Nov 12, 2017

Murder of three teens in Mexico led police to a fugitive US polygamist and his dark world

Rancho el Negro in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc
Rancho el Negro in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc
Orson Black was arrested after the bodies of three Americans were found near his Mexican ranch – then police and neighbors learned the truth about his life.
Luis Chaparro in Ciudad Cuauhtémoc
The Guardian
November 11, 2017

Rancho El Negro is a five-hectare property amid rolling fields of corn and cotton at the foothills of a lonely mountain outside the town of Ciudad Cuauhtémoc in the north Mexican state of Chihuahua.

Neighbours – mostly members of the region’s German-speaking Mennonite community – referred to the farm as “The Company” and had little to do with its owner.

They knew he was called Black, and lived with several women and young children in a rough concrete house and a handful of RVs. There were stories that he was an American businessman who kept a menagerie of animals including horses, and at least one bear.

“We almost never saw him or his people. He was not a Mennonite and he didn’t go to church on weekends,” said Juanito Peters, Black’s closest neighbor, before adding: “He had a very untidy way of living.”

Then in September, the bodies of three American males, aged 15, 19 and 23, were found shot dead nearby – and neighbours started to fear that the truth about Rancho El Negro was much darker than they had suspected.

Last weekend, more than a hundred law enforcement officials descended on the ranch and four other properties and arrested the owner, whom they identified as Orson William Black Jr, 56 – the fugitive leader of a polygamist sect.

He had been on the run for around 15 years after facing five felony counts of sexual misconduct involving two minors in Arizona.

Along with Black, officials detained three of his wives, a woman described as “a concubine”, and 22 other Americans living in Mexico illegally. Another woman escaped during the raid, according to Mexican prosecutors.

The raids also turned up a bizarre collection of exotic animal parts and stuffed animals, including elephant feet, a lion skin, stuffed birds and buffalo heads.

This week, Black was charged with illegal possession of wildlife and human smuggling – and then quickly extradited to the US.

Named after his father, another polygamist, Black was a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which split from the main Mormon church when it disavowed polygamy in 1890.

FLDS leaders teach that men must have at least three wives to reach the highest level of salvation. The group’s former spiritual leader Warren Jeffs is now serving a life sentence for sex crimes against two girls aged 12 and 14.

Around 1990, Black proclaimed himself a prophet and founded his own splinter group in Colorado City, Arizona.

It was around that time that he met the Petersons – a large polygamist family whose patriarch had more than 40 children.

He took two of the Peterson daughters – Roberta and Beth – as his four and fifth “wives” when they were minors, according to their sister Pennie Peterson, who still lives in Arizona.

“My sister almost died when she had Orson’s son. She was only 12 when she delivered. So in 1997 I had to do something – and filed charges against him for having sex with an underage girl,” she said in a telephone interview.

Black fled to Mexico in the early 2000s with four of his wives and about 20 other followers, including children.

Peterson had no news from her sisters until two months ago, when she received a call from an officer with the US Marshals.

“He asked me to sit because he had some bad news to share, and I though he was gonna tell me my sister Beth was dead. But instead, he told me my two nephews were shot dead in Mexico,” she said.

Robert,15, and Michael, 23 – sons of Beth and Roberta respectively – were murdered on September 10 alongside a third American called Jesse Barlow, 23. Reports in the Mexican media say that all three were shot just outside one of the trailer homes.

Mexican officials initially said that they were investigating Black’s role in the deaths, but he has now been ruled out, and security sources on both sides of the border suggested that the murder may have been carried out by members of a drug cartel.

At Rancho Negro, there is no sign of the bear that Black was reputed to have kept. The gate hangs open, and more than 20 horses wander loose in a scrubby pasture.

Further inside the property are three enormous cages, hung with scraps of animal skin – and beyond them, a huge pile of burnt animal bones.

The house and the five RVs where the family lived are still in chaos, littered with liquor bottles – empty and full – and piles of dirty clothes. The smell is unbearable.

In one room is a pile of scrapbooks, containing hundreds of drawings of Black’s face.

On a kitchen wall there are pictures of his sect: seven men dressed in black, and a separate line of 11 women dressed in flowing pioneer-era dresses and long plaits; none of them is smiling.

Mexican officials say they are still investigating Black’s activities in Chihuahua.

His former neighbours are left with nothing but questions.

“We never knew who he really was,” said Peters. “But now that the news is spreading we keep asking ourselves: what was really going on inside those walls?”

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