then, all but one of the 439 children who were taken away in one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history have returned to their families. About two-thirds are back at the ranch, says Willie Jessop, spokesman for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

But life at the YFZ Ranch has not returned to normal. The sect's prophet, Warren Jeffs, is not there — convicted in Utah as an accomplice to rape, he sits in a 7-by-12-foot cell in Arizona awaiting trial on a similar charge and has been indicted in Texas for sexual assault of a child and bigamy.

And Jeff's followers have yet to recover hundreds of boxes worth of Jeffs' journals and teachings, letters from FLDS members, family photos and detailed church census records that were seized by authorities in the raid that began last April 3.

Documents used in court proceedings and thousands of pages of additional records, obtained by The Associated Press, offer a window into an industrious, prayerful community in which marriage was considered a mandatory ticket to heaven, and where legal marrying ages were secondary to divine matches ordained by Jeffs.

But more than anything else, these papers testify to a simple truth:

At the YFZ Ranch, Warren Jeffs controlled everything.

There was a vision and there was land
In the beginning, there was a vision — and there was the land.

It was Jeffs' vision. His chosen people, he said, must go to Eldorado, a tiny town of 1,850, to buy the 1,700-acre Isaac's Ranch. This was not verdant land. Like much of the soil of West Texas, it was suitable only for raising goats and drilling for oil — so rocky and inhospitable that some followers thought the land was a curse.

But the people worked it hard.

The men quarried deep enough to find white stone for the four-story temple, following Jeffs' exact specifications and time table, sometimes allowed just two hours of sleep a night. They made mortar from a formula Jeffs said was divinely inspired, painted and furnished to his exact specifications, and women sewed drapes that hung one inch — "no more, no less" — off the floor.

In just five years, a new community arose on what was now known as the Yearning for Zion Ranch — an oasis with a gleaming white temple, a place where folks kept to themselves.

Jeffs, the 53-year-old son of the sect's previous prophet, gave regular dictation and teachings used to govern every aspect of life on the ranch, even when he was on the run from authorities and after he was jailed in 2007.

Jeffs spent a lot of time at the ranch
Jeffs spent a lot of time at the ranch, though he often hid from other residents and his family in a separate apartment, his writings indicate. But even when he wasn't there, he decided who would live at the ranch, how construction would be done, who would be married to whom and how folks would eat and spend their time.

"God in the heavens confers upon one man on the earth the keys of priesthood to act in his stead and to follow revelation so that when that one man performs any work, gives a teaching, performance ordinances by the power of God, it is God doing it," he wrote.

He is certain that he is that man, and his followers agree.

The construction of the temple and two dozen other buildings was funded with millions of dollars given by roughly 7,500 FLDS members who lived and ran businesses elsewhere. Jeffs records on multiple occasions being given tens of thousands of dollars, which he used to buy equipment, material or transportation. He admonished YFZ residents to live frugally since "everyone in this mission and on the lands of refuge is living off the labors of others."

Women and children cleared rocks and cactus off land later layered with top soil for sprawling vegetable gardens and tree orchards.

Milk from dairy cows was used to make cheese. There is a chicken coop, and the people of the ranch keep honey bees. Processed sugar and cereal were forbidden, because "particularly in the ladies, it can destroy your ability to have children," Jeffs said.

The women sewed their own clothes, made with the pastel, patternless cloth as dictated by Jeffs: "The patterns should not be a 'V' on the neck or the waist. It should be straight-waisted, and the collar should be like a man's shirt on the women's dresses. And, of course, the dresses should be long," he said.

Children did chores, attended school
The children went to school on the ranch and were taught to do chores, and while they were required to be quiet at meal times, Jeffs recorded some fatherly moments. He once taught the littlest children to make scrambled eggs. On another occasion, he took some of his rambunctious young daughters on an outing around the property, where they shared snacks and he encouraged them to listen better.

Life was generally austere at the ranch. Toys, including simple wooden blocks, were forbidden by Jeffs as "selfishness."

"There is so much work to do around here — no idle time. There is no football. There is no basketball. There is no soccer. There is no gentile games here. There is hard work and constant rejoicing prayers," Jeffs told young men when they arrived.

Nonreligious music was forbidden, and there was no television.

Jeffs did record having several wives watch television in hotel rooms while he was on the run from authorities in Arizona and Utah.

He used the shows to demonstrate how violent and vile the outside world was. He called "Big Love," the HBO show centered on a polygamist family, "a direct attack against the celestial law by our apostate enemies and the rich people of this land."

