State Rep. Tim Goodwin lives in the shadow of a shadowy place — the FLDS compound near Pringle in Custer County.
The 140-acre fortress is designed with an emphasis on secrecy and evasion of accountability. No one is allowed to visit without permission. Its inhabitants are rarely seen. Neither births nor deaths are reported as the state requires. It has a guard tower much like one seen at a prison. Its neighbors have noted unusual happenings but concerns have fallen upon deaf ears, which is what the leadership desired when in 2007 work began on the compound in the forest of southwestern South Dakota.
Notorious does not even begin to describe the history of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a rogue offshoot of Mormonism.
Its members practice polygamy and their leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting his child brides. It is a cult with a long and documented history of exploiting its members, particularly women and girls. It has been reported that Jeffs has had as many 60 children with 70 wives, some as young as 12 years old.
So far and inexplicably, the state of South Dakota has been far too accommodating to a group that doesn't follow the laws that others are required to do or face the consequences.
Goodwin and 11 other lawmakers, however, took an important step Wednesday toward changing this narrative with the passage of a bill that makes it a misdemeanor to not report births and deaths.
Goodwin, who sponsored the bill, said it represents a "tiny step" that will give law enforcement an opportunity to look into the affairs of a group that has received a free pass in a state that prides itself on law and order.
"Finally, we're at least doing something," he said after the House Judiciary Committee voted 12-1 for his bill.
It's not the first time that Goodwin has tried to bring attention to a group that law enforcement has dealt with in Texas and more recently Utah, where Warren Jeffs brother, Lyle, was convicted and sentenced to prison for his role in a multimillion-dollar food-stamp fraud scheme.
In 2017, he introduced a bill that would have required the state to determine how many people live there, if children were being home-schooled and whether sex trafficking was going on. However, House Majority Leader Mark Mickelson refused to support the bill and it died. He said it was up to law enforcement to investigate the cult. Attorney General Marty Jackley said, however, he lacked the probable cause to launch an investigation.
Now, however, both Jackley and Mickelson are no longer in those positions. There is new leadership in the Legislature and a new attorney general who promises to be tough on crime. Our new governor, Kristi Noem, has brought much attention to the inhumane practice of human trafficking that has victimized so many girls and young women.
The state House and Senate should pass this legislation and Gov. Noem should sign it. The new attorney general, Jason Ravnsborg, should then use this new tool to learn why the state Department of Health has never received a report of a birth at the compound even though witnesses say they have occurred there.
Law enforcement and the state should want to know why this official acknowledgement of life and death is not being reported by the FLDS. Why does the sect not want the world to know when a girl is born? The answer seems all too obvious when one considers the sordid history of a secretive organization that to date has made a mockery of laws in our state.