|IN DEPTH: LEAVING COLORADO CITY FOR LAS VEGAS|
Southern Nevada offers economic opportunities for followers of polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is charged in Utah as an accomplice to rape
By Brian Haynes and Glenn Puit|
Las Vegas Review Journal
A new family moved onto Gilbert Lane early last year, a family unlike any other on the quiet street in the northwest valley.
The women and girls wore long dresses and bonnets, the boys overalls.
"It looked like 'Little House on the Prairie,'" said Lukey Corral, who lives next door. "We were back in the 1800s."
When a neighbor talked to one of the women at the house, the woman said: "We are just Mormons. Well, we are different Mormons," neighbor Judy Donahue recalled.
The neighborhood eventually learned the new inhabitants were members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, an offshoot of the Mormon church that believes polygamy is the key to the celestial kingdom of heaven.
For decades, FLDS members had hunkered in their isolated enclave on the Utah-Arizona border, insulated from the outside world and allowed to practice polygamy without government interference.
That has changed in recent years as authorities have prosecuted several FLDS members, including the sect's self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Steed Jeffs, on charges related to sexual abuse of teenage brides.
Amid the scrutiny, dozens if not hundreds of FLDS members have left their homes in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., some 160 miles northeast of Las Vegas, for the anonymity and booming economy of Southern Nevada.
They have made millions of dollars through their companies in Las Vegas, Henderson and Mesquite, much of it in the construction industry.
"They have made a lot of money down there," said Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County, Ariz., attorney's office who has probed allegations of underage marriages and rape within the FLDS community.
Besides economic opportunities, some of the estimated 8,000 church members on the Utah-Arizona border seem to be heading to Southern Nevada to dodge increasing pressure from authorities in Utah and Arizona, he said.
"They probably fit in better there in Vegas than in those small towns because people don't pay attention to them," Engels said.
The residents on Gilbert Lane paid attention.
They watched as several pre-built homes popped up on property and as the residents who had sometimes mingled with their neighbors grew more reclusive.
"You used to be able to see one little girl who used to come up to the glass window and wave at you," Donahue said. "Then they immediately put paper up over the windows so she couldn't. It was a little creepy."
The home's residents also wrapped a green mesh fence around the property, blocking what had been a clear view of the backyard, neighbors said.
Donahue recalled she had been wrapping Christmas presents late one night when she stepped outside and saw a man at the house loading a pickup.
"The minute he saw me, he closed all the doors on the truck, ran in the house and turned off all the lights," she said. "It's like they don't want you to see what they are doing. All very mysterious. They are too weird."
The secretive behavior stems from FLDS teachings that anyone outside the faith is evil and should be avoided. Outsiders driving through Colorado City are often followed, and children scamper into their homes when outsiders approach.
However, the fear of outsiders hasn't stopped FLDS followers from setting up businesses in Southern Nevada.
Jacob Jessop, who owns the Gilbert Lane house, incorporated JNJ Engineering in Las Vegas in 2002. Engels, private investigator Sam Brower and others identified Jessop as an FLDS member. He visited Jeffs in the Clark County Detention Center after his arrest, according to visitor logs. Jessop did not respond to requests for comment.
The company has earned millions of dollars in Las Vegas, including $11.3 million from the Las Vegas Valley Water District. All but one of the 16 workers on the water district projects used mailing addresses in Hildale or Colorado City, according to payroll records.
JNJ was awarded the contracts because it was the lowest bidder, water district spokesman Scott Huntley said.
Another major business owned by FLDS members in Las Vegas is NewEra Manufacturing, which was called Western Precision before moving from Utah to Nevada in July 2006.
"Before they moved to Las Vegas, it was the biggest employer in Colorado City," Brower said. "They have a lot of government contracts."
The company's founder, Wendell Nielsen, is one of Jeffs' closest confidants, and company President John C. Wayman owned the Cadillac Escalade Jeffs was riding in when he was arrested, Brower said.
