A Mexican mystery: A fugitive U.S. polygamist, three slain Americans and exotic wildlife parts

A fugitive polygamist from Arizona has been arrested with four wives and a “concubine” on the grounds of a conservative religious community in the northern Mexican desert highlands.

More than two dozen U.S. citizens, apparently disciples of the polygamist’s “commune,” have been detained in the same hamlet in Mexico’s Chihuahua state.

And it’s all linked to the slayings of three young Americans, two of them sons of the polygamist, shot dead weeks earlier in a nearby rural enclave called “Black Ranch.”

Authorities say the polygamist is a suspect in the slayings.

The puzzling criminal case — and its seemingly disparate elements — came to light last weekend as more than 100 Mexican law enforcement personnel descended on the polygamist’s compound, with assistance from the FBI and U.S. consular officials, Chihuahua state prosecutors said.

Mexican law enforcement authorities released an account of the raid that raised as many questions as it answered. The U.S. Embassy in Mexico City and the State Department in Washington declined to comment.

At the center of the case is Orson William Black, 56, a former member of a breakaway Mormon sect. Black has been wanted in Arizona for almost 15 years on five felony counts of sexual misconduct involving a pair of underage sisters.

Black was arrested during last weekend’s raids, Mexican authorities said, along with others described as four “wives” and one “concubine.” A total of 26 U.S. citizens taken into custody may face deportation, Mexican prosecutors said.

Among them are two young women who have lived all their lives in Black’s “commune,” Cesar Peniche Espejel, Chihuahua state attorney general, told reporters this week.

In a bizarre twist, Mexican authorities say police also seized 65 preserved exotic wildlife parts and pelts, among them lion-skin and bearskin rugs, a pair of elephant feet, various stuffed birds and remnants of other creatures, including zebra and buffalo heads. Authorities did not specify whether the cache was a trophy collection or had another purpose.

Black was placed in Mexican federal custody for alleged “human trafficking” and “possession of wildlife species,” state prosecutors said.

According to Mexican authorities, Black is also being investigated in connection with the killings of the three Americans — a boy and two men — whose bodies were discovered Sept. 10 in Rancho El Negro, or Black Ranch, about three miles from the site of last weekend’s raids. Black has not been formally charged in the killings.

Mexican authorities identified the slain victims only as Michael B., 15; Robert W.B., 19; and Jesse L.B., 23.

Details about the killings are sparse, but Mexican news reports indicate that the three were gunned down execution-style at the entrance to a trailer home.

Some media accounts have suggested that the trio shared the surname Black. But their exact relation to the now-detained polygamist has been unclear.

On Wednesday, however, Felix Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Chihuahua prosecutor’s office, confirmed that two of the victims — Michael B. and Robert W.B. — were Black’s sons. The parentage of the third victim, Jesse L.B., had not yet been ascertained, Gonzalez said.

“The motive has not been clarified and is still being investigated," Gonzalez said of the killings.

The victims were found on one of five area properties owned by Black, the spokesman said.

The ranch where the slain men were found, like the settlement where Black was arrested, is situated in the sprawling Chihuahua municipality of Cuauhtemoc, hub of the region’s large Mennonite population.

It was unclear why the accused pedophile chose to hide out and set up his own polygamist “commune” amid land settled by agrarian Mennonite communities. The two groups would appear to be unlikely neighbors. Mennonites, who began settling in Mexico in the 1920s after emigrating from Canada, practice a conservative, pacifist Christian faith that views marriage as a lifelong monogamous commitment between a man and a woman.

Photos released by the Chihuahua state attorney general’s office, which were apparently taken as Black was being arrested, show a man identified as the polygamist: a baldish, bespectacled figure in a sleeveless T-shirt. A rectangular strip covers his eyes in the photos, as is customary in Mexican mug shots distributed to the press.

Black, who also goes by the name Larry William Black, entered Mexico illegally and lived with members of his “commune” on the five different properties that he had purchased within or in the vicinity of Mennonite settlements, Mexican prosecutors said.

Among other things, the attorney general said, investigators are trying to determine how Black had access to funds to buy land and other assets during his time in Mexico.

Mexican authorities also seized a dozen vehicles at Black’s compound, with both Mexican and U.S. license plates. Chihuahua shares a long border with Texas and New Mexico.

A U.S. federal complaint against Black alleges he entered Mexico in 2003 to avoid prosecution in Arizona on the sexual misconduct charges.

Arizona news reports at the time indicated that Black viewed himself as a “prophet” or “archangel.”

Black, a former resident of Colorado City, Ariz., was described as estranged from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a Mormon splinter sect that endorses a form of plural marriage. The renegade sect has long been a dominant force in the adjoining towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah.

The breakaway sect’s leader, Warren Jeffs, a self-professed prophet, is serving life in prison for sexually assaulting two underage followers whom he took as brides.

Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

Twitter: @PmcdonnellLAT

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