Fourteen years after an offshoot of the polygamist sect made infamous by Warren Jeffs established a remote, “military-style” compound in the Black Hills of South Dakota, state lawmakers have advanced a measure designed to shed some light on what goes on behind its walls.
House Bill 1110, which was moved out of committee to the floor in a 12-1 vote, establishes a penalty for citizens who fail to report new births or deaths. The law would apply statewide, but it was written specifically with the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints compound in mind. The residents of the 140-acre complex have not issued a single birth or death certificate since they first moved to the state, according to the South Dakota Department of Health.
“We’ve talked about doing something about this faction for years. This is the first time we’re doing anything,” Rep. Tom Goodwin (R), a co-sponsor of the bill, told his colleagues in a hearing Wednesday night.“I don’t think ever since this capitol has been here, there has ever been a bill like this.”
Reporting births and deaths has always been mandatory in South Dakota. But there has never been a penalty for failing to file birth or death certificates. If the new bill passes, citizens who do not file a birth certificate within one year or report a death within 48 hours will be guilty of a Class 2 misdemeanor.
The hidden compound, known by its residents as “R23,” was founded in 2005 by a brother of Jeffs, the former polygamist leader currently serving a life sentence plus 20 years in prison on two counts of criminal assault of a child. Jeffs had ruled the FLDS faithful, an offshoot of the Mormon Church, from the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, until attracting the attention of federal authorities in the mid-2000s. As Jeffs fell from power, many of his followers scattered and set up camp elsewhere.
One group, thought by former FLDS members to consist of the cult’s “elite,” bought the land in South Dakota and erected a massive fortress, guarded by a lookout structure, much like an air traffic or prison guard tower. The complex is not easy to get to. Enclosed by a barbed wire fence and pine trees, it sits at the end of a long, dead-end road, 20 miles southwest of the nearest town, Pringle, South Dakota (population: 112). “I’ve never been there,” Rep. Peri Pourier (D), who voted in favor of HB 1110, told The Daily Beast. “You can’t drive by. They would know you were there. Pictures are sufficient for me.”
The residents also rarely interact with the outside community, making it hard to know what, exactly, is going on inside. But local authorities do know that residents have been having babies. One of the FLDS’ core tenets is the practice of polygamy, believing that maintaining large “plural” families will secure them higher status in heaven. By Goodwin’s estimate, there were as many as 300 people living there a few years ago. One former resident named Sarah Allred told the Associated Press in 2017 that at least two dozen births had taken place at the compound, including her two daughters in 2008 and 2010. Allred said FLDS officials denied her daughters access to basic government documents like birth certificates and Social Security cards.
The failure to report births and deaths poses several problems for the local community. For one, the lack of records also makes it harder to monitor sex trafficking, a crime associated with the FLDS church, which has a well-documented history of forcing young girls to marry much older men. It also makes it very difficult for members who flee. When people leave the church, they rarely have money, credit, or outside contacts. If births aren’t reported, they also have no government records. From an official standpoint, “they just don’t exist,” Goodwin said at the hearing.
Representatives who voted in favor of the bill were also concerned about the deaths. “From my perspective and for law enforcement, if a death isn’t being reported, that raises concerns,” Rep. Doug Barthel (R) told The Daily Beast. “If a death occurs with this compound and it’s someone where there’s no tracking of the birth to begin with, and they cremate the body, I don’t know how anyone would ever know that.”
Most of the panel was on board with the bill’s approach—but not everyone. Of the 13 members of the Judiciary Committee, only Rep. Tom Pischke (R) dissented. “I don’t know if we can necessarily legislate morality. That’s what I fear we’re trying to do,” Pischke, who said he identifies somewhat as a libertarian, told The Daily Beast. “If someone at this complex doesn’t register the birth of a baby or death of somebody, we’re basically going to give the authorities the right to do what could possibly be deemed an ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ of the entire complex.”
Pischke added that he was not sure what a better regulation might look like. “If it was in my district, I would have to give it some thought. I don’t know at this moment,” he said.
If the bill does pass later this year, it’s unclear how much it will accomplish. Given the extreme remoteness of the compound, residents could easily flout the law without much notice. They’ve done it in the past. For years, the prominent FLDS members defrauded public programs like SNAP for millions of dollars. In 2016, the compound’s former leader Seth Jeffs took a plea deal with 10 other members of the church for food stamp fraud. (He has since purchased a large tract of land in Minnesota).
“The challenge will be enforcing it. I’m not sure how that will happen,” Barthel said. “I don’t think law enforcement will just be able to go in there and ask for papers unless they have probable cause.”
Goodwin, the bill’s sponsor, told his colleagues that the Custer County Sheriff, the closest local authority, was “very cooperative” with attempts to crack down on the compound, but merely wanted “some kind of reason to go in there.” By phone, however, Lieutenant Steve MacMillan, a representative for the Sheriff’s Office, told The Daily Beast that, if the law passes, it won’t change anything at all. “I don’t think there’s going to be any immediate change,” he said. “We still have to respect their privacy.”
A spokesperson for the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office declined to comment on the bill.