This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Sheriff Rick Wheeler would like to serve a search warrant on the polygamous compound owned by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in his county.
He would like to know what's going on inside, but there's just one problem: He has no probable cause.
Wheeler, the sheriff of Custer County, S.D., doesn't actually know if there are any crimes being committed there, and he admits that no one associated with the compound has been charged with any local offenses.
What bothers Wheeler is the mystery of what might be occurring on the property and who, exactly, is living there.
"I wish I could give the public better answers," Wheeler said last week in a telephone interview, "but, boy, it's tough. Our constitutional rights keep things pretty… " Wheeler's voice trailed off before adding: "I don't know. It is what it is."
Law enforcement raided a larger FLDS compound or ranch, depending on your perspective in 2008 in Texas. Then, in February of this year, federal agents raided FLDS businesses in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., as they were apprehending 11 people indicted for food stamp fraud and searching for evidence in that case.
But knowledge gained from those other raids hasn't shed much light on what might be happening in South Dakota. In court filings related to the food-stamp case, former FLDS members told FBI agents about how they weren't allowed to use cellphones on the South Dakota property or accept food-stamp benefits while living there.
Some girls and women from Utah and Arizona were sent to South Dakota after 2008 to receive special training, according to those FBI interviews, but it's not clear what that training entailed. In any case, the information supplied by the former sect members was dated.
Remoteness has always made it difficult to know what is happening at the 140-acre property in South Dakota. The compound is often referred to as being in the town of Pringle, but it is actually a 30-minute drive southwest from there. Most of that is on dirt roads that Google Street View hasn't bothered photographing yet.
Location of South Dakota FLDS
But Wheeler, who took office in June 2006, once had a better grasp of life inside the property. He would accompany assessors and inspectors into the compound. During those visits, he observed about 150 men and women living in the dormitory-style housing.
Wheeler even had the cellphone number for Seth Jeffs, who was the bishop for South Dakota and a brother of imprisoned FLDS President Warren Jeffs.
Seth Jeffs is one of the 11 defendants who allegedly plotted to defraud the federal food stamp program. All the food stamp fraud defendants have pleaded not guilty. A trial is scheduled for Jan. 30.
The FBI arrested Seth Jeffs on the road leading to the compound, and Wheeler said it was a turning point in his relationship with the residents there. He no longer has a contact for the compound.
"Since everybody is incarcerated, it's just no communication," Wheeler said.
Karl Von Rump is one of the compound's few neighbors. In a phone interview, he estimated that fewer than 50 people live at the compound now. And where he used to hear the sounds of construction and machinery day and night, there is now only an occasional vehicle driving in or out. The exhaust fans in the cafeteria still blow three times a day, but for shorter durations than they used to.
"They are not doing anything," Von Rump said of the residents.
During a full moon last month, exterior lights on compound buildings were polluting Von Rump's view. He went to the compound to ask them to shade the lights or turn them off. A young man and young woman met him at the gate.
"I asked who's in charge," Von Rump said. "They said nobody."
Wheeler wonders who calls the property home. Are there children living there? A few births have been recorded, but no FLDS kids are enrolled in the public schools. South Dakota requires parents to register their children if they plan to home-school them. Wheeler said it has been a couple years since the FLDS registered any such children. "We're sure they're there," Wheeler said, "but they're never out."
Meanwhile, Wheeler continues to wait for a reason to go back onto the FLDS property.
He said: "I can assure you that if we ever do get probable cause [that a crime has been committed], we're going to take care of it."