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Judge Orders Sale Of Cult Compound In Black Hills

Custer County GIS
The FLDS compound in the Black Hills.


A series of faraway events is causing the sale of a cult compound in South Dakota.

The polygamous cult is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known as FLDS. It broke away long ago from the Mormon Church.

The FLDS is based in a community called Short Creek on the Arizona-Utah border. It has enclaves elsewhere, including a compound in South Dakota’s Black Hills.

The cult’s leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving life in prison for sexually abusing girls he took as wives. Since his conviction about 15 years ago, the FLDS has been unraveling.

Ken Driggs is an Atlanta-based legal scholar who studies the cult.

“I don’t know what their numbers are now,” Driggs said. “At one point, you could’ve counted about 10,000 members. If they’ve got 2,000 now, I’d be surprised.”

The latest sign of the cult’s decline is the impending loss of its compound in a remote part of the southern Black Hills, in Custer County.

A judge has ordered the Custer County sheriff to put the compound up for sale. The sale is scheduled for 10 a.m. Feb. 25 at the Custer County Courthouse in Custer.

The proceeds are earmarked for three men – Claude Seth Cooke, Patrick Pipkin, and Andrew Chatwin – who sued the FLDS several years ago in federal court. The men, who are not FLDS members, had an agreement to farm and ranch on former FLDS property in Short Creek. FLDS members allegedly captured two of the men while they were on the property and jailed them unlawfully for several days while preventing all three of the men from using the property.

The men won judgments worth more than $2 million. They’re still owed most of it, plus interest, even after the sale of some FLDS property in Colorado. A judge recently ordered the sale of the South Dakota compound to help pay the judgments.

The 140-acre compound, about 15 miles southwest of Pringle, is surrounded by fences, berms, and a guard tower. Inside are several dorm-like structures, other buildings, and gardens. The compound is in a scenic area near the edge of Red Canyon, surrounded by a mix of pine trees, grasslands, and mountains.

Custer County Sheriff Marty Mechaley said he's been told by people in the compound that about 20 adults live there. Neighbors told SDPB that it looks like FLDS members have been moving things out of the compound recently. Otherwise, the neighbors said, it’s been quiet there in recent years.

- Contact reporter Seth Tupper by email.

Seth supervises SDPB's beat reporters and newscast team. He works at SDPB's Black Hills Studio in Rapid City.