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Satan's Accountant Even before the showdown in Texas, Bruce Wisan was trying to save the Mormon polygamists from their power-mad leader. But they believe Wisan was sent by the devil, which is making the job infernally hard.

On the outskirts of Las Vegas, Warren Jeffs, the prophet and leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the polygamist sect of Mormonism known as the F.L.D.S., barreled down Interstate 15 in a red Cadillac Escalade. Driving him was Isaac Jeffs, one of his dozen or so brothers. Naomi Jeffs-a beautiful 32-year-old blond with hair to her knees who was both Warren's former stepmother and the wife he reportedly called 91-rode in back. They carried $57,000 in cash in the lining of a suitcase, 16 cell phones, 12 pairs of sunglasses, four laptops, three wigs, a fistful of keys to other luxury vehicles, and a cache of handwritten letters addressed to "the Prophet."

When a Nevada state trooper pulled the S.U.V. over for an obscured license plate, he didn't know that the hollow-cheeked 50-year-old passenger offering only a contact-lens prescription as identification was on the F.B.I.'s list of most-wanted fugitives or that Warren Jeffs was fleeing charges of sexual misconduct in Utah and Arizona, where his colony of thousands of followers had lived by his word as though he were God.

That was in August 2006, long before the night this April when the sect became lurid Page One news everywhere, thanks to police raids on the West Texas compound that Jeffs' church had financed. He had relocated hundreds of his most favored followers from Utah to a 1,700-acre former game ranch that he had anointed Yearning for Zion. Police reported that a 16-year-old girl had called a family-violence hotline and described being betrothed, beaten, raped, and impregnated by a 50-year-old man with multiple wives. For a moment, it looked like Waco revisited: Authorities faced off against dozens of Jeffs' followers, who held hands and formed a human chain around their sacred white stone temple. When the polygamists finally relented, more than 400 children were removed from the ranch. Inside the temple, police seized evidence that pointed to a secretive world of power, sex, and submission, all reportedly controlled from prison by Warren Jeffs.

Over the years, as the leader of the F.L.D.S., Jeffs has had an ongoing conversation with God that's resulted in prophecies both mundane and apocalyptic. He would have biannual revelations-usually on April 6 or December 31-that the end of the world would occur, wherein Christ would come to "lift up" his followers as the righteous, just as the rest of humanity was felled by pestilence and plague. Jeffs' end-time visions meant real-life restrictions for those who followed him: no earthly entertainment, no flesh exposed from wrist to neck to ankle, no striped clothing, no dogs. Even the color red was banished: Jeffs predicted that Christ would return in red, former church members say, and that any mortal driving a red vehicle, or a convertible of any color, was committing blasphemy. But there he was on that hot August night, being arrested outside his own red S.U.V., a prophet hypocritical and humbled.

A year later, Bruce Wisan drives a convertible Mustang headed for Short Creek, Warren Jeffs' polygamist community in the desert, on the Utah-Arizona border. The car is a rental-the only one Budget had left-and it's very red. Wisan knows that isn't good.

"Seeing me driving in a bright-red car is going to be a killer," he groans. "The prophet said that to wear red is sacrilegious, and so people went through all their closets and got rid of red. You don't see red anywhere in that town. I can't believe they gave me a red car. You're going to get shot."

"Me?" I ask.

"Yeah," he says. "They wouldn't dare shoot me."

Wisan is neither a prophet nor a polygamist, but he holds an important position in the sect. In a sense, he has been hired by the state of Utah to replace Jeffs as the head of his community. Wisan has been put in charge of the United Effort Plan, the legal trust that the polygamists started by pooling their resources and creating a communal society 66 years ago. The U.E.P. owns about 85 percent of the land in this enclave and most of what sits on it. Worth an estimated $110 million, the trust holds all the assets-hundreds of homes, a few farms and factories, thousands of acres of land, a church, a zoo, several schoolhouses-accumulated by the labor, frugal living, and generous tithing of generations of these isolated believers. So conservative was their spending that, before Wisan, the trust never even had a checkbook.

