Lawmaker seeks study of polygamous sect's South Dakota site

Pierre, S.D. — A South Dakota lawmaker frustrated with what he views as inaction over a secretive polygamous sect's outpost in his district wants legislators to look into the compound, including why no South Dakota birth or death records have been filed from there over the last decade.

Rep. Tim Goodwin is proposing lawmakers find out more about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' compound in the western part of the state, including what its population is, whether it has a home schooling program, and whether polygamy or sex trafficking are taking place there. Lawmakers will decide Tuesday on issues to study ahead of the 2018 legislative session.

Issues in Goodwin's proposed study include births and deaths at the compound. South Dakota law requires births and deaths to be reported, but the Department of Health says no such records have been filed from the compound's address in the last 10 years.

"That is in my district. I've got to at least make an attempt to do something about it," said Goodwin, a new Republican lawmaker who lives near Hill City. "If we would just enforce those minor infractions, then you could probably find the major infractions."

One former resident can count two dozen births at the site, among them two of her own children. Sarah Allred, who called the compound home until about 2011, told The Associated Press that the sect didn't allow her to get the documents for daughters born in 2008 and 2010.

"To put it bluntly, I lived in fear every day that my children would be taken from me because all of my married life then they held my children over my head for me to obey the different things that I was supposed to do," said Allred, who is working to get South Dakota birth certificates for her 6- and 8-year-old daughters.

Other people said their children were born in Utah instead, Allred said. She was a member of the FLDS until 2012.

The church opened its 140-acre compound near the town of Pringle more than a decade ago. Known to the faithful as "R23," the compound sits along a gravel road, secluded by tall pine trees, a privacy fence and a guard tower.

Allred said fewer than 50 people lived there most of the time and that she never saw more than 100 people there at a time. She said there was always work to be done: sewing, building houses, tending to children, milking cows and feeding chickens.

Questions over the compound's population were an issue during 2015 proceedings before South Dakota regulators. The Water Management Board eventually approved the group's application, which faced opposition from nearby landowners, even though the sect declined to provide many details about the number of people living there.

Custer County Sheriff Rick Wheeler supports a study, saying that it could help develop solutions to deal with the compound. He said it's difficult to work with people when they won't communicate at all.

"It's like going into somebody's property whether they're FLDS or John Doe: If there's a gate there and it says, 'No trespassing,' I can't go in there if they don't want me in there," he said.

Authorities have said the South Dakota congregation is led by Seth Jeffs, brother of imprisoned sect leader Warren Jeffs. Seth Jeffs didn't respond to emails from the AP requesting comment about the proposed study, and nobody answered at a telephone number listed in a state water document. Last year, he took a plea deal in a multimillion-dollar food-stamp fraud case. Warren Jeffs, considered by the group to be a prophet who speaks for God, is serving a life sentence for assaulting two of his child brides.

The FLDS, headquartered in a community along the Arizona-Utah border, is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the faith abandoned the practice in 1890 and prohibits it today.

South Dakota House Speaker Mark Mickelson is chairman of the Legislature's Executive Board, which will decide what issues lawmakers should study. Mickelson said the compound is a "great potential issue," but questioned what the Legislature's role should be.

"If he thinks we need some laws, beautiful," Mickelson said. "If he wants us to go investigate, I'm out."