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Polygamous group slowly loses influence in longtime hometown

In this Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 photo, from left, Esther Bistline, Angie Bistline, Lydia Ann Richter and Norma Richter gather to pose for photographs in Colorado City, Ariz. The community on the Utah-Arizona border has been home for more than a century to a polygamous sect that is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In this Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 photo, Donia Jessop holds her mayoral campaign sign outside her store in Colorado City, Ariz. Campaign signs are unusual in a town where elections have long been quietly decided behind the scenes, with hand-picked men from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints running unopposed. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

HILDALE, Utah (AP) — In a place where political contests are virtually unknown, the campaign signs offer the latest hint that a polygamous group is losing its grip on this remote red rock community straddling the Utah-Arizona border.

“For Hildale mayor vote Donia,” reads one sign featuring Donia Jessop, a candidate pictured with a contemporary hairstyle and a red business suit.

The signs hanging from fences and walls are unusual because elections here have long been decided behind the scenes by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that has made its home among the rocks for more than a century and hand-picked men to run unopposed.

Just five years ago, Jessop was a member of the group also known as the FLDS. She wore the sect’s traditional prairie dresses and her hair in a conservative up-do. Now she is among a swelling number of former members who have returned to buy foreclosed homes, open businesses and try to turn Hildale into a place that resembles a typical Western town, not a cloistered religious community.

The competitive elections scheduled for Tuesday could deal a crushing blow to traditionalists if the 367 registered voters elect Jessop and the non-FLDS candidates for two city council seats. It would be another in a series of recent changes to shake up Hildale and its sister city, Colorado City, Arizona, which have a combined population of nearly 7,800.

In this Friday, Oct. 27, 2017 photo, Norma Richter touches a collection of portraits of prophets of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, including Warren Jeffs, bottom right, on a wall at her home in a community on the Utah-Arizona border. “We still have a faith. We don’t follow a man. We have a very good man as a leader, but we follow a religion,” Richter said. “They have not conquered us. They can take everything but they can’t conquer our spirit.” (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The government-ordered evictions of sect families from nearly 150 homes forced many members to seek refuge in trailers around town or in different cities across the West. The town governments and the police are being watched closely by court-appointed monitors after a jury found them guilty of civil rights violations. And a food-stamp fraud case led 10 people to plead guilty and exacerbated a leadership void.

Jessop and other former sect members hail the changes as long-overdue progress that will help the community break free from the reign of sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving life in prison in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

“The things that were happening in the church were so destructive. And now that destruction can stop, and we can start to rebuild,” Jessop said. “This city is completely at a standstill until we change the city government.”

But FLDS members believe the town they built is being destroyed. Norma Richter, a 50-year-old mother of 13 kids, said the changes overtaking the town feel like a “cultural cleansing,” echoing a common refrain among church members and sympathizers.

This Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 photo shows the area on the Utah state line in Hildale, Utah. The community on the Utah-Arizona border has been home for more than a century to a polygamous sect that is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. The community is undergoing a series of changes as the sect’s control of the town slips away amid government evictions and crackdowns. The change is hailed as progress by some but considered cultural cleansing by members of the religious group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

At the heart of the split is Jeffs, who has been jailed in Utah or Texas continually since 2006.

His followers consider him a prophet and believe he was the victim of religious persecution based on fabricated allegations. Former sect members and outsiders consider him a dangerous man who tore apart families and committed sex crimes.

Jeffs is “a very sick man” who controls the people through “fear of not making it to the highest celestial kingdom of glory,” Jessop said. She notes that it was he and other leaders who set the evictions in motion more than a decade ago when they opted not to challenge in court allegations of mismanagement of the church trust, leading Utah and Arizona governments to take it over.

His supporters are steadfast in their beliefs. Jeffs is “still is the only man on this earth that can receive revelation from heavenly father for the people,” FLDS member Lori Barlow said. “That’s a pretty important link to me.”

Authorities say Jeffs still sends some guidance from prison, but Richter says followers have not heard his voice for years and that it’s unclear who is in charge of the church locally.

