The Custer County compound is one of a few similarly secured Fundamen-talist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (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 Sarah 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 are.”
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. He is now serving a nearly five-year prison sentence on the fraud charges.
Judge Jeff 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 lived 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
State Rep. Tim Goodwin said the lack of birth certificates raises troubling questions.
“Why would you not have a birth certificate?” he asked. “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.