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Concerned citizens attend town hall about polygamist leader

A large crowd gathered at the Cook County Community Center in Grand Marais Saturday morning for a town-hall event focusing on the purchase of local land by Seth Jeffs, a known polygamist, convicted felon and member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Jeffs purchased 40 acres of property along Pike Lake Road in Cook County and plans to build a nearly 6,000-square-foot building on the land.

The May 18 meeting lasted for two hours and drew a crowd of approximately 100 people to the community center. Utah residents Tonia Tewell of the Holding Out HELP nonprofit, and Sam Brower, known for his work in exposing the crimes of the FLDS church and Jeffs family, led the discussion and answered questions from local residents. Cook County Sheriff Pat Eliasen was also present for the community event, which was moderated by local resident (and WTIP news reporter) Rhonda Silence.

More than 15 different questions were asked by audience members and local residents during the meeting. Topics and questions ranged from what the community can do to deter Jeffs and the FLDS from establishing a presence in Cook County, to the role law enforcement and local government can play in preventing crimes such as child labor or sex trafficking that have a direct tie to Jeffs and his family’s followers. Seth Jeffs is the brother of Warren Jeffs, the group’s imprisoned leader who is currently serving a life sentence for child sexual assault.

Tewell and Brower both shared their knowledge of Jeffs and the FLDS community during Saturday’s event. In both summarizing their backgrounds and when answering questions, Tewell and Brower spoke directly about why Jeffs purchasing this property could have ramifications for Cook County and its citizens. For example, Brower said the FLDS church is responsible for the “largest domestic human trafficking” operation in the country. With that in mind, Brower said that if for no other reason, Cook County residents should be concerned about the children that might be arriving to the Pike Lake Road property in the near future. Child labor, human trafficking and sexual violence are the reasons to be concerned about these children, Brower said.

Tewell echoed those sentiments, explaining that she works closely with people of all ages who leave the FLDS community. Many of these people have experienced sexual and physical violence from within the FLDS church, including its leaders, she said.

Regardless of how one feels about Seth Jeffs and the FLDS church, Tewell said how Cook County residents respond to their presence must be in accordance with the law. Eliasen said the sheriff’s department is fully aware of who Seth Jeffs is and the fact he purchased property on Pike Lake Road in 2018. Local law enforcement is also cognizant of the fact that the FLDS church has a history of legal trouble in the United States, including child and sexual trafficking accusations and convictions. Other agencies, including the local Border Patrol office, are aware of this as well, Eliasen said.

Near the end of the town-hall meeting, the question surfaced of what comes next for community members with regard to this situation. Brower and Tewell agreed that the next step includes community members being aware of what is happening, keeping an open eye and ear for things that seem out of place or troubling, and reporting these issues to local law enforcement.

One thing local residents should not do, Tewell said, is attempt to take the law into their own hands.