Life under Prophet Warren Jeffs was restrictive and cruel, but his abuses went mostly unnoticed until 2004, when he seemed to have completely lost it. Jeffs, and the trust he controlled, had been hit with two civil lawsuits, later dismissed, charging the prophet with, among other things, sexually abusing a nephew. He announced in February 2005 that he'd ignore the suits, explaining that God had told him to fire the trust's lawyer and refuse to defend himself against the unholy power of the state. There was also evidence that Jeffs had already begun draining the trust's coffers, Wisan says.

So in May 2005, a state judge removed Jeffs from power and appointed Wisan to take over his orphaned flock.

Now Wisan is in the midst of trying to do something that, to his knowledge, has never been done: set up a functioning economy on the still-smoldering ashes of a theocracy. It is up to him to privatize the trust's assets and get these radical believers on the grid, fiscally speaking. Wielding the blunt instrument of his accounting trade, he's trying to use homeownership, property taxes, subdivision ordinances, and a few fire hydrants and other infrastructure amenities to bring these outsiders into the modern economic world.

But those he's trying to help-Jeffs' followers, including the police chief, two mayors, and virtually every resident-have tried to foil him at each turn. Meanwhile, Jeffs continues to advise community leaders, despite the fact that he is serving two consecutive five-year-to-life sentences in a Utah state prison for rape as an accomplice.

The polygamists believe Wisan is an agent of the devil, he says, and want nothing to do with him. They came up with a name for him almost as soon as he arrived: state-ordained bishop-S.O.B. for short.

"The people felt like, Oh, he's going to take the land. He's working for the devil. Why are you doing these horrible things to us??" Wisan says. "There was great fear of me, great fear of what I was like."

Bullheaded and bald, Bruce Wisan, 61, is a C.P.A. and a lifelong Mormon. His life appears well ordered. He has been married to one woman, Jean, for 37 years, and they have four children and three grandchildren. He and his wife enjoy golfing and boating and are active members of their church. Wisan says he disdained the practice of polygamy, like most Mormons, even before he took on the F.L.D.S. job. Most of his days are spent working at his office in Salt Lake City, where he heads Wisan Smith Racker & Prescott, one of Utah's biggest accounting firms, with 51 accountants that serve 4,500 clients, including the state's governor and many of its large construction firms. Wisan's home, in a nearby neighborhood, is close to a golf course that he plays often, and he drives a BMW 545i, having recently sold his Porsche.

He frequently starts sentences by saying, "Well, you know me, I'm so bashful," and then proceeds to prove the opposite, representing himself as a bit of a cowboy in the realm of accounting. "My business is advising; it's consulting. People don't call up their C.P.A. and say, 'Hey, I've had a great day. Let me tell you about it.' They call me up and say, 'I've got this problem.' So I'm a problem solver."

Apart from his private clients, Wisan has worked for the state of Utah over the years as a trustee or as a court-appointed receiver. He has liquidated firms on the brink of bankruptcy, and helped others pay off debtors and back taxes and return to solvency. Over time, his work has made him the manager of a roadside motel, a wedding reception hall, a chain of Subway sandwich shops, an appliance warehouse, and a bowling alley and bar, even though he doesn't drink. Often, those he was assigned to help were hostile, but nothing could have prepared him for the F.L.D.S.

We pull into Short Creek in the rented red Mustang. "Here we aaaarrrrrre," he says, as though we've entered another dimension. The community sits in a 13-square-mile valley bracketed by a ridge of sandstone mountains. Cell-phone coverage ends as we drive past the Bank of Ephraim building. The streets are empty, and the only cars on the road are large S.U.V.'s and pickup trucks, all with darkly tinted windows. Technically, the community encompasses the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, but since the beginning, locals have called the area Short Creek for the dry riverbed that cuts between the two towns. For the most part, the towns function as one place, and their combined population of 7,000 or so is made up almost entirely of polygamist Mormons, direct descendants of the pioneers who came to the desert after the Great Depression to live in accord with their belief that multiple wives provided the passage to heaven.