When the Review-Journal called NewEra for comment about its links to the FLDS, the person who answered the phone hung up. When the reporter called back, the individual said, "We have nothing to say, thank you," and hung up again.
Bruce Wisan, who was appointed by a Utah judge to oversee an FLDS trust known as the United Effort Plan, knows Western Precision well. He sued the company immediately after his appointment, alleging the company bought its building and land from church leaders for far less than market value. The building in Hildale was auctioned off, with the proceeds going to the trust.
The lawsuit is ongoing.
Wisan said Jeffs always had a certain amount of control over his followers' businesses, usually requiring them to put his name on company checking accounts.
"Warren has his hand in all these businesses," Wisan said, naming NewEra Manufacturing and JNJ Engineering, among others.
"Everything is micromanaged by Warren, especially if there is any money to be made out of it," said Brower, who works for a law firm that is suing Jeffs and the church on behalf of women who allege they were sexually abused within the church and on behalf of young men who were kicked out of the church.
Engels and Brower identified a Henderson-based FLDS manufacturing site that made lanyards for Snugz, a Salt Lake City company. A lanyard is a type of cord that hangs around the neck and is used to display security badges and event passes.
Jon Clave, 24, who worked for another company in the same warehouse in Henderson, said he once encountered a large family in pioneer dress.
"There was a bunch of kids working here," Clave said. "About 14 years old, running a forklift."
He recalled going into the factory to ask for the return of a borrowed forklift.
"I walked in, no answer, 'Hello? Hello? Hello?'" Clave said. "And then I walked in on a whole room full of them. A room full of kids. Four or five boys, three girls. They just sat there in dead silence. No one said anything."
Clave said it appeared the whole clan was hiding out in a back room of the warehouse. A few months later, the business shut down and the workers disappeared.
Snugz owner Brandon Mackay said the FLDS workers were manufacturers for some of the company's products when he bought it in the spring of 2005. He ended the relationship last year for business reasons, including negative publicity about the group, he said.
In Mesquite, FLDS members have run several companies, including Dagrow Truss and Cozy Log Homes, Engels said.
Former Mesquite Mayor Bill Nicholes noticed the first wave of FLDS workers in his city about two years ago, roughly the time Dagrow Truss opened. Most of them appeared to be men who worked for Dagrow or other construction-related businesses, he said.
They rented houses and packed them with workers, who stayed the week and returned to Colorado City on the weekends, he said.
The new residents quickly drew the ire of neighbors for parking their trucks and mobile homes in the street, he said. The neighbors complained to the city, which got the police involved, and the trucks no longer crowded the residential streets, Nicholes said.
Other than the parking troubles, the FLDS members avoided problems in Mesquite, he said.
"They're good people," he said. "They don't create ... problems."
Since Jeffs' arrest last year, activity at Dagrow Truss has slowed, and the FLDS workers have all but disappeared from Mesquite, he said.
"Very few and far between," he said about recent sightings of members.
An unidentified woman who answered the phone at Dagrow Truss said no one would comment. A phone message to Cozy Log Homes went unreturned.
One of the managing members of Cozy Log Homes, Kelly Fischer, was the first FLDS member to be tried in Mohave County on charges related to underage brides. He was convicted last year of sexual contact with a minor and sentenced to 45 days in jail.
The charges against Fischer and seven other FLDS men were hailed as the first step toward ending abuses of women and girls within the community.
The religious group continued to practice polygamy after it splintered from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1890, when the mainstream church renounced plural marriages, helping pave the way for Utah to gain statehood. FLDS members settled on a remote stretch of land north of the Grand Canyon known as the Arizona Strip.
Authorities largely ignored the group's polygamous practices until 1953, when Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle ordered a raid of the FLDS community then known as Short Creek. Police arrested 31 men and took their wives and children.
The raid gained national attention and sympathetic press coverage for the polygamists. The criminal cases fell apart more than two years later, and the fallout cost Pyle his bid for re-election.
