Colorado wildfire investigation spotlights Twelve Tribes religious sect
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The mishmash of houses occupied by the Twelve Tribes religious sect remains a focus of the investigation into the origin of the Marshall fire, as Boulder County sheriff’s officials confirmed Thursday they’re still in the process of executing a search warrant on the property.
Authorities have seized control of the property south of Boulder as the investigation continues. The search at the compound has been complicated by weather and will take some time to complete, the sheriff’s office said, adding that authorities can keep Twelve Tribe members from returning until the search is finished.
Boulder County sheriff’s officials are investigating whether the Marshall fire, which ignited a week ago and burned more than 1,000 homes as it blasted into Louisville and Superior on hurricane-force winds, might have started on the religious sect’s property along Eldorado Springs Drive.
A person driving in the area the morning the Marshall fire started filmed a now-viral video of a shed burning on the Twelve Tribes property. Investigators have not yet pinpointed the cause of the wildfire or determined its exact origin point, although Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said the blaze began in that neighborhood off Colo. 93 and Marshall Road.
The entire Twelve Tribes property has been fenced off since Sunday, and law enforcement kept guard around the fencing this week, shooing off passers-by who wandered too close. Scorched metal and debris can be seen in one corner of the compound; some houses inside the fence appear unscathed by flames. A hand-painted welcome sign that features mountains, meadows and stars greets visitors out front.
“We’re just in the same boat as everyone else is in, we’re waiting on the authorities to conduct an investigation and we’re cooperating,” said a Twelve Tribes member reached by The Denver Post who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on behalf of the group. “We would like to find out where it started like everyone else. We’re obviously part of that community… our hearts and prayers are with everyone.”
The possibility that Colorado’s most destructive wildfire started on property occupied by a religious sect that was previously known by many in the area simply for its bohemian Boulder restaurant — the Yellow Deli, which has temporarily closed — put a renewed focus on the usually low-profile group this week.
“For the outside community, it might be a good thing for people to learn more about this group,” said Janja Lalich, a sociologist and a longtime expert on cults.
The Twelve Tribes was founded in 1972 by Eugene Spriggs in Chattanooga, Tennessee, as a new sect of Christianity that blended Spriggs’ personal beliefs with elements of both Christianity and Judaism.
The group, estimated to have a few thousand members worldwide with communities in Boulder County and Manitou Springs, is no stranger to controversy. Some of their teachings are considered to be misogynistic and racist, but over the years they’ve been criticized most consistently for their treatment of children.
Spriggs, who died in January 2020 at age 83, believed children should be disciplined with wooden rods. Adults in the Twelve Tribes have been reported to regularly spank and hit the group’s children for misbehaving, Lalich said.
Some ex-members described enduring severe, sometimes hours-long beatings for minor misbehavior as children. The Twelve Tribes’ members have steadfastly defended the use of physical discipline and disputed that the practice constitutes abuse.
In 1984, police and social workers in Vermont raided a Twelve Tribes complex and took 112 children into protective custody over reports of child abuse — but were forced to return the children hours later when a judge found the raid was unconstitutional. The raid, featured on the front page of The New York Times, was a seminal moment for the group.
On the 16th anniversary of the raid, the Twelve Tribes marked the event by inviting media and community members to its Vermont community, where children who were taken in the raid — by then adults — spoke in defense of their parents’ discipline practices and said they were not abused, according to coverage in The Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
Another defining characteristic of the Twelve Tribes is how many businesses the group operates, said Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta. The group runs restaurants, like the Yellow Deli in Boulder, as well as bakeries, a construction business, soap-making factories and more. The businesses are staffed by Twelve Tribes members, who have been known to work without pay.
The Twelve Tribes faced legal action in California in 2008 after authorities there found its businesses violated the state’s minimum wage laws because workers were not paid, according to the San Diego Reader. At the time, the Twelve Tribes described all of its workers as “volunteers,” the story said. People who join the Twelve Tribes must give up all their possessions.
Lalich said the group should be considered a cult.
“A cult is a group that has a charismatic, authoritarian leader, it has an extremist ideology, an all-or-nothing ideology or belief system, and it uses manipulative and coercive methods of influencing control to exploit the members in one way or another — money, sex, whatever,” she said. “So (the Twelve Tribes) definitely fits that profile.”
The Twelve Tribes’ teachings call slavery a “marvelous opportunity” for Black people, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Black members are considered to be subservient to white people. The group also shuns gay people and requires women to be submissive to men, according to the center.
Some of the Twelve Tribes’ literature discusses fire, and, in particular, fire as a force of God, but the group isn’t known to be particularly fire-focused, Kent said.
“It’s not likely that a group like the Twelve Tribes would destroy its own facility,” he said, adding that some religious groups have purposely set fires. One particular group in Canada that believed fire was a cleansing force would periodically burn down their own homes, he said.
“(They’d) take off their clothes and throw their clothes in the fire and march naked across the Canadian prairies waiting for Jesus to return,” Kent said.
But he said there is no indication that the Twelve Tribes uses fire that way.
“As much as I am not a fan of Twelve Tribes, it’s unfair, bordering on dangerous, to make pre-evidential suggestions and determinations of intentions and cause before we have the evidence,” he said.
Neighbors said the group members generally kept to themselves, and estimated 20 or 30 people lived at the multi-building compound on Eldorado Springs Drive. The group was known to burn with some frequency on the property, neighbors said, sometimes in barrels.
“Whatever work they are doing over there, something has triggered a couple (of fires in the past),” said Dave Maggio, who owns a house beside the Twelve Tribes compound and believes the Marshall fire likely started on the group’s property. “This one, my guess is it wasn’t vindictive, it wasn’t on purpose.”
Boulder County sheriff’s officials have refused to release any prior records related to the Twelve Tribes property, and have declined to say whether any fires previously have been reported at their address. All outdoor burning was prohibited the day the Marshall fire started due to high winds and dry conditions.
Another neighbor described seeing Twelve Tribes members taking walks through the neighborhood, kids and strollers in tow.
Sometimes, group members would put up a large white tent, and the sounds of their singing would waft through the neighborhood.
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