PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — A federal crackdown on an alleged food stamp fraud scheme by a polygamous sect on the Arizona-Utah border is offering details about a secretive compound in far southwestern South Dakota that has served as one of the church's "lands of refuge."
Top leaders from Warren Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, including his brothers Lyle Jeffs of Utah and Seth Jeffs of South Dakota, were arrested Tuesday. Prosecutors accuse church leaders of orchestrating a years-long fraud scheme instructing members how to use food-stamp benefits illegally and avoid getting caught, according to an indictment from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Utah.
But court documents say sect members living in the South Dakota compound were prohibited from using food stamps while living there, potentially part of the church leadership's efforts to keep secret their property near Pringle, population 111. Known to the faithful as "R23," the group started work on the compound there over a decade ago.
Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence in Texas for assaulting two of his child brides. Authorities say his brother Seth is the bishop of the church's South Dakota congregation. Seth Jeffs, who previously downplayed his church role in dealings with South Dakota water regulators, is behind bars in South Dakota pending a Monday hearing in the food stamp case. An attorney for Seth Jeffs didn't immediately return telephone messages requesting comment.
Only about 30 miles from the popular tourist attraction of Mount Rushmore, the church's 140-acre South Dakota property sits along a gravel road secluded by tall pine trees and a recently completed privacy fence. A roving security force of two was bolstered by two or three guards stationed inside the compound's watch tower, a steel-enforced octagonal structure manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, according to an FBI report on a 2014 interview with Sam Steed. He was a compound resident from 2006-2007.
Cell phone batteries had to be removed while on the property. The presiding bishop carried a phone but had to leave to use it, Steed told the FBI.
Steed didn't immediately respond to telephone and email messages requesting comment about the information attributed to him in the court documents.
"You can't see a whole lot anymore," Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler said of the South Dakota compound.
After a 2008 federal raid of the sect's Texas ranch that led to Warren Jeffs' conviction, the South Dakota property's population swelled to 100-150, Steed said, according to court documents. Some girls and young women were also moved to the South Dakota compound from the Arizona-Utah border to receive "special training," he said.
"There was a selection process for these girls chosen to go to R23," Steed said. "Lyle (Jeffs) was instrumental in the selection process and told the girls that you had to 'qualify' to go."
Only a dozen people were approved to work on Warren Jeffs' house on the South Dakota property. Construction started in 2008, and it was built with one-foot thick walls, sound barriers and double padded flooring, according to the documents.
Warren Jeffs' son Roy was sent to live in the South Dakota compound for nearly a year in 2007-2008, where he spent long days building houses with log exteriors. Other men helped raise livestock or stood guard in the tower, Roy Jeffs told The Associated Press. He left the sect in February 2014.
Roy Jeffs said only a few dozen people were there at a time. He saw women, but didn't know what they were there for. People weren't supposed to leave without approval from leaders.
Before 2010, the only people allowed to go to South Dakota were devout followers in good standing, he said. In the faith's hierarchy, it was considered more sacred than the base on the Utah-Arizona border but below the Texas compound, which had a temple, Roy Jeffs said.
The sect in 2011 wanted to build a temple on the South Dakota property, but leaders told the Custer County planning commission that the structure was going to be a storage building. The project was scrapped when leaders ran out of money, according to Steed.
"It has the same dimensions as the temple down in Texas, but it was kind of roughed out and never really started," Wheeler said.
Warren Jeffs said sites such as South Dakota were necessary because he believed that the government intended to seize property on the Arizona-Utah border, according to Jerold Williams, a former church elder who supervised early construction of the South Dakota compound until 2006.
"It was a prophesy kind of thing," Williams said. "He was going to do these 'lands of refuge,' he called them, for people to have somewhere to go to."
Some of the detail in court documents matches Williams' account of South Dakota, which was meant to be "top secret." Members doing the work often didn't really know what Warren Jeffs had in mind, said Williams, who left the church in 2012.
Neighbors have regarded the Pringle outpost with mistrust and concern, including skepticism about Seth Jeffs' truthfulness during a hearing last year on a request to draw water more quickly at the compound.
Linda Van Dyke Kilcoin, a nearby landowner, said she hopes the current case prompts government agencies to intensify scrutiny of the group.
Dirk Lammers contributed from Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Associated Press writer Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City, Utah, contributed to this story.