One of Jeffs’ brothers, Lyle Jeffs, ran the day-to-day operations until last year, when he was arrested in the food-stamp case. He fled home confinement while awaiting trial and was captured in South Dakota after a year on the run. He faces up to five years in prison.

Amid the leadership void, and with so few people left in town, followers no longer meet for regular worship services, Richter said. Marriages that are arranged by the religion’s prophet are on hold until Jeffs returns, Richter said.

Members of the FLDS believe the evictions were accelerated this year to clean out voter rolls and rig the elections to usher in the outside candidates. The evictions stem from an order by a Utah state judge who became fed up with people not paying $100-a-month occupancy fees.

Sect members refused to pay the fees because they believe the money was being used by attorneys overseeing the church trust to take legal action against the FLDS. They also believe the trust should still belong to them.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 photo, Warren Bistline, left, and Freddy Richter play in the north reservoir in Colorado City, Ariz. The community on the Utah-Arizona border has been home for more than a century to a polygamous sect that is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Across town, many large houses with enough room for plural families stand empty as a community board in charge of the trust works out redistribution of the evicted homes. Others are in disrepair, a result of an edict from Jeffs in the early 2000s, when he ordered a halt to all construction in the Utah-Arizona community to focus on building a compound in Texas.

After seeing so many of her fellow church members evicted, Barlow and her husband want to buy a home but fear they won’t find anything suitable in other towns in the region for their five kids and 14 cows.

“Everything I ever needed was here,” Barlow said. “The very idea that I’m looking to buy a house somewhere else is shocking to me.”

When authorities recently served an eviction notice at the sect’s meetinghouse, Barlow and Richter hugged and cried as they recalled the building’s history and all the funerals and services held inside. The trust leaders made a deal to stave off eviction, but it served as more evidence of the sect’s waning power.

Other signs of the sect’s dwindling presence abound. Public elementary and high schools that reopened several years ago are now bustling with some 500 kids, despite most FLDS families home-schooling their children.

In this Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017 photo, Shirlonna Barlow poses for a photo in Colorado City, Ariz. The community on the Utah-Arizona border has been home for more than a century to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamous sect that is an offshoot of mainstream Mormonism. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Women and girls in prairie dresses used to be seen all around town — pumping gas, riding horses and chatting. Now they are harder to find. Several new businesses are opening, including a brewery and hotels.

Incumbent Mayor Philip Barlow, a member of the FLDS and lifelong Hildale resident, said people are coping with change by “doing what they have to do.” He acknowledges that having a challenger is new but says he will accept whatever the voters decide.

Jessop wants to make the town an accepting place for everyone. She said she would love to rekindle fond memories of growing up there with her two mothers and 25 siblings.

“I would love to see families reunited,” she said. “I want them to stay. … They are my sisters, my brothers, my aunts, cousins, uncles. They are my people.”

Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream Mormon church abandoned the practice in 1890 as Utah moved toward statehood. State law prohibits polygamy in Utah today, but prosecutors have long had a policy of not enforcing it against consenting adults unless there is another crime involved such as child abuse, domestic violence or fraud.

Jessop left the FLDS four years ago with her husband and 10 kids over unrest about how Jeffs was running the group. She and her husband later brought a “sister wife” into the family, and the two women now raise their children and run the family business together.

When she returned, Jessop bought one of the foreclosed houses and reopened a corner gas station as a convenience store. If elected, she would be the town’s first female mayor.

Richter said FLDS members won’t cower no matter what happens at the ballot box.

“We have a very good man as a leader, but we follow a religion,” she said. “They have not conquered us. They can take everything, but they can’t conquer our spirit.”

About the author

Brady McCombs

24 Comments

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  • Left to their own devices – good people do good things.

    Left to their own devices – bad people do bad things.

    One of the ways to get good people to do, support, or tolerate bad things is through irrational convictions such as religion.

  • Two things.

    The failure to pay the occupancy fee is a small example of what happens when religion puts itself above the law.

    “Jeffs is “a very sick man” who controls the people through “fear of not making it to the highest celestial kingdom of glory,” Jessop said.”

    Now where have I heard that story before? someone was trying to sell me something, I think.

