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SD Lawmakers Go After Polygamist Group with Registration Bill

A polygamist compound in the Black Hills may be empty, but state lawmakers are considering legislation that could be used to verify births and deaths there, should members of the sect return. (Wikimedia Commons)
A polygamist compound in the Black Hills may be empty, but state lawmakers are considering legislation that could be used to verify births and deaths there, should members of the sect return. (Wikimedia Commons)
February 8, 2019

PIERRE, S.D. - Occupants of a housing compound buried in the Black Hills and associated with a known polygamist sect are the focus of a bill in the South Dakota Legislature.

The compound was established in 2005 by members of a radical offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, led by Warren Jeffs, who's now serving a life sentence for child sexual assault. Neighbors have seen lots of kids at the compound, but the state has no report of any births or deaths there. The law requires such notifications, but there's no penalty for failing to do so.

Rep. Tim Goodwin, R-Rapid City, introduced a bill that would make not filing these documents a Class 2 misdemeanor.

"We do have people that run away from there occasionally," he said, "and at that point you would say, 'Now, where's your birth certificate?' And if they don't have one, now we have some reason to start questioning what's happening in there and what's going on."

Jeffs, who was president of the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, when he was convicted of child sexual assault in 2011, is serving a life sentence plus 20 years.

The 140-acre compound known as "R-23" is surrounded by barbed-wire fence and includes a guard tower. It was thought to be home to 300 members of the FLDS sect at one time, but those living nearby believe members may have moved to another compound. Nonetheless, Goodwin said the proposed law would give the Custer County sheriff more authority should they return, and if there's probable cause to enter the compound.

"Why would you go arrest somebody or pursue it if the codified law says you have to have a birth certificate and death certificate but there's no penalty? So, this is just a baby step to make them actually be in compliance, because it is a polygamous situation," Goodwin said. "We have runaways. We have people who've been there."

Federal authorities have seized several other FLDS base camps, but not R-23.

Goodwin's measure passed in the House this week, 67-1. The state Senate Judiciary Committee will hear the bill next. If approved, House Bill 1110 would take effect July 1. Its text is online at legiscan.com.

Roz Brown, Public News Service - SD