FLDS members were taught, perhaps above all, that sexual purity was imperative. Attraction — and certainly masturbation or contact with the opposite sex — were mortal sins. Jeffs warned the boys that sexual immorality was "the most terrible sin next to murder."

Marriage seen as cure
Marriage was seen as the cure, though it didn't end all restrictions. Sex was meant only for procreation and should take place between a husband and one wife at a time.

"A woman should ask for children, and that be the motive for those sexual relations," he said, adding there was to be no sex for pregnant women or women beyond childbearing years.

Jeffs recorded that at least two of his children were conceived during his so-called "heavenly sessions," times when he said God gave him revelations. (In other heavenly sessions, he had as many as five wives massaging his arms, legs and head.)

Marriage was an absolute requirement for women who wanted to be close to God and to enter into heaven, according to Jeffs. He himself had 58 wives, according to 2004 church records.

"Girls who don't get married in celestial marriage won't live with Heavenly Father again," Jeffs told women. "Celestial marriage is your way back into your Heavenly Father's presence."

To enter the afterlife, women must be bonded to a worthy man, and men had to take multiple wives for heavenly glorification. Men considered unworthy by Jeffs were expelled from the community and their wives reassigned to other men — sometimes willingly, sometimes less so.

Complicated family dynamics
The family dynamics of multiple wives and children assigned to a single husband were clearly complicated. Jeffs told the men they should be able to kiss or hug any wife in front of any other wife without fear of jealousy, and he warned men against angling to inherit the wives of men cast out of the community.

In one dictation, he recalled talking to his nine youngest wives. Listing their names, he rattled off seven but then strained to recall the last two. "A total of nine. Two more," he said, before adding "Veda and Gloria Anne."

He once called the ranch to say "happy anniversary" to two wives on the same day.

But child welfare authorities and prosecutors say the FLDS theology of purity and plural marriage, combined with Jeffs' one-man rule, had a darker undercurrent. They say it made the marriage and sexual assault of underage girls regular practice in the sect that uses the Book of Mormon but follows plural marriage and other practices long ago renounced by mainstream Mormons.

Since the raid last year, the FLDS has said it will not sanction underage marriages. But for years, Jeffs only acknowledged whether a girl had reached puberty, not her legal age.

"I say, in the name of the Lord, there is no underage marriage in a priesthood marriage, in celestial marriage. God has the right to rule. The Lord had me take these two underage girls on purpose, to show that I and we, this people, are with him, with God, not fearing man," he wrote in 2003.

One of those girls, Jeffs wrote, was lucky to have a husband at her age. The girl, allegedly married to Jeffs at age 12, is the lone ranch child who remains in foster care.

Feared repercussions at times
While Jeffs talked tough about following God's law and not man's, there were clearly times when he feared the repercussions of the underage marriages he arranged.

In August 2005, a 16-year-old wife had been in labor for days, attended by the sect's doctor, Lloyd Barlow, and a midwife at the ranch, but she was having a difficult birth. A ranch leader called Jeffs and asked what to do.

"He told those attending that, because of her age and the associated government pressures against the prophet and those who abide the law of God, going to the hospital was not an option," wrote a church member who was recording the daily events at the ranch.

The teen and her daughter survived childbirth. Her husband, 37-year-old Raymond Merril Jessop, has been indicted for sexual assault of a child and bigamy.

His trial, tentatively set for Oct. 26, is expected to be the first of the dozen trials for FLDS men. The charges range from failure to report child abuse, in the case of Barlow, to bigamy and sexual assault of a child for Jeffs and several of the other men.

Through his attorney, Michael Piccarreta, Jeffs declined to be interviewed.

Piccarreta said the charges are little more than religious persecution. He's trying to have the evidence seized in the raid excluded from Jeffs' Arizona trial, while other attorneys are trying to suppress it in the Texas cases. One photo obtained by the AP shows crime scene investigators around a temple bed, where early court documents indicated marriages may have been consummated — a charge the sect has denied.

"There are a lot of people in government and elsewhere that are doing everything they can to try to crush this small religion, and it seems nothing is beyond them," he said.

Religion not the issue
Texas authorities insist, however, that religion has never been the issue.

"The Eldorado case was about the sexual abuse of girls and about the abuse of children who were taught that underage marriages were a way of life — and about adults who didn't stop the practice," said Patrick Crimmins, a Child Protective Services spokesman. "It was not about the religious practices of the FLDS."

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