The most lawless place in America
“I wouldn’t suggest you go there by yourself,” Sam Brower cautioned me. “It is the most lawless place in America.”
Straddling the Utah and Arizona border and in the shadow of Mars-red mountains, Short Creek, the name given to the twin communities of Hildale, Utah (population 2,726), and Colorado City, Arizona (population 4,821), doesn’t look threatening. In fact, it looks just like any other small rural American town. It is, however, anything but. Sam Brower is a private eye. An unflappable giant of a man, he is used to seeing the worst America has to offer. We meet at the Merry Wives Café in Hildale under a mural depicting a polygamous idyll of three women in identical long white dresses merrily collecting fruit from a verdant field. Art does not imitate life in Hildale.
Private eye Sam Brower (above) and his colleague, former FLDS member Andrew Chatwin (below)
This is the home of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, the polygamous break-off from the mainstream LDS (Mormon) church that dominates the state of Utah. This sect, of which up to 90 percent of the community are members, is led from afar by ‘Prophet’ Warren Jeffs, a convicted child abuser currently serving life plus 20 years in a Texas jail.
It was Brower’s unwavering determination that finally brought Warren Jeffs’s decades of ritualised child abuse to light. Jeffs’s trial in 2011 shocked the country, as reams of documentation and video exposed the extreme and horrific truth. The life plus 20 sentence handed down by the judge was the maximum allowed and it is unlikely Jeffs will ever see Short Creek again.
Yet imprisonment hasn’t diminished Warren Jeffs’s influence over this pocket of America. Like a Mafia boss he rules from his cell aided by his brother, proxy prophet Lyle Jeffs. Lyle lives behind tall walls here in Hildale and delivers Warren Jeffs’s prison ‘dictations’ to the faithful, mandating all aspects of life here, from clothing and labour to food and sexual relations. Identified as an “anti-black, homophobic and anti-government hate group” by the Southern Law Poverty Centre, the FLDS is also a thriving enterprise – one built on blind faith and fear.
While Warren Jeffs’s trial generated shocking headlines nationally, the FLDS community here even today remains unaware of the reasons behind their prophet’s incarceration. Residents remain isolated by church edicts banning the internet, newspapers, television and association with non-FLDS people, on pain of exile and eternal damnation.
The FLDS’s activities go beyond censorship, though. “The FLDS is a criminal enterprise,” Brower claims. “Probably the largest criminal enterprise in the country. ”
A few hours later Brower and I are driving through Short Creek. Massive houses, built to accommodate huge polygamous families, peer over ten-foot walls lining broad, potholed, often unpaved streets. Closely spaced alleys of trailers radiate off from the road as it twists towards a hill. We are driving slowly. Brower and his colleague Andrew Chatwin, a former member of the FLDS, want to serve papers in a fraud case and are peering intently out of the windows, looking for the man whose photocopied image Brower holds among a sheaf of warrants. The streets, though, are deserted. For a community in which households often have upwards of 50 children, it is eerily quiet.
In hindsight maybe I shouldn’t have chosen a red rental car for our trip. Bower informs me that the church considers it to be the devil’s colour and it certainly alerts the town to our presence – not that we need much help in standing out. We wend our way past dozens of security cameras, which seem incongruous in such a small rural town. There is no ambiguity here. You are either FLDS or you are an apostate. The security cameras swivel as we pass. Apostates are not welcome.
The unwelcome returnees
“I was born here, on that mountain,” says Ronald Cooke. The 38-year-old gestures out of his living room window towards the Vermilion Cliffs, which rise just outside his Short Creek home. “Growing up, it felt really good,” he continues. “I put a lot of energy and time into the land here. I helped build the church over there. When you’re part of the church, well, it was all really nice then.”
At 18, Ronald left the area and moved to Phoenix, Arizona, where he worked in construction, married and became a father of three. A horrific accident at his job in 2005 changed everything. Ron was left in a coma with spinal and brain injuries. He survived, albeit with permanent and severe disabilities, and as he recuperated the idyll of his childhood home beckoned, promising a gentler, simpler life. It was not to be.
“I didn’t expect we’d be treated like this. Even my good friends from childhood now just turn and run away from us as fast
In 2008, the family arrived back in Short Creek, intending to move into the house Ronald’s brother, Seth, had been fixing up for them. The city, however, refused to hook them up to utilities. The family of five crammed into a 35-foot trailer heated by propane and tried to survive without electricity, water or functioning toilets. They thought the problems would be resolved quickly but days turned to weeks and weeks into months as the FLDS-controlled municipality dragged its feet and put up obstacle after obstacle.