"Do you understand the culture enough to understand what the hold on the people is?" Wisan asks me. Like most of his questions, this one is rhetorical. "Okay. F.L.D.S. lesson No. 1: Warren Jeffs' hold on the people is through fear. When I first went down here, I knew two things: I knew that he controlled where people lived, and I knew that he controlled whom they married."

When Jeffs took charge of the community, he quickly moved to make every marriage his decision. At his whim, marriages would also be ended and families evicted from their homes. "If I go home one day and I'm excommunicated, and Warren kicks me out of my house and reassigns my wife and tells my kids not to ever talk to me again, I mean, I'd lose everything," Wisan says. The unfairness upsets him, his face reddening. "I mean, you don't have any trial, you don't have any hearing, you don't have any, 'Let me explain something...'?"

He recalls, "After I got appointed, I talked to a girl who was on a moving crew. They do it at night, 2 or 3 in the morning, to make sure nobody is looking. They could move a house in less than an hour. They'd go in, and they'd Saran Wrap the dressers; they wouldn't unpack anything. Couple hundred people, trucks-boom."

Wisan pulls the Mustang into the driveway of a large brick home, hurries up to the door, and knocks. Stefanie Colgrove answers, her blond hair swinging down to her waist. Before she can say a word, he cracks a joke about how his red car makes us a moving target. She laughs knowingly and invites us into a living room the size of a hotel lobby, where a crowd of children-she has seven-are sitting around eating cereal.

Last year, Wisan allowed Colgrove to move into this house. It once belonged to John Nielsen Jeffs, a successful businessman as well as a stepbrother and close ally of Warren Jeffs'. Not long after Warren disappeared, his stepbrother and other pillars of the community left too, moving to Texas, Nevada, South Dakota, and other outposts. The home has 19 bedrooms and 23 bathrooms-four with Jacuzzis-and a waterfall in the yard. The three kitchens were used to feed John Nielsen Jeffs' five wives and more than a dozen children. It is a polygamist's dream home.

Meanwhile, Colgrove had been living a polygamist's nightmare. She is the great-granddaughter of one of the men who founded the Short Creek community. But by the time she was a teenager, her family was on the outs with the priesthood, and her father struggled to support his three wives and 36 children. Colgrove was married off to a 45-year-old man shortly after she turned 18. She was his third wife, and such was her misery that after a year, she made up her mind to have a one-night stand with a nonpolygamist she knew from work. Afterward, Colgrove went to her father and her husband and told them she was no longer worthy of the marriage. At 20, she married again, this time to a polygamist in Salt Lake City who had one wife. Stefanie says she spent most of her time in the basement, where she tended to her newborn son. After less than two years, Colgrove left her second husband and married a Lutheran from Nevada. When the couple heard that Warren Jeffs was on the lam, Colgrove convinced her husband to move to Short Creek.

"When you grow up around this kind of land," Colgrove says, "it's the only kind of beauty you know."

She applied to take over a house from the trust and made an appeal to Wisan: Let us live here, and we will help others. Wisan approved, with the caveat that the house also shelter women and children who have been banished or are fleeing the F.L.D.S. It's called the Affinity Home.

As Colgrove tells this story, she asks if I'd mind running an errand with her to get milk and cheese for her brood. We drive in her ramshackle pickup to the only dairy store in town. "Are you ready for this?" she asks me. "I hope it doesn't embarrass you that I'm paying in nickels and dimes." Colgrove picks up an old baby-wipe container, filthy and full of change.

Inside the store, women in long dresses and braids quickly turn away from us. Men grab their sons tightly by the wrists and studiously avoid Colgrove as she pulls down a brick of cheddar cheese and a gallon of milk. Children stare at Colgrove, who wears jeans and bedroom slippers.

