By anyone's account, 2003 was a banner news year in this tiny town on the western edge of Texas's rolling hill country.
A man killed his father in the first homicide here in two decades, and an elderly man pushing brush with a bulldozer was stung to death by killer bees. A local businessman pleaded guilty to insurance fraud and was hauled off to federal prison, and nine residents, most of them members of the First Baptist Church, were killed in an accident in Louisiana on their way to visit historic sites in Pennsylvania.
"I thought, we'll never have another year like that," said Randy Mankin, the part-time city administrator and full-time publisher and editor of the Eldorado Success, a weekly newspaper. "Then in mid-March this thing came along -- like a UFO landed north of town."
The polygamists had arrived, and Eldorado (pronounced el-doh-ray-doh) -- population 1,951 -- hasn't been the same since.
"Your first question is 'Why Eldorado?' " said Jeri Whitten, director of the Schleicher County Public Library, which nowadays has a waiting list for its small collection of books about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose members are Eldorado's newest neighbors.
Local and state officials are trying to find out why the group chose this location, especially because of recent allegations against the sect -- which broke away from the mainstream Mormon Church when it banned polygamy in 1890 -- of child abuse, forced marriage and fraud. The sect, known as the FLDS, is led by self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs, 48, who, along with two of his brothers, was accused in a civil lawsuit filed in Salt Lake City this summer of sodomizing a nephew when the boy was 5 and of coercion for trying to keep the boy from discussing the abuse. Jeffs and his brothers have denied the allegations through a church spokesman.
The FLDS practices plural marriage, a spiritual ritual that is arranged by the group's prophet through what the church teaches are revelations from God. Having multiple wives, members believe, gives them access to the highest level in heaven, the Celestial Kingdom. Today, the fundamentalists claim a membership of 10,000 to 12,000, most of them living in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., where they run their own schools, police departments and businesses and boast families that include dozens of wives and dozens of children.
Recent cases brought by Utah and Arizona law enforcement authorities to prosecute the problems associated with polygamy -- bigamy, criminal nonsupport of children, child rape, forced marriage of minor girls and fraud of the welfare system -- have shone the spotlight on the insular community.
That attention, said a Salt Lake City lawyer who speaks for Jeffs and the FLDS, prompted the sect to look for a new "outpost and retreat" in Texas. Rodney Parker said the Eldorado compound will be used by about 500 church members, who have no interest in political or civic involvement in Eldorado.
"People can go there to concentrate and focus on their religious mission without the interferences and pressures they've been subjected to" in Arizona and Utah, Parker said. "They're a very private people, and right now they're feeling very picked on."
But the group's efforts here are attracting widespread attention. An informal squad of local businessmen and officials flies over the sect's compound regularly. Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran is in regular contact with the group, and the Eldorado Success has been running front-page stories on it regularly.
"It's been a nice town until now. Everybody's like kin to each other; we all know each other," said Eldorado resident Amelia Rodriguez, 60, a retired housekeeper. "I get kind of scared because there's no telling what's going to happen. . . . I don't like it. I don't feel it's a good place for them to be."
The news that the FLDS was creating a settlement began trickling in at the end of winter after a local pilot noticed that concrete foundations were being laid for three large buildings on a plateau about five miles north of town. He relayed the news to the sheriff. Then a Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden reported a man on the property for hunting without a state license or proof that he had taken a hunter safety class. He was from Arizona and "he said he was hunting for food," said game warden Doug Seamands.
Doran tracked down the representative of record for YFZ Land LLC of Utah, the purchaser of the 1,691 acres. That representative, David Allred, said the property was to be used as a hunting lodge for the company's clients. But the answer didn't sit right with residents.
Leasing land to hunters is one of the biggest money-making businesses in Schleicher County, and locals know what a hunting lodge looks like. "It's a 20-by-21 room with a simple road, a little log cabin that will fit four or five guys," said Justice of the Peace Jimmy Doyle. "These [buildings] are like college dormitories, three stories tall, with a lot of road work. We knew something was up."
Besides, said Doyle, "we couldn't figure out why, if they have elk and bear in Utah, they're coming to the county to hunt a little white-tailed deer."
By mid-March, with the construction going strong, information began coming in to the sheriff and to the newspaper that Allred and the owner of the property were connected to Jeffs and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Doran called Allred in for another meeting, and it was then, the sheriff said, that "he said it's not a hunting retreat -- he said it was for church members who wanted to get away" from Utah and Arizona.
Then the region's media arrived in droves, attracted by Flora Jessop, who went to Eldorado to hold a news conference and warn local residents about their fundamentalist neighbors. Jessop, 34, fled the FLDS enclave on the Utah-Arizona border at the age of 18, claiming years of sexual abuse by her father, virtual imprisonment by her uncle and a forced marriage to a cousin. She has since become an anti-polygamist activist and the executive director of the Child Protection Project in Phoenix, which helps girls escape the FLDS.
All summer, the construction at the Eldorado compound has proceeded without pause. There are no county zoning or building codes and the property -- with church members working on it exclusively -- now contains at least four large multi-story dormitories, a church and community center, several storage barns, a rock quarry, a concrete plant, construction trailers, a large cultivated plot for growing crops, and a network of roads. A wastewater treatment plant and a water supply system are being constructed on the compound.
The property is off limits to outsiders and even the only government agency with any jurisdiction over the property, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has had difficulty getting regular access. The agency has cited the FLDS for improperly disposing of wastewater, for emissions problems with the concrete plant and, most recently, for 20 violations with the drinking-water system, said John Steib of the commission's office of compliance and enforcement.
Doran and his deputy have visited the FLDS compounds in Hildale and Colorado City and received briefings from officials there. The Utah attorney general has offered to meet with Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who believes the Eldorado community is a "local law enforcement issue," a spokesman said.
"We won't hesitate to enforce the law if any are broken, but there have been no laws broken yet," Doran said.
In the meantime, wary residents are reading their local paper and wondering whether life as they know it in their little town will change. A few of the fundamentalist men have been spotted in town but none of the women, who wear floor-length, pioneer-style dresses and long braids.
"We all know one another, and we're basically close-knit," said Patsy Kellogg, director of the Schleicher County Community Resource Center, which administers local welfare programs. "We don't want anyone to mess up our little world. We're very secure here. . . . I hope they stay on their own ground and they don't register to vote."
Investigator Sam Brower, left, with Sheriff David Doran, serves a summons on FLDS member Merrill Jessop, right, in a civil lawsuit filed against the FLDS.