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Cook County Residents Host Forum Regarding Religious Sect Concerns

Alejandra Palacios
Updated: June 06, 2019 10:59 AM

Cook County residents hosted a forum Saturday regarding concerns of a man who purchased property in Grand Marais who has a history in a polygamous religious sect that investigators say practices exploitation of children.

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Seth Jeffs and his family have a history in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints(FLDS) a scrutinized religious sect that investigators say practices trafficking and exploitation of women and children.

Seth Jeffs is the brother of Warren Jeffs, a imprisoned leader of the FLDS. Seth led a polygamous sect in South Dakota and took a plea deal in a major food-stamp fraud case in 2016.

Community members said they are worried about what Seth’s intentions are in Cook County. This led to the forum in the Cook County Community Center.

"You'd be concerned too if you had someone like this move into your neighborhood right after you know their past history,” Mike Schelmeske, a Cook County resident, said.

On Friday, residents were invited to watch a showing of the Prophets Prey, a documentary on the life of cult leader Warren Jeffs and the FLDS Church. This provided a background to residents on the Jeffs family history in the religious sect.

Cook County residents expressed fear over Seth Jeffs purchase of 40 acres of land. Many residents believe he is trying to start the FLDS religious sect in Minnesota. 

The property Jeffs purchased in Cook County is located on Pike Lake Road near Cascade River. WDIO drove to the property and saw heavy equipment as well as early construction of a long driveway. Residents said the long driveway makes it difficult to keep a watchful eye on what could be going on in the property.

"I saw him at the gravel pit there in the Fall and he'd brought in a dump trunk pulling out with a excavator,” Schelmeske said.

Cook County residents invited Sam Brower and Tonia Tewell, known FLDS experts from Utah who have extensive knowledge on the religious sect, to discuss awareness and response to suspicious FLDS behavior they may see. Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen was also in attendance answering questions. 

“Many of the children have little or no education. That’s one thing to look out for, children that aren't in school,” Sam Brower, a private detective, said.

Brower said education is not a priority to the FLDS. Children are usually home schooled but their education level is very low.

Brower has investigated on FLDS cases for 15 years. He said he believed Seth could be bringing in kids and is doing something for the FLDS. Brower said Jeffs has been seen with a new truck and is believed to still be a member in the FLDS.

Tonia Tewell founded 'Holding Out HELP' a nonprofit organization in Utah that provides resources to help people who are leaving the polygamist community. Tewell said her organization does not take a stance on polygamy.

Tewell told community members that of the people her organization has helped, over 90 percent suffered abuse, over 75 percent suffered sexual molestations, and over 99 percent suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The children that I’ve had I’ve seen suffer from all kinds of abuse, from physical abuse, sexual abuse, religious abuse, child labor laws,” Tewell said.

Tewell also said boys between the ages of eight and 12 are already in the workforce, usually working in construction sites, while girls are trained to be wives and mothers. The girls are forced to marry older men and are told that their sole purpose is to serve for the men.

Tewell and Brower said suspicious activity includes seeing children using large construction equipment, work trucks or cargo vans that come in the property very early or leave late, and also check for cargo containers, sheds, sewage pits, illegal septic tanks, or portable toilets in properties. Sheds are usually where children are housed.

Tewell and Brower said the FLDS are good at hiding their children doing work, and move to isolated places with different building codes and laws to avoid contact with the outside world.

When children are punished, Tewell said they get kicked out of their home for days. When that happens, they tend to wander  in woods, swamps, or break into homes looking for food and warmth.

Tewell advised residents that if they see a malnourished child wandering alone, to try building trust and rapport and call police as soon as possible.

She said to treat children with respect and kindness, to avoid eye contact because they are taught not to look into peoples eyes and are usually hunched over.

Brower and Tewell said the FLDS is known to retaliate against people who they believe are watching them by intimidating them. This brought even more concern to residents who live nearby the property. 

"It brought me to tears. It scared me, it hurt me. I feel frustrated, I feel like our hands are tied,” a Cook County resident who chose to stay anonymous due to safety concerns, said. The same resident said she lives close to Jeffs.

That’s why instead of approaching Jeffs, citizens are advised to keep a low profile and to only use their eyes and ears, also document any illegal behavior to report immediately to police.

"Look for young children, look for potential young girls on the property. Watch for cargo trucks coming in and out. That's how they transport children,” Tewell said.

Eliasen said the sheriffs office has been proactive and are focused on the property and are keeping a special eye on anything out of the ordinary. He said they have a full-time human trafficking investigator.

Eliasen also said border patrol is aware and is trained in spotting human trafficking.

"I think this community is going to come together and do whatever they can do to stop this,” Barbara Gabler, a Cook County citizen, said.

Seth Jeffs was not in attendance at the forum. 

If anyone sees suspicious activity, police said to call the Cook County Sheriff's Office at 218-387-3030.

Credits

Alejandra Palacios

Copyright 2019 WDIO-TV LLC, a Hubbard Broadcasting Company. All rights reserved

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