Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pel" />

Controversial Christian sect at center of Colorado fire probe

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said at a press conference Monday that the fire may have started on Colorado property owned by Twelve Tribes, a controversial sect that has reportedly praised the enslavement of black Americans and has come under scrutiny multiple times for allegedly using child labor.

Twelve Tribes could not be reached by The Post on Thursday. The Yellow Deli in Boulder, which the group operates, is currently closed.

The wildfire, the worst recorded in state history, was fueled by extreme winds after erupting last Thursday in and around the communities of Louisville and Superior at the base of the Rocky Mountain foothills. It scorched land across 30 miles between Denver and Boulder. Two people remain missing.

Pelle said the investigation into the blaze’s origins have been narrowed to a single neighborhood and his office has received credible witness reports of a fire on the Twelve Tribes property in that area just before the wildfire exploded.

Colorado Wildfires.
Police are investigating whether the wildfires that have ravaged Colorado began at a property owned by Twelve Tribes, a controversial Christian sect.
Fire engulfing a house
The wildfires are the worst in Colorado’s history and destroyed over 1,000 homes.

“There was a viral video that was posted of a shed on fire. We don’t know that that shed started the fire or whether it was secondary,” he said at the news briefing.

A neighbor of Twelve Tribes, Mike Zoltowski, told the Denver Post he saw the fire at the group’s property, which houses multiple families.

When Zoltowski, who is in the fire-resistant home construction business, went to check out the fire on his neighbor’s property, one of the members told him that a “dwelling” on their property had caught fire.

“Then I went over to their field and their field was on fire,” he said. “I don’t want to speculate, it’s still under investigation, but there is no possible way the fire started from any other place.”

The neighbor told the Denver Post that he has seen authorities on the group’s property every day since the fire.

Colorado Wildfire
A neighbor of the sect said he believes the fire began at their property.
Broomfield Police Department/AFP

The sheriff was careful at the press conference to not jump to conclusions, warning that the investigation could take weeks or months.

“We’re going to take our time and be methodical because the stakes are huge,” he said, adding that the investigation is complicated by the snowstorm that was largely responsible for putting out the blaze.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has called Twelve Tribes a “white supremacist cult.” It is estimated to have around 3,000 members.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle
Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle says the investigation will take months and promised it would be “methodical.”

Founded in the early 1970s in Chattanooga, Tennessee, by husband and wife Elbert Eugene and Marsha Spriggs, Twelve Tribes has members across the world who work on religious communes. Members must “surrender their earthly possession to the group and live communally,” according to the SPLC. Twelve Tribes owns restaurants and various other businesses, including a deli in Boulder and a tea factory.

The group “is little-known to much of the country, and on first impression its communes and hippie-vibed restaurants and cafes can seem quaint and bucolic,” it said in a 2018 report.

“But beneath the surface lies a tangle of doctrine that teaches its followers that slavery was ‘a marvelous opportunity’ for black people, who are deemed by the Bible to be servants of whites, and that homosexuals deserve no less than death,” the SPLC wrote.

The Twelve Tribes
The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled Twelve Tribes a hate group.
Twelve Tribes is a Christian sect that has attracted controversy through its praise of black slavery in the US and alleged use of child labor.

Ex-members have described childhood in the group as “hell,” with one saying he was beaten to the point of passing out, and others recounting beatings with rods for not singing loud enough at religious functions.

The Post wrote about the group in 2001, saying its upstate New York outpost uses child laborers to churn out a series of products, including Robert Redford’s Sundance catalog. The New York Labor Department launched an official investigation into the group after The Post’s report.

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