"They used to treat me like a ghost," Colgrove says after saying hello to each person ignoring her, "but now I don't let them."

How this all came to pass is rooted in the Mormon Church's early history. In the summer of 1843, Church of the Latter-Day Saints' founder Joseph Smith announced a heavenly revelation stating that plural marriage was required to receive the highest glory from God. The following year, Smith and his closest followers were jailed, and in 1879, the Supreme Court upheld a congressional prohibition on the practice. In 1890, the Mormon Church's fourth president, Wilford �Woodruff, �received a divine revelation decreeing that plural marriage should end. But it did not. Followers continued to practice polygamy in secret, splintering off from the main church.

In the 1930s, a group of rebels settled at a pioneer outpost 300 miles south of Salt Lake City, forming the Short Creek community. In addition to practicing polygamy, they also embraced unconventional communal economic policies and belief in total submission to church leaders. They incorporated these ideals into the United Effort Plan in 1942. Signed by a committee of men who called themselves the Priesthood Council, the U.E.P. was designed as a charitable trust to be administered by a group of male church elders. From the beginning, the trust document insisted that the funds be used for the sect's security and protection, both from outside influence as well as unjust management from within the group. The assets included land from the gathered brethren-about 770 acres-along with seven horses, two dozen cattle, and farming equipment.

In the decades that followed, the community grew from a few dozen families to close to 10,000 people. Converts would donate their land to the trust, along with cash contributions to buy more real estate.

Warren Jeffs graduated from high school near the top of his class in 1973. He was the favorite son of Rulon Jeffs, a leader in the polygamist movement who controlled the Salt Lake Valley chapter. Warren was reportedly known in the community as humble and righteous. He worked for his father as an accountant, then as a teacher and principal at the F.L.D.S.'s private school.

At the same time, the leaders of Short Creek, 300 miles away, were tightening control over their flock. In 1987, according to court documents, residents received a letter informing them that they were "tenants at will" of the U.E.P. They were asked to sign forms acknowledging that their homes were not their own, essentially surrendering all economic agency to the leaders who ran the trust. Years later, after Rulon Jeffs had taken over the Short Creek community, Warren and the other trustees amended the trust to give themselves total control over the land and the people. This revision stated that "the privilege to participate in the United Effort Plan and live upon the lands and in the buildings of the United Effort Plan Trust is granted, and may be revoked, by the Board of Trustees. Those who seek that privilege commit themselves and their families to live their lives according to the principles of the United Effort Plan and the Church, and they and their families consent to be governed by the priesthood leadership and the Board of Trustees."

When Warren took over after his father's death in 2002, his domination became absolute. Whatever power was shared among the church elders vanished when Jeffs began evicting men and families from their homes for the slightest infractions, former members say. He squeezed his flock hard economically too. He liquidated assets and drained the coffers of local businesses. He closed the parks and the small local zoo, selling off the wolves and the wallabies.
Jeffs even closed the massive church where worship services were held, the social center of this isolated community, telling his followers that they weren't worthy to attend.

Then Fred Jessop, who had spent decades as a church bishop and accountant raising cash for the tithing stockpile, vanished one night. His wives would later say that he had been relaxing in his La-Z-Boy recliner when four men who worked for Jeffs arrived and lifted him and his chair into a van. One of his wives reportedly jumped in after him, and they were taken to a small town in Colorado. Jeffs told church members later that Jessop was "called to another mission," a former member said. Jessop died a few years later, his passing marked only by an obituary in a small Colorado paper. Jeffs' purge culminated on January 10, 2004, when he announced that 19 other men, including the mayor and several prominent business leaders, had to leave. This news came at a weekly Saturday project meeting, according to one exiled member. There, Jeffs said God had given him a list of sins that the men had committed, and then he told them to exit the meeting hall, leave their families and businesses, and go away and repent. Their wives were later married off to other men.

After Jeffs finished naming the latest apostates, he darted out a side door. He was never seen publicly in the community again.

