Feb 15, 2017

I’m pretty sure I caught a polygamous sect spying on me

A young girl sits on a bike in one of a series of photographs found on a memory card and alleged to have come from an FLDS church security team
Nate Carlisle
Salt Lake Tribune
February 15, 2017

A young girl sits on a bike in one of a series of photographs found on a memory card and alleged to have come from an FLDS church security team.

St. George • I looked up and to my left, and on the second-floor walkway in front of closed motel room doors was a woman in a prairie dress.

She clutched a camera in front of her chest. It was an expensive camera and lens — as a high a quality as what the photographers at The Salt Lake Tribune use.

I never saw her take a photograph, and later she gave her boss an explanation of what she was doing. (More on that in a moment.) But one conclusion makes the most sense: members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints were spying on me at my motel.

It's well-established that the FLDS have conducted surveillance on people. There has been testimony in legal proceedings about the network of cameras in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., collectively known as Short Creek. Every time I visit those towns, I assume I'm being watched at all times.

In 2013, photographs, apparently taken by FLDS security forces, were mysteriously sent to the Washington County Attorney's Office showing how the church spied on its own members, in and out of the towns.

Still, despite covering the FLDS off and on for 11 years, I had never actually caught the FLDS spying on me. I'm more surprised by the audacity than the act itself. Let me start with the setting.

On Saturday, I joined photographer Trent Nelson in southwest Utah to work on some articles about the FLDS. (Please watch for those in the coming days and weeks.) Nelson checked into one motel in St. George. I checked into another St. George motel that I have been staying at since at least 2007. That year, the motel was the unofficial Tribune Southwest Utah Bureau. Nelson, then-reporter Brooke Adams and I stayed there when FLDS President Warren Jeffs was tried for rape as an accomplice.

When I exited my room to go to breakfast on Sunday morning, I saw something I hadn't seen at the motel before. There were women in prairie dresses, the attire for FLDS women, cleaning the rooms. FLDS women don't often work outside the home or Short Creek. Their housekeeping jobs might be a sign of how bad things have gotten for the sect.

I went about my business that day. Nelson and I went to Short Creek to conduct an interview and take some photographs. Since we'd put in some extra hours the days before, and it was Sunday anyway, Nelson and I knocked off work early. I dropped Nelson off and pulled into my motel about 3:45 p.m.

I went into my room, used the bathroom, changed from boots to sneakers, and walked back outside to my rental car about 4 p.m. I was going to relax with a drive to the west side of Washington County.

It was as I was in my rental car, driving toward the thoroughfare that I saw the woman with the camera. She was walking in the same direction I was driving. Although I saw the camera and immediately thought she was photographing me, I didn't stop. I was kind of stunned, so I just pulled onto the thoroughfare. There I thought a little clearer, and quickly turned around and went back into the motel parking lot. There was no sign of the woman with the camera.

I took my drive, which gave me a chance to think about what just happened. I also stopped to text Nelson about what occurred. I probably would have been more upset if I had left my electronics and my notebooks in the room all day, but I learned long ago to always keep those with me or keep them locked in the trunk of the car.

I returned to the motel about 6 p.m. and went to see the staff at the front desk.

"This is going to sound crazy," was my greeting. I asked if I could review surveillance camera footage. The man at the desk said he needed to speak to his boss first.

I went back to my room and searched it best I could for recording devices. I didn't find any, but I was concerned one could be hiding. I spent the rest of my stay with towels over the alarm clock and the heating and air conditioning unit and with the microwave turned backwards.

I thought about checking out, but I was worried that would be giving in. Besides, the booking terms said no refunds.

The next morning, I kept the "Do not disturb" sign on the door and told the staff I didn't want any housekeeping. I went to the motel manager to renew my request to see the video. He was busy and didn't check the footage until Tuesday when I was already back in Salt Lake City.

Over the phone, the manager told me the cameras only caught the parking lots and he didn't see anything showing a woman taking photographs. But he also told me that word of my request had gotten around to the motel staff and he had discovered which member of the housekeeping staff was taking the photos.

The manager told me he went and asked the woman what she had been doing. She told him she had been photographing birds.

The motel is in the middle of St. George with a lot of street traffic passing it. In all the times I've stayed there, I've never observed any birds, much less ornithology wonders worthy of a photograph.

I thanked the manager for investigating for me, told him that his motel had treated me very well over the years, but that I can't stay there any more. To do so would pose risks for The Tribune and me, and perhaps for his motel, too. The manager said he was sorry to hear that.

Why would the FLDS be taking photographs of me at all?

I suppose the leaders could be hoping to gain some intelligence. Maybe they figured that if I did catch someone photographing me, I'd be intimidated.

The more likely explanation is the FLDS wasn't spying on me as much as who I might be talking to. The photographs that turned up in 2013, for example, were mostly of FLDS members in good standing. It appeared church security wanted to make sure those members were following the rules and not interacting with law enforcement or the people dubbed apostates.

Since seeing the woman with the camera Sunday, I've been taking steps to upgrade my cyber security and make sure I'm not putting any sources or The Tribune at risk. I took some steps to insure such security in 2013 when I was covering the National Security Agency and its Utah Data Center. Another secretive organization is giving me a new sense of urgency.


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