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A South Dakota judge’s ruling has confirmed that children were born on a remote Black Hills compound run by a secretive religious sect, offering new insight into life within the polygamous FLDS.
The ruling in September by Seventh Circuit Judge Jeff W. Davis revealed that births occurred on the compound near Pringle and were not recorded with the state as required by law.
The judge granted birth certificates to two girls who, according to their mother, were born a decade ago on the Custer County compound operated by the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a radical offshoot of Mormonism.
Until the ruling by Davis, no birth certificate had ever been issued to a resident of the compound that is secured by barbed-wire fences and guarded by a watch tower, despite widespread suspicion that children had been born there.
The failure to obtain birth certificates for children of FLDS members follows a directive given in 2002 by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and religious elder Sam Barlow. In an audiotape of a speech by Jeffs and Barlow, the two leaders tell other FLDS elders to not register births because doing so provides information about the age of the child’s mother and the identity of the father, which they said could implicate church members for having sexual relations with minors.
Additionally, the lack of birth certificates gives virtually unlimited power to FLDS elders over what happens to children who are born and indoctrinated into the polygamous FLDS lifestyle, said Utah attorney Roger Hoole, who represented the mother in the South Dakota case and who has extensive experience representing people who have fled the FLDS church.
“There are many, many children in the FLDS who don’t have birth certificates, who are part of that cult still, and they could be born, live and die without anyone knowing,” Hoole said. “I just think it’s dangerous, really dangerous.”
The South Dakota Department of Health confirmed to News Watch in May that prior to the ruling by Davis, no births or deaths had ever been recorded from the Farmer Road address of the compound. Failure to obtain a birth certificate within seven days of a birth is against South Dakota laws which state, “the birth of every child born in this state shall be registered as provided in this chapter.” Not registering a birth, however, does not carry criminal penalties.
State Attorney General Marty Jackley told News Watch that he is aware of concerns over the FLDS compound. He said failure to obtain birth certificates eight to 10 years ago would amount to “stale” evidence and does not provide law enforcement with probable cause to search the compound or take other legal action.
Jackley, a Republican candidate for South Dakota governor, urged anyone with knowledge of illegal activity to come forward. “All citizens have a Constitutional right, so that goes back to if somebody has information that something illegal is occurring anywhere in our state, please provide that information to law enforcement so we can act on it,” Jackley said. “What I can’t do is not follow our Constitution.”
State Rep. Tim Goodwin, R-Rapid City, whose district includes the FLDS compound, called last year for a legislative study of the compound and what is occurring there.
Goodwin’s proposal for a 2017 summer study session was rejected by the Legislature. He remains troubled by the lack of birth and death certificates issued at the sprawling compound.
“I believe in the Constitution as much or more than anybody, and I do understand they have rights, but the counter to that is the women and children really don’t; they’re held a lot of times there against their will,” Goodwin said. “There’s a track record here and you can’t just stick your head in the sand. I think something needs to be done sooner rather than later for the women and children’s sake.”
Former FLDS plural wife Sarah Allred, now living in Garland, Utah, filed the petition in South Dakota civil court in May, 2017 to obtain the birth certificates. In her petition, she said that when the two children were born on the Custer County compound in 2008 and 2010, the FLDS leaders, known collectively as “the priesthood,” instructed her and her husband not to register the births or obtain birth certificates.
Allred was represented by Hoole in Utah and Pierre attorney Rose Ann Wendell in South Dakota. Allred stated in her petition that the compound near Pringle is home to a “birthing center” that allows children to be born in secret.
Allred, who is writing a book about her experiences and did not return calls seeking an interview, told the Salt Lake Tribune last year that the births of her daughters were conducted by an unlicensed midwife. If true, that would violate South Dakota laws that make unlicensed midwifery a misdemeanor. Allred states in the petition that her marriage to Richard Allred was arranged by FLDS leaders and has said that her husband had several other wives and children. Bigamy is a felony in South Dakota.
Allred said she had six children with her husband, whom she has since divorced. By order of Warren Jeffs, their three eldest children were given the last name Jeffs, though Allred has since obtained a court order in Utah changing their last names to Allred.
In her petition, Allred said she was cast off by the FLDS in 2012 for reasons unknown and forced to leave her children with church elders. While isolated, she said she began to long for a relationship with her children and worry for their safety.
In a dramatic confrontation in 2014, her children – still under the care and control of FLDS elders — reportedly kicked, spit and threw rocks at her as armed FLDS officers and state law enforcement officers looked on, according to Hoole, who was present. After two hours of coaxing, she was able to get her children away from church officials and flee with them to her home in Utah, Hoole said. It took eight months of intense parenting by Allred to break the bonds of FLDS indoctrination and begin to have a healthy relationship with her children, Hoole said.
Allred told the court she wanted birth certificates for her two youngest children because without proof of birth, the children have no legal identity. She reported difficulty in enrolling them in school, an inability to get them Social Security cards, trouble getting them immunized and legal issues surrounding any interaction with government.
Refusal to get birth certificates for children born into the FLDS follows suggestions set forth years ago by Warren Jeffs, and Barlow. In a transcript of the 2002 church meeting, Barlow said the information on those birth certificates – such as the age of the mother — could implicate the father for “this so-called behavior which they call sexual conduct with a minor.”
Listen to the audio transcript.
This 2002 audio file contains a discussion on legal matters by top FLDS leaders Warren Jeffs and Sam Barlow about, among other things, why parents within the FLDS should not register births with the state. The first voice is that of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, followed by that of elder Sam Barlow. The reference to registering births comes at the 21:00 mark.