  • Religion: I obey therefore I am accepted
    Gospel: I am accepted therefore I obey

    Good thing Christianity is a relationship with Jesus

  • Obedience, submission to another’s authority, whether it be offered in return for acceptance or to maintain acceptance is demeaning and unworthy of a human being – it is, after all, slavery – and whether it is imposed or sought makes no difference to the slave owner.

    And when the slave owner is dead, it makes no difference to those who claim to act on his behalf.

  • no it isn’t silly! There is nothing wrong with being obedient to the One who created you and wants you with Him until eternity.

  • If such a being existed it would not be worthy of obedience.

    Fortunately the lack of support for its existence through valid evidence and/or deductive logic renders the possibility so minuscule that the only rational response is dismissal.

  • It’s obvious that you have never met him, but that does not mean He does not exist, my friend

  • Correct – but, as with alien abductions, the fact that some people think that they have had an experience doesn’t mean that they have.

    Faced with extraordinary claims sceptical people will search for evidence and/or rational deduction which supports the belief. When neither is found the most likely explanation is that the believer is mistaken.

  • Sandi – that’s just plain silly.

    But in case you think it isn’t give me a reason (Bible verses are not reasons) why you think it true.

    PS – If a perfect god was responsible for creating me I’d have no choice but to be perfect also – wouldn’t I?
    After all – a perfect god cannot do/be imperfect – can it?
    Therefore – either your god is not perfect or I am.
    Simple fact is that I’m not perfect (we can argue about how imperfect another time).
    As I’m imperfect your god would also be imperfect – If I were perfect then atheism would be true.

    Simples.

  • this is why I know it’s true Give.

    Psalm 139: 13 For you formed my inward parts;

    you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.

    14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.[a]

    Wonderful are your works;

    my soul knows it very well.

    15 My frame was not hidden from you,

    when I was being made in secret,

    intricately woven in the depths of the earth.

    16 Your eyes saw my unformed substance;

    in your book were written, every one of them,

    the days that were formed for me,

    when as yet there was none of them.

    You aren’t perfect just like none of us are because of sin in the world.

  • Sandi – it’s not knowledge – it’s a poem.

    You don’t “know”; you “believe” and your belief is without evidential support or rational validation. Both the evidence and reason say your belief is wrong.

    Do you agree with my reasoning that leads to the fact that your god is imperfect? If not – why not? (and again – bible verses are not valid arguments).

    Do you really think that a just, loving god would condemn his creation because one person did something that he told them not to do – even though
    a) until they did it they didn’t know right from wrong and
    b) it knew all along what would happen and still set it up.

  • It’s scripture Give.
    Yes.
    Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

  • Sandi – I don’t have a problem with you calling it scripture – the problem is that you seem to regard it as always right.

    It isn’t, much of it is unsupported by evidence or reason and some of it is just plain wrong – wrong as in it disagrees with itself, is shown to be contrary to evidence or defies the laws of physics etc.. That’s why quoting biblical verses may make you feel good but makes those who don’t share your belief think that your beliefs cannot be right.

    Every time you quote the bible to an unbeliever you encourage their unbelief. Now, if you rate feeling good above being an effective evangelist, that’s OK by me. But you need to have a better reason than “knowing” to answer the question as to why you assume that the bible isthe word of a god but not the Qu’ran, the Vedas or the Book of Mormon.

    Edited to add – the quote you provide is silly. It is nonsense. Just because a writer says something doesn’t make it so – otherwise Harry Potter is real and so is Granny Wetherwax. And being in the bible is not different unless you can prove, other than by quoting the bible, that it has the authority and accuracy of your god.

  • Read it and understand it. Not the bits someone points you at, not the explanations that sound so authoritative – read it as though you had no idea what it was about.

    It makes claims that archaeology, cosmology, anatomy, physiology, palaeontology and biology demonstrate to be wrong.
    It contradicts itself.
    It is shot through with unlikely, unsupported and unreasonable stories.

    It is not “always right”.

  • Look up “sunk cost”.

    Your investment in your beliefs is massive, but throwing good money after bad is never sensible.

  • Hebrews 11:1 King James Version (KJV)
    11 Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
    It is a gift of God

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