Meanwhile, the F.B.I. and the criminal division of Utah's Office of the Attorney General were pursuing investigations into Jeffs' role in arranging marriages of underage girls in the community as well as allegations of tax evasion and welfare fraud. Utah's Third District Court intervened in 2005 after several townsfolk filed a complaint, accusing Jeffs and the elders of secretly moving communal property out of the trust. At the same time, the lawsuits charging Jeffs with sexual abuse had been filed. In May 2005, a District Court judge placed Wisan in charge of the financially orphaned flock.

Today, Bruce Wisan has mastered Short Creek. He knows the grid of unmarked streets well and the byzantine laws that govern life there. He points out the hospital where women go to give birth. (The community reportedly has the highest rate of the birth defect fumarase deficiency in the world.) He drives past the cave in which followers built a bunker that could house hundreds in the event of government raids or the apocalypse. Wisan stops in front of the gargantuan compound, with more than six large homes, that Warren and Rulon Jeffs and hundreds of relatives called home. He steers down a gravel road, past looming gates and unfinished homes. Most of the houses are modest in design but monstrous in size, built to fit families of 20 or more.

The effects of Jeffs' apocalyptic vision and the financial decimation it wrought are everywhere. Wisan looks at the dilapidated houses as he drives by and shakes his head. A number seemed to have been abandoned at critical moments of construction. They all lack something-siding, walls, windows, a porch, or even a roof. To Wisan, they are evidence of Jeffs' crimes against his followers. In the years before he fled, Jeffs told his adherents that with the end of the world coming so soon, they must not invest money in earthly things. Instead, he told them that they should give the money to God, the church, him.

Wisan is here today to hold one of his occasional town-hall meetings. Weeks ago, he paid a few former F.L.D.S. members who'd been excommunicated to post notices in the area's post office, only to learn that they had been ripped down. He isn't expecting a large turnout. "Our contact with people on the inside is limited," he says.

When Wisan was appointed to run the U.E.P., his mandate was to step in and quickly protect the trust against litigation and stop the bleeding of assets by Jeffs. Time was of the essence; two civil suits filed against Jeffs and the U.E.P. put the trust-and the thousands of people living on its property-at risk of bankruptcy, Wisan says.

One lawsuit, filed in August 2004, accused Jeffs of systematically expelling young men from the community to keep the young women available as wives for church elders. The other suit was filed by Jeffs' nephew, Brent, who alleged that Jeffs had molested him when he was a child, telling him it was God's will. Brent described years of being taken to a basement to be sodomized. He filed suit only after his brother, another alleged victim, shot himself in the head. (In March, the plaintiffs in both lawsuits filed court papers to dismiss the cases, saying that their goals-including removing Jeffs from power-had largely been achieved.)

Initially, the court appointed Wisan to take charge of only two large properties that Jeffs had put up for sale at a fraction of their value. Wisan sensed even then that what the F.L.D.S. wanted most was privacy. So he struck a deal with the men who Jeffs left in power: If they would quietly release the land to the U.E.P. without a fight, Wisan would use the sale proceeds to pay $500,000 in U.E.P. legal fees. When the land sold for more than $2 million, Wisan was also able to use some of the balance to pay his own accounting fees and those of an attorney. Soon after that victory, District Court Judge Denise Lindberg asked Wisan to tend to the entire U.E.P. trust.

Days after he started, Wisan received a report that one of the U.E.P.'s assets, Cozy Log Homes, an 18,000-square-foot steel commercial building, had been dismantled and vanished from U.E.P. land. It never turned up again.

Then, on New Year's Eve 2005, Wisan was on the 15th hole of a golf course in Mesquite, Nevada, playing alongside his wife and another couple, when his cell phone rang. It was a former sect member calling. The agitated man said that a crew of dozens of church loyalists had gathered for a Saturday work project in order to dismantle a 60-foot-tall grain elevator. He described a scene of incredible efficiency, with two large cranes and several welders taking apart the elevator and carting it away. The court asked Wisan to find it and get it back. He filed a preliminary injunction, which enjoined any person from removing U.E.P. property. When police chief Fred Barlow was deposed weeks later, he refused to answer most of the questions.