“Hell, no,” Ronald shakes his head sadly. “I didn’t expect we’d be treated like this. Even my good friends from childhood now just turn and run away from us as fast as possible.”
Ronald and wife Jinjer, 39, a petite, determined California native with sparkling eyes, are sitting on the couch in their living room. Outside, cars are coming and going, crowding the car park of the FLDS storehouse opposite as church members arrive to receive rations bought with their state-issued food stamps but doled out to them by the church hierarchy.
Living without electricity, water and toilets would be an ordeal for anyone, but with Ronald’s disabilities, a catheter that needed flushing with running water and a sleep apnoea machine that needed to be hooked up to electricity, it was even worse. As months turned into years, the municipality’s embargo escalated into a campaign of harassment. The Cookes’ house was broken into, they were ordered to leave the property, Jinjer was assaulted with a metal rod and they had their lawn dug up by police officers looking for an illegal water connection – the police would later present the Cookes with a bill for the equipment they used. The message was clear: this family was not wanted here.
In 2010, Jinjer and Ronald Cooke filed a civil rights lawsuit in Arizona, alleging religious discrimination was behind the municipality’s refusal to supply them with utilities. The church wanted them out because they were not FLDS.
“There were a lot of chances for the city to fix things,” Jinjer observes. “But even after we filed the complaint, the city dragged it out.” With the FLDS occupying the key positions in all branches of the municipality, there is no obvious separation of church and state in Short Creek, only an enforcement of Warren Jeffs’s dictates. Town marshal Helaman Barlow presided as his officers arrested Seth, on charges of obstruction and theft of service, and filed a civil suit against the Cookes claiming that they were “stealing water” despite being unconnected to the mains. The cases against Seth, Jinjer and Ronald were all dismissed.
Meanwhile the family continued to haul huge water tanks across town to fill them from a public tap. The bitter cold of winter cracked the water tanks; the weight of the water bent the axle of their vehicle.
But the worst part was disposing of sewage.
“We had to put the sewage in buckets. It would splash all over us, it would get into your mouth.” The task was left to Jinjer. “My daughter tried to do it and just started puking and puking. She just couldn’t cope with it. It was an absolute nightmare.” Still they hung on, partly out of stubbornness – refusing to give up a just fight – and partly because they had no money and nowhere else to go.
Finally, in March 2014, their lawsuit reached a verdict and a jury in Phoenix awarded Jinjer and Ronald Cooke a record-breaking $5.2 million, agreeing that the two cities in Utah and Arizona controlled by the FLDS had engaged in a pattern of religious discrimination and intimidation. The judgement further recommended that the entire marshal’s office be disbanded. In August Jinjer and Ronald received their money – having settled for an undisclosed amount in return for immediate payment.
It is September and life has calmed down. “We’ve been here six years,” Jinjer says, sighing, “and it took six years to get water.”
It is far from the first time the city has tried to run off non-FLDS people, as Jinjer’s scrapbook of newspaper clippings going back to the 1980s attests – but it’s the first time they have failed.
Despite the victory, the Cookes are not sure if they will stay. “If it’s going to be like this for 20 years, I just don’t know,” says Ronald. Meanwhile, legal complications mean that the marshal’s department will not be disbanded.
The exiled lawman
Chief marshal Helaman Barlow was looking forward to marking 20 years of service in the Colorado City marshal’s office when he was called to testify in Jinjer and Ronald Cooke’s case. Under oath, he declared himself not to be a member of the FLDS, and unequivocally denied that the church had any influence or control over the marshal’s office. He was lying.
Months later, after Jeffs had issued the much-feared FLDS non-association order – tantamount to excommunication – against him and he was placed on administrative leave from his job, Barlow recanted his testimony. Claiming a crisis of conscience, and with a lawyer and partial immunity in place, he conceded the fact that the marshal’s office functioned as an arm of the church, enforcing church edicts over and above the law.
Barlow is with his wife, Enid, when we meet. They are no longer part of the church. A big man with cherry-red cheeks, Helaman boasts a huge handlebar moustache which droops impressively below his jawline. He grew it as a mark of rebellion against the FLDS, which forbids facial hair. It gives him a Santa-like air.
But his role as executioner on behalf of the church was hardly cuddly. “Lyle Jeffs would tell us a guy had to go and we did it,” he says, referring to a culture of harassment designed to drive away unwanted people. I ask him about the Cookes. “There is a church edict saying keep outsiders out, don’t make them welcome, and treat them ‘severely’,” he acknowledges. “We were praised for bringing the hard arm of law down on apostates.” Nothing was too much when it came to protecting the church.
