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WESTCLIFFE, Colo. - The last thing they wanted was to be the talk of the town.

Lured by its scenic beauty and live-and-let-live reputation, a controversial polygamous sect decided Westcliffe, population 456, offered perfect seclusion for grandmothers in their last years.

But after Lee Steed bought an abandoned home in the Bull Domingo Ranch subdivision, the chatter started: Who were the newcomers, why had they come, what were their plans?

Fueled by prosecutions of sect members for underage marriages and allegations of other crimes -- most recently in Texas -- the questions now follow members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints as they trickle out of their traditional home base on the Utah-Arizona border.

All accusations unfairly applied, Steed said, to the home at Bull Domingo.

In Westcliffe, answering "Who?" was simple enough. Neighbors connected Steed's name with the women's old-style pastel dresses, spotted from a nearby hill with binoculars: The FLDS had arrived.

Answering "why" wasn't as easy, given the FLDS preference for isolation - signaled when they erected a privacy fence and no one ventured out - and after Steed bought additional properties in and around Custer County.

"It appeared to us this might be where they planned on settling big time," said Custer County Sheriff Fred Jobe. "I've made my thoughts known pretty publicly that we're not pleased with their lifestyle."

The sheriff said a few residents believed the FLDS should be left alone.

"The majority of the people," he said, "would be happier if they moved away."

Which is why fear is building on both sides of that fence.

'Heaven to us': Steed is a contractor who moved to Colorado with his family three years ago; he was assigned to set up safe houses for FLDS members. Sect leader Warren S. Jeffs, an imprisoned felon, circulated through the area before his arrest in 2006.

The Bull Domingo home was a dump when Steed bought it at a foreclosure sale in November 2007. Its bargain price - $350,000 - offset the rehabilitation it needed, work that irritated neighbors as the crew toiled late at night.

"We probably didn't realize how noisy it was," said Joseph Jessop, who manages the home with wife Deanna.

The monogamous couple have seven children - six stairstep boys and a baby girl - and are primary caretakers of the household, which includes Deanna's grandmother.

Three other women, ages 65 to 83 and widows of previous sect leaders, live there, too. So does a 34-year-old woman, three middle-age women and five of their children. Some did not want to be identified because of past "persecution."

"We have to be wary because we know from past experience how people who are uninformed can get their minds rolling," explained Margaret Jessop, who came to Colorado to care for "my mothers."

The days begin with prayers and breakfast. The women take turns with meals, housework and gardening.

One recent morning they sat at the kitchen table, paring, slicing and packaging 18 cases of strawberries. Job done, they scattered to work on other projects.

One grandmother is developing a game she calls "Animal Go-around" to teach children about wildlife. Another colors and binds books for preschoolers in the FLDS home-school system. They have titles like, I Love You Mother and Maggie Makes Muffins.

"I can't do a lot of physical work, so I really enjoy coloring these for the children," wrote the grandmother, who lost her speech to a stroke.

Some former teachers or aides now work with the Jessops' children. Dorothy Barlow is a blue-ribbon quilter whose work has been featured at craft shows throughout the West.

Barlow said Colorado offered the women an escape from the pressure that has enveloped the border towns in recent years.

"I didn't want to be intimidated every time I went to the store or any time I did anything," she said.

Living in Westcliffe is "heaven to us," the silent grandmother writes. "You should tell them we like this little town, and we are sorry that they don't like us."

'A gawd-darn plague': From beyond the fence, however, the view is quite different.

The FLDS came into sharper focus in May, when the Southern Poverty Law Center - which lists the sect as a hate group - issued an alert about its presence just east of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

"I wouldn't say this community is scared about what is going on; I would say they are deeply concerned about what could be going on," particularly underage marriage, said Maura, who would not give her last name. "I've had people tell me they can't fall asleep at night for fear there are victims of that in our county, and they can't do anything."

As word spread, real estate agent Mattie Burtt complained to the county's zoning office about the FLDS, writing that "we all need to consider the effect on our property values."

She asked inspectors to check out the home and consider code changes to block "compounds." A July inspection found only minor violations and no criminal activity.

Still, Burtt said, "If they come in here en masse, it's a threat to our property values but also our ranching way of life. It is almost like a gawd-darn plague that you have to deal with."

For a small county, Custer has a remarkable religious diversity. There are at least 10 different denominations in Westcliffe, including a Mennonite community and a growing Amish presence that includes a new furniture store on Main Street.

"We're thrilled to have them," said Burtt of the Amish.

Some feel that way about the FLDS. Neighbors Frank and Yvonne Wierzba said fear of the unknown set off the clamor.

"What we saw were very kind, honest, hard-working people," said Frank Wierzba.

But for others, questions accumulated: Would the FLDS clog welfare rolls? Overtake local government? Abandon children?

Jobe met with Steed and FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop, who assured him such fears are unfounded.

"Not one person in our group in Colorado is on welfare, not one," said Steed, and property taxes are fully paid on the home, which he estimates is now worth up to $800,000.

Jobe said he didn't believe everything he heard and worries because portraits of Jeffs are all over the FLDS house.

"Until we can prove something criminal is going on, we will try to be civil with them," he said.

But Jobe, like others, is keeping close watch.

In July, a new group called Step Up brought in an anti-polygamy filmmaker who, according to one news report, fanned fear among the 250 attendees.

Step Up will host a fundraiser this weekend featuring Shannon Price of The Diversity Foundation, which assists teens who have left or been kicked out of the sect. The group also has discussed putting up "We Can Help" signs and creating a resource Web site.

Some have wondered if "blind transfers" - spiriting people out of the FLDS community - might be necessary.

Such talk led Steed to fear the grandmothers might become targets of misplaced vigilantism.

"We've kept to ourselves and never had any issues," he said. "Then that [HateWatch] article came out and all of a sudden we had neighbors who thought we were horrible people.

"We just want to say we have the right to live here as much as anybody."