In the deposition, a lawyer asked, "Do you understand that if Bruce Wisan requests that the police department do something to protect the trust that's contrary to the desires of Warren have a sworn duty to follow what Bruce Wisan asks you to do?"

Barlow answered, "I have a duty to uphold the law according to what's on the law."

But in a letter found following the arrest of one of Jeffs' disciples and cited in court documents, Barlow addressed Jeffs as Uncle Warren and wrote, "I would first like to acknowledge you as the one man that was and is called of God to stand at the head of his priesthood and the Kingdom of God on the earth in this day and time." Barlow went on to assure Jeffs that all the police officers were united in their desire to do Jeffs' bidding and awaited further directives. He signed off, "I love you. I know that you have the right to rule in all aspects of my live [sic]. I yearn to hear from you."

Roughly a year later, on the eve of a well-publicized visit to the city from state officials, the polygamists returned the elevator, rebuilding it piece by piece.

Next, Wisan tried to get Jeffs' flock to pay their property taxes. He sent out written notices in 2006. But the letters, Wisan heard, quickly littered the floor of the local post office. Then, he hired exiled F.L.D.S. member Isaac Wyler to go from house to house, posting each family's bill on the door. Wisan sent eviction warnings first to those whom he had been told were leading the community in Jeffs' absence. Then he sent out a second round of letters, naming those who had paid their property taxes. Within a few months, about $1.5 million was collected-nearly all that had been due.

One of Wisan's greatest challenges has been trying to distinguish exactly what belongs to the U.E.P. Since so much of the town and its businesses were formed by communal labors-called "the work" and performed in the name of God-it's hard to tell what is private property. The church had long used Saturday work crews of local men that labored for the community, constructing widows' homes and school buildings. But under Jeffs, those volunteer laborers spent their time working for businesses that then turned over their profits to the church. And they were used to build ever-larger homes for the families of the town's elite. Former members told me that they received only half of their weekly wages; the rest was automatically deducted by their employers and turned over to the Prophet.

Over the past year, Wisan has worked toward his ultimate goal: liquidating the trust. He wants to end communal land ownership, subdivide the towns, and have the deeds to houses end up with the homes' current residents. In 2006, Wisan hired surveyors and engineers at great expense in order to subdivide the area into individual lots, turning the community into a city like any other.

F.L.D.S. members who are loyal to Warren Jeffs have spent the past few years hiding from the public eye. Most homes are surrounded by fences. Windows of cars and houses are tinted black. While visiting the community, I would attempt to speak with the rare person I saw in the streets, but each time, the men would stare at me in icy silence and women would grab their children and flee. Wisan, despite his intimate involvement with F.L.D.S.'s financial future, gets the same treatment. He is proud to have cultivated a single secret source in the community. He has dined with the man and one of his wives, and they talk occasionally on the phone. One day, after much pestering, he agrees to put the source on a three-way call with me.

I ask the man what he thinks of Wisan's vision of privatization. "We consider them consecrated properties," the voice on the line says to me, thoughtfully and slowly. "And for us to accept or take on privatization of the properties that have been consecrated for the good people-it is just not acceptable."

I ask him what the people think of Wisan and his work. "The feelings of the people were from the very first, and continue to be, that this is the takeover by the state of a private religious trust. It just doesn't seem right. We are a religious people; the religious tenets are certainly going to take dominance. The people are the type of people that quietly live their lives. They've gone through this before; they quietly go on. Are they afraid of him? I don't think they've ever been afraid of him. They're disgusted by him."

