Authorities investigating a devastating fire in Colorado are focused on a burning shed on land owned by the fundamentalist religious sect known as The Twelve Tribes.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle revealed at a Monday press conference that investigators have narrowed down the fire’s origin to land owned by the sect, but he cautioned that investigators “are going to be careful” before making any conclusions.

“We will sort it out. It’s an active, open deal and the outcome of that investigation is vital, there is so much at stake,” he told reporters.

Two people are missing and presumed dead from the fire that started Dec. 30 and burned between Colorado State Highway 93 and Marshall Road near Boulder.

The religious group now under scrutiny, which idolizes sons, requires community input before people can copulate, and describes itself as an “emerging spiritual nation.” It dates back to the 1970s when it began in coffee shops in Tennessee. There are also offshoots in Europe, Australia, and South America. Each “tribe” is self-governing but adheres to similar tenets that line up with conservative ideology. Men wear long hair and beards and women’s attire is closely guarded. Of the two tribes in Colorado, one runs the popular Yellow Deli in Boulder—named after the original coffee shop where the sect began—and the other is where the burning shed is located.

“We are a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, made up of self-governing communities,” the group’s website states. “By community, we mean families and single people who live together in homes and on farms. We are disciples of the Son of God, whom we call by His Hebrew name Yahshua.”

The sect has historical roots in racism and homophobia, and has been investigated for its treatment of children, according to local news reports. Members are not allowed to be employed independently but work on communal farms which provide food for the families who live together.

In 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report warned the sect was potentially dangerous. “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 group wrote in a report. “While homosexuals are shunned by the Twelve Tribes (though ex-members say the group brags about unnamed members who are “formerly” gay), the group actively proselytizes to African Americans, yet one of its Black leaders glorifies the early Ku Klux Klan.”

The report also said the sect tried to “keep its extremist teachings on race from novice members and outsiders,” though interviews with former members who escaped say the teachings were disturbing “especially for Black members, who must reconcile the appalling teachings on race with their own heritage and skin colour.”

Twelve Tribes: The Church Preached Child Abuse & Slavery

Police have not ruled out that arson sparked the deadly blaze, but they did carry out a search warrant reportedly tied to the Twelve Tribe land. It is unclear whether the burning shed was thought to be where the fire began, as some witnesses have reported, or was consumed by fire as the blaze ripped through the tribal land. Investigators have ruled out downed electrical wires as the cause of the fire. Heavy snowfall that now covers much of the burned area has hindered the investigation.

Pelle addressed images on social media of the burning shed. “The fire originated somewhere in that neighborhood,” he said during the Monday press conference. “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.”

Colorado Governor Jared Polis said it may take months to determine the true cause of the extensive blaze. “What’s most important is getting it right,” Polis said Monday. “So, whether it takes a week, a month, or two months, getting it right is the most important.”

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