According to the transcript of the audio tape, which has been played in court more than once, Barlow also said that authorities could also use birth certificate information to bring charges of aiding and abetting sexual abuse against church elders who may condone marriages or sex acts with minor girls.
“The plan, so you understand it,” Barlow said, “is to prove this activity by focusing on children. In other words, if a baby is born, then that baby becomes evidence. If a father and mother have registered the birth of that baby, it shows the age of the mother, who the father is and that a baby was born, and the deduction is that there was some sort of sexual activity previous to that time. That’s fairly good logic.”
Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas on charges of child sexual assault for having sex with two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he “married” under FLDS law.
Other FLDS elders have been convicted of sex abuse of minor girls. The FLDS has long been under scrutiny by law enforcement and former members over its practice of polygamy, arranged marriages and incidents of sexual abuse of minor girls since it broke away from the Mormon church in the early Twentieth Century.
Warren Jeff’s brother, Seth Jeffs, is a former leader of the FLDS compound near Pringle.
The Custer County compound is one of a few similar secured FLDS sites around the country. The 140-acre compound located along gravel roads about 10 miles southwest of Pringle includes several large and small buildings, a concrete batch plant and a guard tower. It is surrounded by a privacy fence, padlocked gates, barbed wire fencing, “no-trespassing” signs and tall trees that mostly block it from view.
Authorities do not know how many people live at the compound. When requesting state approval to expand water use in 2015, FLDS representatives, including Seth Jeffs, refused to answer questions about how many people live at the compound.
Karl and Suzanne Van Rump, whose rural homestead is contiguous to the FLDS compound, said they see people and activity mostly at night.
The Van Rumps, who said in an interview in May that activity at the site has fallen off recently, have a direct view onto the compound and have had numerous direct interactions with compound residents and leaders over the past 13 years. They told News Watch they are certain that births have occurred and that polygamy has been practiced there.
Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley said he visited the northern portion of the FLDS compound in January after a burglary occurred but did not go inside any buildings. He said he is in contact with church elders on the site and added that he believes the number of people living there has declined recently. In regard to the possibility of unregistered births taking place there, Mechaley said, “As far as anything current, I don’t have any information that that is going on.”
Sam Brower is a private investigator in Utah who helped Allred get her children back and who wrote “Prophet’s Prey,” a book and later a documentary examining the troubled history of Warren Jeffs and the FLDS.
When federal agents raided the FLDS compound run by Warren Jeffs in Texas in 2008, Brower said they arrested a church elder outside the enclave who had scores of blank or incomplete birth certificates in the trunk of his car. In all, more than 400 children were forcibly removed from the compound; press accounts at the time said that half of the teenage girls removed from the compound had children or were pregnant.
The use of faked birth certificates or the intentional failure to obtain bona fide birth certificates for children born on FLDS properties is part of an attempt by FLDS church leaders to obstruct justice, Brower said.
“There are hundreds, possibly thousands of children born in the FLDS who don’t have birth certificates and who have never been recorded as citizens of the United States,” said Brower, who has visited the South Dakota FLDS compound. “The problem that creates is there’s a whole population out there that we don’t know if they’re alive or dead or what they’re doing or what’s happened to them or where they’re at.”
Seth and Lyle Jeffs were both indicted on food stamp fraud charges in early 2016. Seth Jeffs took a plea deal while Lyle Jeffs went on the run and was eventually arrested in June 2017 by the FBI while living in his car near Yankton, S.D. He is now serving a nearly 5-year prison sentence on the fraud charges.
Judge Davis, who ordered the state Department of Health to issue the birth certificates for the two Allred girls, said Sarah Allred lacked some medical records to prove her children were born at the compound and that she is the mother. However, Allred provided enough compelling evidence, including testimony from another of her children who witnessed her two siblings being born at the compound in South Dakota, to prove her case.
“She testified, and I believed her,” Davis said in an interview with News Watch.
Davis said vital records provide protections for people against potentially nefarious behavior. “They want to make sure people aren’t selling babies, or kids aren’t being stolen,” the judge said. “There’s a lot of public safety concerns here that everybody is trying to satisfy.”
Custer County Clerk of Courts Debbie Salzsieder said she knows of two other cases in which people who resided at the FLDS compound sought delayed birth certificates.
According to court records, in October 2009, Ben Edward Johnson sought and was granted a birth certificate for a son born a year earlier on the FLDS compound near Pringle. In December 2009, Janet Steed requested a birth certificate for a daughter born on the FLDS compound in 2008, though she never followed through on the requirements to have the certificate issued, according to court files.
Goodwin said the lack of birth certificates raises troubling questions.
“Why would you not have a birth certificate?” Goodwin said. “It just speaks volumes to that there’s something shady going on.”
Goodwin said that since he began to push for an investigation of the FLDS compound, he has received letters written from prison by Warren Jeffs. The letters contain pronouncements that Jeffs has been anointed to his position as prophet of FLDS by God, and the letters are signed by “Jesus Christ.”
Goodwin said he will continue to pressure law enforcement to seek probable cause to get a search warrant to learn what’s happening behind the compound walls. Goodwin said he intends to propose legislation next year that would add criminal penalties to the failure to obtain a birth or death certificate as required by law.
About Bart Pfankuch
Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is an investigative reporter for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal. Bart has spent almost 30 years as a reporter and editor.