When a leader in a fundamentalist polygamist group bought land last year in Cook County outside of Grand Marais it caused alarm in the small North Shore community. On Saturday, residents were able to ask experts about what to do.
The community forum was organized by a group of Cook County residents in response to Seth Steed Jeffs purchasing land on Pike Lake Road near Cascade River. Jeffs is of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a group best known for child marriage that continued to practice polygamy even after the mainstream Mormon church banned marrying multiple spouses in 1890.
Earlier this year Cook County approved plans to build a 6,000 square foot "pole building/apartment" on the 40-acre parcel of land, which upset some neighbors and residents of Grand Marais.
The forum Saturday included Tonia Tewell, executive director of Holding Out Help, author and private investigator Sam Brower and Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen. Holding Out Help is a non-profit organization based in Utah focused on providing full-service care to people from a polygamous background and helps clients transition from isolation to independence.
Tewell said her agency does not take a stance on polygamy and they sometimes even help those that are on the inside of these communities.
"Our goal is to solely rehabilitation those who choose to leave and we are also not opposed to serving the people on the inside of these communities," she said. "Frankly when you establish a rapport, when it does go wrong they know that we are a safe place that is not going to pass judgment and not going to tell them what to believe and what not to believe religious or otherwise."
Helping and building rapport with those in need in these communities is what Tewell suggested the community do because most of the women and children in these communities are abused.
Tewell said of the clients her organization has helped, over 90 percent have suffered some sort of abuse, over 75 percent have suffered sexual molestations and over 99 percent have suffered post-traumatic stress injury.
Many of the questions community members asked were about what they could do to either make sure Jeffs and his group leave the town forever or are arrested for the illegal activity they do.
Tewell told community members not to take the law into their own hands, but if they see child labor to try and get either a video or picture and turn it into the authorities. Tewell also said if they see a child wandering around, they most likely have been kicked out and someone should reach out to them.
"It will take time for the kids to trust you because they are taught not to," she said. "So, always treat them with kindness, avoid direct eye contact and the best way to interview them is with a woman, who are seen as less threatening."
Tewell also told residents that if their cabins or homes are broken into, it's most likely a child looking for food as food is rationed in these types of communities.
"If you see anything illegal or suspicious, call the authorities and let them handle it," Tewell said. "I also encourage law enforcement to ask as many questions as they can because you never know what you'll find out."
One community member asked Tewell and Brower if they had any idea what Jeffs is doing on his property. Unfortunately, Brower said he doesn't know.
"Seth could be making an outpost or a compound or he could be on the outs with Warren (Jeffs, his brother and head of the organization)," he said. "But what I'm hearing is that he's doing something for the church."
Brower said he does believe the closeness to the international border has something to do with why Jeffs has picked Grand Marais because FLDS is known for domestic human trafficking of children and women.
"If you see something, say something," Brower said.
Eliasen said the sheriff's department as well as the border patrol are aware of the FLDS group leader being in the area and are aware of the groups record of human trafficking and have taken steps to learn as much as possible about the group, including calling the sheriff of Custer County, where a large FLDS community lives in a compound near Pringle, S.D.
"I've talked to the sheriff there and I've communicated to my deputies what he said," Eliasen said. "We are going to put our focus on any perceived criminal activity and my deputies will keep an eye out for them... but we will also protect everyone's rights and those rights extend to this group as well until they step over the line."
Eliasen was part of the forum to mostly answer questions about what law enforcement can and can't do legally, which left some audience members frustrated by the restrictions.
Shelia Wieben, who lives on Pike Lake Road next to the property Jeffs purchased, said she didn't understand why the county didn't ask more questions.
"I'm not sure why questions weren't asked at the county level when some unknown LLC wants to build an almost 6,000 square foot building on a swamp. I don't understand why he got a stamp of approval without more questions," Wieben said. "In this community, if somebody wants to build a dog house people are up in arms and there are community meetings and all this stuff happens. This happened totally under the radar and nobody knew anything about it. How come? I just feel like more questions could have been asked."
Wieben is not wrong about community members in Grand Marais being very vocal and aware about changes in their town, including new buildings. In 2016, when Dollar General was looking to build a store in Grand Marais, residents spoke out against the chain store coming to town because they feared it would harm locally-owned stores and detract from the town's local charm. The plans were eventually scuttled.
Wieben said she's lived in her home for over 20 years and even though she feels more informed after the forum, she's still very scared.
"What am I going to do when I come home one day and there are girls or boys on my property asking me for help?" Wieben asked. "I don't want to get involved but you can't deny a child some help. So then do I have to be concerned about retaliation? It's a lot and that upsets me."
Grand Marais resident Jeremy Hanson, who helped organize the forum, told community members that whatever happens, to not let it get under their skin.
"Live good lives and keep taking care of each other. This is a great county and we don't need to be afraid that these guys are going to ruin the reputation of this county. It's not going to happen," he said. "It's good to be alarmed and it's good to be thinking about what we can do. But the best thing to do is to live good lives and to treat each other with respect, including this group."
Questions or concerns?
Anyone with questions for Holding Out Help executive director Tonia Tewell can submit questions by going to www.holdingouthelp.org or calling her at 801-386-1077. People can also contact the organization on Facebook at www.facebook.com/holdingoutHELP.
Anyone who sees illegal or suspicious activity is asked to call the Cook County Sheriff's Department at 218-387-3030.