Sep 21, 2015

Fatal floods expose a delicate balance in polygamous towns in Utah and Arizona

September 21, 2015
Business Insider
Lindsay Whitehurst

The secluded polygamous towns tucked between stunning red-rock cliffs have survived for more than 100 years, despite Utah and Arizona's efforts to dismantle them and expose abuses.

After at least 12 women and children were killed by flash floods, two of the fathers of the victims made a rare public plea for Utah to leave them alone, laying bare authorities' delicate dance between investigating abuses and alienating the very people they're trying to help in the isolated communities of Hildale and Colorado City on the Utah-Arizona line.

With cameras rolling, the two grief-stricken fathers read statements that pivoted from the loss of their families to what one called "religious genocide" against people who consider notorious, jailed leader Warren Jeffs a prophet of God.

Sheldon Black Jr. and Joseph N. Jessop said their families have been evicted from their homes, leaving them scrambling for a place to live "because they will not forsake their religious beliefs."

Utah seized the trust that holds most of the group's homes and property a decade ago amid allegations of mismanagement, and state-appointed managers recently began evicting people after residents refused to pay $100-a-month occupancy fees for years, depriving the trust of more than $4 million.

Officials say religion has nothing to do with the evictions, but leaders acknowledge that government officials are usually shunned in the community. Utah Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox said his welcome when he visited the town after the devastating flash floods was an encouraging sign.

"If there's a silver lining that's coming out of this, it's that they're letting us help," he told lawmakers.

Polygamy is a legacy of the early Mormon church, and while the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned the practice over a century ago, tens of thousands of people in radical offshoot sects throughout the western U.S. still believe it brings exaltation in heaven. One of those groups settled in the red-rock outpost in the early 1900s, hoping its remoteness would shield them from official, prying eyes.

In the years since, the two states straddled by the twin polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, developed a long history of unsuccessfully trying to stamp out polygamy.

A 1953 raid in the area, then known as Short Creek, turned into a public relations disaster for Arizona authorities after news photographers' pictures of children being torn from their mothers' arms stirred up public sympathy. The raid also left scars that still linger for families in the two towns.

As the decades passed, Utah authorities shied away from prosecuting consenting adult polygamists in favor of trying to build trust and investigate serious allegations of things like underage marriages.

The turmoil increased after Jeffs took over. In 2008, there was another raid, this one in Texas, that briefly removed hundreds of children from their families. But this one also turned up solid evidence that Jeffs had married underage girls he considered brides and he's now serving a life sentence behind bars in Texas.

Nevertheless, Jeffs wields considerable influence in Hildale and Colorado City, with about 6,000 of the 7,700 residents still considering him their leader. In town, you can often tell his followers by their prairie-like outfits and distinctive hairdos.

In recent years, Jeffs' edicts have grown increasingly bizarre, and with the help of faithful leaders on the ground, he's excommunicated a growing number of people from the sect.

While some ex-members have left the remote red-rock outpost, others have chosen to stay and open long-neglected lines of communication with the outside world. Parents who were ordered by Jeffs to pull their children out of public school have now returned them to classrooms.

The towns have been divided along religious lines. While the tragic flooding briefly eased those deep divisions during the early search, they soon snapped back into place.

These days, other polygamists are turning to the courts to make the case that they should be free to marry who they choose. Kody Brown and his four wives, known for the TV show "Sister Wives," won a landmark victory when a federal judge struck down key parts of Utah's law banning plural marriage, removing the threat of arrest for those families.

Utah is appealing the ruling, but some advocates say de-criminalizing the practice could help bring more polygamists out of the shadows.

Typically, the people in Colorado City and Hildale avoid outsiders and run from cameras, but those habits changed in the immediate aftermath of the flood, including the grieving fathers' news conference. The two men also expressed their gratitude for authorities' help with the search, but it remains to be seen whether the disaster will bring any long-term changes.

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