DELTA COUNTY, Colorado — When Nephi Barlow got word that his neighbors were worried about him and his family, he called the local sheriff.
"He's active FLDS," said Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee.
The news of the raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's compound in the tiny town of Eldorado, Texas, has stirred up emotions and fears in many communities that have become home to FLDS enclaves.
Expansion appears to be under way in at least two known compounds of the FLDS Church outside of Texas and rumors continue to swirl about so-called "safe houses" scattered throughout the West.
It's an oft-repeated claim that those familiar with the FLDS people adamantly deny.
"They're not safe houses.
They're homes. A community," said Rod Parker, an attorney who has represented the FLDS Church and is acting as their spokesman.
At Barlow's invitation, McKee and Delta County Commissioner Olen Lund toured the man's 35-acre property on B25 road just south of Crawford, Colo. The single-family home with a barn sits behind a large-sized privacy fence.
"He just wanted to assure his neighbors that he didn't have any criminal activity going on there. It's just him and his family and a few hired hands," the sheriff said, adding that he did not press Barlow to reveal if he was a polygamist.
"We were introduced to one wife," McKee said.
Barlow told the men that he moved to the area last year from Nevada, where he works in the construction business. He said he had family in Colorado City, Ariz., and in Texas. Barlow did not wish to speak to reporters, and the sheriff said he did not believe there was anything criminal happening on the man's property.
"It's a free country. It's private property. They can use that property as they see fit, as long as it's not illegal," Lund said.
Either because of government pressure or feelings of religious persecution, many FLDS faithful are leaving the sect's strongholds of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City and branching out across the Western United States.
"They just want to find places they can stay under the radar and do whatever it is that they're doing," said Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith.
Besides the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, enclaves are known to exist in Bountiful, British Columbia in Canada; near Mancos, Colo.; Pringle, S.D.; and a farm near Pioche, Nev. Many FLDS have also assimilated into communities near Las Vegas and here in Colorado.
The raid in Texas has put more scrutiny on those living away from Short Creek (the name of the communities of Hildale and Colorado City).
"Their religious beliefs, he feels, have been under attack for years," McKee said of Barlow.
Here in Colorado, a number of homes have reportedly served as safe havens for Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs when he was a fugitive on the FBI's Most Wanted list.
In a lawsuit, Jeffs' former courier Wendell Musser alleged that he acted as a caretaker for several of the FLDS leader's wives living in secret homes in the Colorado towns of Williamsburg, Florence and Westcliffe. (In 2005, Jeffs' brother Seth was arrested near Pueblo, Colo., with cash, cards, phones and documents addressed to the FLDS leader.) Search warrant returns taken from the raid on the YFZ Ranch detailed "mail from houses in hiding," but authorities have not provided additional details.
"The men that are going in hiding are wanted by the law, wanted for questioning or wanted for depositions in a civil case, so they have to put up things to hide them," said Sam Brower, a private investigator working for lawyers suing the FLDS Church.
Warren Jeffs, 52, was convicted last year in Utah on charges of rape as an accomplice. In Arizona, he is facing more charges accusing him of performing more child-bride marriages.
With the search still on for the 16-year-old "Sarah" whose phone calls of abuse and sexual assault triggered the Texas raid, Brower said it is possible the girl could be hidden away in a "safe house."
"That girl could be anywhere," Brower said. "They have the ability to make her disappear."
Some in law enforcement are keeping an eye out, too.
"We're certainly aware that's a possibility, but unless we have some indication she's here, that's all it is — is a possibility," said Montezuma County, Colo., undersheriff David Hart. "We will keep our mind open to it."
Some FLDS women and men interviewed by the Deseret News in Texas recently have insisted the girl does not exist. Texas child protective services workers have said they are still trying to identify her from among the 416 children removed from the YFZ Ranch.
In Mancos, Colo., Montezuma County Sheriff Gerald Wallace flew over the FLDS compound on Monday. It is the only way to see the 100-acre property, which is secluded in a heavily forested area. The property was purchased by David Allred, a Jeffs loyalist who also purchased the property in Eldorado and in Pringle.
Hart said they saw no people, but a few vehicles and a fair amount of construction for new houses.
"There's some pretty big buildings," he told the Deseret News on Wednesday. "There's some pretty good sized houses, the more communal-type houses."
Brower discovered the compound in Mancos while conducting a background check on one of the FLDS leaders. A tip, he said, led him to the compound in Pringle.
"There's a lot more out there. I'm sure of it," Brower said.
More construction is being planned in Pringle, which is nestled in South Dakota's Black Hills.
"They're talking about doing some more building. I believe they worked with the schools to get more kids registered for home schooling," said Custer County, S.D., Sheriff Rick Wheeler.
Know your neighbors
Across the West, law enforcement have made efforts to get to know their FLDS neighbors.
Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith has hosted his fellow sheriffs in southern Utah, taking them on tours of Short Creek.
"I wanted to give them the benefit of our experience here, telling them our frustrations in trying to deal with rumors and illegalities that have gone on, and how difficult it is," he said Wednesday.
Wheeler said he has made good contact with the FLDS in South Dakota.
"I just feel right now they're trying to be good residents of our area," said Wheeler. "We work pretty close. I've had them out working with our fire department. We've got a pretty open relationship right now and I hope we can continue to keep that."
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran has also developed relationships with key people on the YFZ Ranch. He said last week it helped to keep the already tense situation from getting worse. It was also revealed that Doran had a confidential informant providing him information about alleged crimes within the compound.
Smith and Wheeler both kept in contact with Doran during the beginning stages of the YFZ raid.
Hart said the Montezuma County Sheriff's Office has tried to make some contact with the people on the Mancos property.
"If we go out to the property and come up to the gate, someone will come out to talk. They do regular patrols around the fenced areas on an ATV," he said.
"They're pretty reserved. They're friendly enough, but it's strictly business."
On Wednesday, the FLDS allowed more people onto the ranch to hear the pleas of mothers who simply want to be reunited with their children. Parker reiterated that they are merely homes in a community.
"Now that they've been opened to the world," he said. "Everyone can see they're just homes."
Contributing: Nancy Perkins