No one in Short Creek seems grateful for Bruce Wisan. He's hated or, at best, tolerated. He has repeated to me several times the story about the lone F.L.D.S. member who once called and thanked him for his work. To date, Wisan's firm has billed the trust $600,000. "It's 50 percent of my time and 10 percent of my billable hours," he says, explaining how the task has taken over his life. While the years he has spent trying to privatize the U.E.P. have made for some good stories, it has also meant hundreds of hours spent on a multitude of small details for the most infinitesimal of results. I ask him why anybody would ever get involved in such a morass.

"Well, I'm a boring old C.P.A.," he says. "But I like excitement. Until just a few years ago, I rode dirt bikes out in the sand dunes, and I've always had fast cars, fast motorcycles. I like fast boats. So there is an element of that. But I looked at this as a chance to really do something different. I mean, how many C.P.A.'s do you know that affect hundreds or maybe thousands of people and the decisions they make? I looked at this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have an effect. To do something besides just be a bookkeeper."

Since the raid in Texas, he says, residents of Short Creek have begun faithfully sending their monthly utility and trust-management payments to him. He wonders if it's because sect members once planning to move to Texas are now determined to remain in Utah, which must look like a peaceful haven in comparison.

Wisan comes less frequently to the community these days. His office in Salt Lake City is sunlit and modern, taken over by neat stacks of paper that cover the floor, his desk, the couch, and the chairs. He shouts to his assistant and goes to lunch with other accountants and Jean, his wife, who works there part-time. Behind his wooden desk hangs an oil painting of an American Indian warrior, his men prepared for battle behind him. When Wisan sits at his desk, he faces a large aerial map of the Short Creek community. Despite his prosperous life in Salt Lake City, his heart and mind seem to often be consumed by the strange, distant world of the F.L.D.S.

I think that the fact I'm still here, that they haven't run me out of town, that they haven't intimidated me, is success," he says. "They treat me like I'm Sherman in Atlanta at the end of the Civil War, but I still think somebody had to do it, and I feel as good as I can about what I've done."

This story would have ended on that hopeful note, were it not for the April raid of the F.L.D.S. compound in Texas. Now it seems clear why Warren Jeffs was so intent on selling off the trust's assets, where all that money was going, and why.

Eldorado, Texas, population about 1,900, used to be the kind of place where, says one resident, the local drama consisted mostly of "cousin killings and wife beatings." But life changed one day in March 2004. The Eldorado Success newspaper ran a story about the sale of a 1,700-acre ranch on the outskirts of town, supposedly for a corporate hunting retreat. The paper received a phone call from a woman, who warned that the land was actually going to a radical group of polygamist Mormons who were building a temple in preparation for the apocalypse. The editor couldn't quite believe it so he called the sheriff, who drove out to the ranch and found a series of large apartment buildings already being constructed. "When it first hit here, it was like a U.F.O. landing north of town," the newspaper's editor, Randy Mankin, says.

The polygamists, of course, had been sent to West Texas on a divine mission from Short Creek, in the Utah desert, and were said to have been handpicked by Warren Jeffs. In Eldorado, the F.L.D.S. seemed determined to avoid government interference; they paid their taxes on time and applied for the permits they needed to build a compound that could house more than a thousand believers-a small city.

Sam Brower, a private investigator who has spent the past five years investigating the polygamists for attorneys involved in a civil suit against Jeffs, says that a lot of Short Creek's assets were funneled into Eldorado. "That's what his followers do-they yearn to go to Zion. They buy in to that concept, and they are trying to buy their way into heaven."

For the past few years, J.D. Doyle, technology director for the Eldorado school district, has flown his plane over the compound, taking photographs and posting them on a website that allowed locals to see what was happening inside the area. Otherwise, Doyle says, "There's no way for us little podunks to know what's going on." He even used Google Earth to chart maps of nearly a dozen secret polygamist communities that have sprouted up around North America.

Months before the raids, Doyle took me up in his plane for a look. A six-foot-tall deer fence surrounded the compound. The centerpiece was the enormous three-story limestone temple. It was shockingly white against the dull scrub of the landscape. It looked illuminated.

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