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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.