Investigation offers glimpse into polygamous sect's secretive compound

After church leaders Lyle and Seth Jeffs were arrested for food stamp fraud, investigators have been given an intriguing picture of life in the movement's compounds, particularly its highly secretive South Dakota compound. 

Chris Huber/Rapid City Journal/AP
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints compound near Pringle, S.D., is seen from above, July 8. Several top leaders from Warren Jeffs' polygamous sect were arrested Tuesday on federal accusations of food stamp fraud and money laundering – marking one of the biggest blows to the group in years. Over 10 people were charged in the scheme, including Lyle Jeffs and Seth Jeffs. Seth Jeffs leads a branch of the group in South Dakota.

An investigation into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints has offered rare glimpse of life inside the polygamous sect's shuttered compound.

Eleven members of an elite subgroup of the polygamous sect have been charged with food stamp fraud and money laundering.

In 2011, leaders Lyle and Seth Jeffs created a subgroup within the church called the “United Order.” Membership in the United Order was restricted to those the Jeffs brothers deemed the most worthy and “spiritually prepared.”

These members used Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to buy groceries for a community stockpile of food, investigators say. Leaders then redistributed that food as they saw fit. Furthermore, two convenience stores were allegedly created as fronts for electronic money transfers. Shoppers swiped SNAP cards without expecting food in return. Instead, the money went towards church expenses.

The investigation has led authorities to the secretive South Dakota compound that is one of the church’s “lands of refuge.” Infamous former church leader Warren Jeffs conviction that the federal government would seize church property on the Arizona-Utah border led him to deem the South Dakota compound necessary. Warren Jeffs was sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of two counts of criminal assault of a child in 2011.

"It was a prophesy kind of thing," former church official Jerold Williams told The Associated Press. "He was going to do these 'lands of refuge,' he called them, for people to have somewhere to go to."

The 140-acre compound in South Dakota is patrolled by a security force. The compound itself features a watch tower.

Before entering the property, guests must leave cell phone batteries behind. According to a former compound resident, Sam Steed, the presiding bishop was allowed to have a phone, but was unable to use it within the compound.

The South Dakota property is known as “R23,” and only a select number of FLDS church members are allowed on site. The compound’s population to 150 grew after a federal raid on a Texas compound in 2008.

Some young girls and women were sent to the compound for special training. "There was a selection process for these girls chosen to go to R23," said Mr. Steed,  "Lyle (Jeffs) was instrumental in the selection process and told the girls that you had to 'qualify' to go."

Construction started on Warren Jeff’s house in South Dakota in 2008. The house is described as having foot thick walls and sound proofing.

Warren Jeffs’ son Roy worked on the compound for a year, and told the AP that there were only a few dozen people at the compound at any given time. The South Dakota compound was considered highly sacred, ranking just below the Texas ranch, which had a temple. Roy Jeffs left FLDS in 2014.

Steed also said that the sect intended to build a temple on the grounds of the compound, but stopped because they ran out of money. FLDS told the local planning commission that they were building a storage shed.

Neighbors have long expressed concerns about the compound and leader Seth Jeff’s plans for the property.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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