Officials for the most part left the group alone for the next five decades until activists, many of them former FLDS members, brought new attention to the plight of women and girls in the polygamist society.
Authorities in Utah and Arizona started new investigations. Despite the veil of secrecy, about a dozen FLDS men have been prosecuted in the past few years on charges of having sex with their underage brides.
The most prominent defendant is Jeffs, who succeeded his father as the group's leader in 2002.
Jeffs is on trial in St. George, Utah, on charges of rape as an accomplice. Authorities allege he ordered and performed a marriage in Caliente between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin and commanded the girl to have sex with the teen.
The 51-year-old faces similar accusations in Mohave County, Ariz., after grand juries indicted him on charges of arranging marriages between two minor girls and older men. Each indictment charges Jeffs with two counts of sexual conduct with a minor as an accomplice and two counts of incest as an accomplice.
With arrest warrants waiting for Jeffs in Utah and Arizona, the FBI placed him on the Ten Most Wanted list in May 2006.
Three months later, a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper stopped a red Cadillac Escalade heading north on Interstate 15 just north of Las Vegas. Jeffs initially told the trooper his name was John Findley, but after further investigation, authorities figured out they had their man.
Inside the Escalade, authorities found $53,000 in cash hidden in the lining of a suitcase, wigs, 16 cell phones, letters addressed to "The President" and lists of "hiding houses."
Engels said he wouldn't be surprised if Jeffs had been in Las Vegas to pick up those letters and cash. He suspected Jeffs made regular visits to Southern Nevada during his time on the run, he said.
Donahue's husband, Pat, said he once called the FBI after seeing a man who looked like Jeffs at the Jessop house. The agency didn't seem interested, he said.
"They acted like I had two heads," Pat Donahue said.
An FBI spokesman said the agency followed up on all leads regarding Jeffs' whereabouts.
Jeffs' arrest and rumors of children working for FLDS companies prompted state labor authorities to investigate, Nevada Labor Commissioner Michael Tanchek said. They reviewed payroll records for some companies, including JNJ Engineering, on public works projects and found no labor violations, he said.
The capture of the prophet sparked U.S. Sen. Harry Reid to call for a federal task force, led by the U.S. attorney general, to investigate polygamous communities. A year later, Reid said he is still waiting for a task force to form.
"Ignoring polygamy all over the West doesn't speak well about what our standard of morals should be," said Reid, D-Nev., a practicing Mormon.
Polygamy demeans women, and it is associated with child abuse and domestic violence, he said.
"It shouldn't be swept under the rug, and that's what it has been," he said. "This is wrong. I hope Jeffs is convicted."
The Mormon church tolerates the FLDS, as it does all religions, but doesn't interact with the polygamous offshoot, said Ace Robison, Southern Nevada spokesman for the church.
"We don't say or do much about it," he said. "It is what it is."
After Jeffs' arrest, then-Nevada Attorney General George Chanos committed an investigator from his office to look into FLDS activities in the state. Deputy Attorney General Conrad Hafen said he could not reveal results of the investigation, but prosecutors never received a referral to press charges.
If state prosecutors were to receive evidence from law enforcement of polygamy or child abuse, they aggressively would pursue criminal cases, he said. Polygamy would fall under the state's bigamy law, but prosecutions under the law are rare, he said.
Las Vegas police have not received any complaints related to the FLDS members living in Clark County, said Lt. Mitch Bradshaw, head of the sexual assault unit, and District Attorney David Roger said he has not received any cases from law enforcement agencies.
The family on Gilbert Lane did run afoul of Las Vegas city code. City inspectors ordered Jessop to remove three small houses that appeared on his property late last year. They were gone by January, but serenity hasn't returned to Gilbert Lane.
Corral said she wishes the Jessops would go back to Colorado City.
"Everybody's moving because no one wants to be around the polygamists," she said.
Originally published September 16, 2007
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