Tucked in the remote Black Hills of South Dakota lies a 140-acre “military-style” fortress surrounded by a barbed wire fence, shielded by pine trees and guarded 24/7 by a lookout tower. Known as “R23,” the compound was established 14 years ago by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) — radical, polygamist offshoot of the Mormon Church — amidst a federal investigation into its leader, Warren Jeffs. Jeffs has since been convicted of child sexual assault and sentenced to life in prison, several other FLDS Church base camps have been seized by federal authorities, but R23 remains occupied — and shrouded in mystery.
The South Dakota Department of Health has said that the compound’s residents have never complied with a state law requiring them to report any births or deaths, so it’s unclear who actually lives beyond its walls. According to the Daily Beast, that may change now that state lawmakers have advanced a bill that would establish a penalty for citizens found in violation; if House Bill 1110 passes, citizens who do not file a birth certificate within one year or report a death within 48 hours will be guilty of a Class-2 misdemeanor.
“We’ve talked about doing something about this faction for years. This is the first time we’re doing anything,” Rep. Tom Goodwin, a co-sponsor of the bill, said at a hearing Wednesday night. “I don’t think ever since this capitol has been here, there has ever been a bill like this.”
While the law would apply state-wide, the bill was written with the FLDS Church and the residents of R23 in mind. According to their doctrine, polygamy is a requirement to gain entry to the kingdom of heaven, where large “plural” families have an especially high status. FLDS Church members don’t believe in birth control in any form, and officials are certain that there have been plenty of babies born at R23 over the last 14 years, but its occupants rarely emerge, let alone interact with residents in the nearest town, 20 miles away. One former resident, Sarah Allred, told the Associated Press in 2017 that she knew of at least two dozen births at the compound, and Goodwin estimated that there were nearly 300 people living there just a few years ago.
Officials say that the lack of records makes it difficult for local authorities to monitor the group for sex trafficking crimes in relation to the FLDS Church’s history of forcing underage girls to marry much older men. Unreported births have no government records — “they just don’t exist,” as Goodwin put it — and according to Allred, the Church denies women even basic documents like Social Security cards, making it all the more difficult for those who wish to flee.
“If a death occurs with this compound and it’s someone where there’s no tracking of the birth to begin with, and they cremate the body, I don’t know how anyone would ever know that,” Rep. Doug Barthel told the Daily Beast.
Barthel is one of the 13 members of the Judiciary Committee which passed the bill with a vote of 12-1. The lone outlier was Republican Rep. Tom Pischke, a self-described libertarian, who told the Daily Beast that he feared the bill was an attempt to “legislate morality.”
“If someone at this complex doesn’t register the birth of a baby or death of somebody, we’re basically going to give the authorities the right to do what could possibly be deemed an ‘unreasonable search and seizure’ of the entire complex,” Pischke told the Daily Beast.
While Goodwin has assured his fellow lawmakers that the local Custer County Sheriff Department was “very cooperative” and just needed “some kind of reason to go in there,” a spokesperson told the Daily Beast that even if the law passes, “We still have to respect their privacy.” Barthel, who supported the bill, acknowledged that enforcing the new penalty will be easier said than done.
“I’m not sure how that will happen,” Barthel told the Daily Beast. “I don’t think law enforcement will just be able to go in there and ask for papers unless they have probable cause.”
“From my perspective and for law enforcement, if a death isn’t being reported, that raises concerns,” Rep. Doug Barthel (R) told The Daily Beast. “If a death occurs with this compound and it’s someone where there’s no tracking of the birth to begin with, and they cremate the body, I don’t know how anyone would ever know that.”