“My conscience, my whole life, who to marry, what clothes to wear, what food to eat, what job I did – everything was decided by and done for the church”
In recanting his initial testimony, Barlow alluded to his department having been involved in: altering police reports, allowing FLDS members access to surveillance cameras around town and turning a blind eye to underage marriage.
“The church was everything to me,” Helaman explains. “My conscience, my whole life, who to marry, what clothes to wear, what food to eat, what job I did – I thought it was my church calling – everything was decided by and done for the church.” He shakes his head. For a brief moment, he looks lost. “We’d – I – would do anything to protect our standing and get to heaven.” Which included helping a fugitive on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list to evade the law.
Helaman revealed that when the FBI came looking for Warren Jeffs, investigating charges of child abuse and rape, the marshal’s department secretly passed tape recordings of meetings with law enforcement officials to Jeffs to help him get away. Helaman is careful not to say too much to me about what he did as town marshal. He says he was fired recently and is intending to file a lawsuit alleging religious discrimination.
“I don’t want to end my career just because I’m not a member of the church,” he says.
The ‘Lost Boy’
Short Creek’s child cemetery is overgrown, its tiny earthen graves barely discernable bumps in a dense tangle of weeds. We have come here to look for the grave of Rulon Barlow Jessop, a 14-year-old boy, recently killed when the steering linkage of the ten-tonne forklift he was operating broke, causing it to crush him to death. The United States Department of Labor has asked Sam Brower to investigate the death in the context of an ongoing child-labour investigation in the community.
It is not straightforward. Normally, there would be a local municipal investigation and a police inquest into illegal child labour. Not here. Within less than 24 hours of the boy’s death, the forklift had been removed without trace, the accident denied and the parents of the boy had taken all responsibility for his death.
As we stand over the grave a white pickup truck enters the cemetery and circles us, alternately jamming on the brakes and flooring the gas, in a dusty show of intimidation. “It’s the God Squad,” Sam says, chuckling, before returning his attention to the grave. “The FLDS has done well in the construction business, but their success is based entirely on child labour, which they don’t have to pay for,” he says angrily. “Boys are just used up and discarded.”
Cedric Jessop, 18, was one of these boys. He has 11 ‘mothers’ and 63 siblings. Cedric’s biological father was ‘sent away’ – exiled – by the church before Cedric could get to know him, and he was raised by the man whom he views as his father, Nathan Jessop.
Cedric spent his childhood moving between remote farms, trailers and houses large enough to accommodate 60 people, tucked together behind tall fences far from prying eyes. “Places of displacement,” Cedric tells me on the phone. Nathan was high up in the church; he needed protection – or so Cedric believed until much later, when he learned that they were actually hiding from the law. “Nathan was an OK dad,” Cedric recalls, “up until the time he got too much power in the church and started starving the kids. In my mind kids should do as parents say, but starving them, I think, is not good.” He is alarmingly tentative, as if not quite convinced, clearly conflicted about his lingering affection for a man Brower describes as “psychopathic scum” and who has just been jailed by an Idaho court for abusing nine teenage boys by starving them and locking them in a disused furnace.
“The ‘Lost Boys’ are permanently cut off from their families who, according to church decree, will never speak to their sons again. It is brutal”
At 13, Cedric was sent away from home to repent for an unknown sin. He was terrified. “I was so scared. I thought I would go to hell,” he remembers. He’d never been away from his small FLDS community before. “I really missed my mom,” he adds in a small voice.
He was placed with eight other boys, all aged between 13 and 17, in a rented house presided over by a ‘boss’ and put to work in construction in an unpaid child-labour work crew. At 13, Cedric was pipe-setting and operating heavy loaders first for a firm owned by Nathan Jessop, and then for a Hildale construction company with links to the FLDS. There he worked, as he puts it, “as hard as any 30-year-old”.
Boys like Cedric are known as ‘Lost Boys’. Ostensibly sent away to ‘repent’, they are separated from families who are forbidden from having any contact with them, and used as unpaid workers to line the coffers of FLDS construction businesses. The boys believe they can successfully atone and be allowed to return home, but this rarely happens. If they returned they would provide competition for the older men in the FLDS, who want to marry the sect’s young women. Instead they are permanently cut off from their families who, according to church decree, will never speak to their sons again. It is brutal.
They never go to school, as per a decade-old decree by Warren Jeffs forbidding it, and possess only whatever rudimentary education their parents gave them at home. They don’t have as much as a penny in their pocket.
Cedric was lucky – he’s now enrolled in high school and is rebuilding his life. But at 15, he was out of the construction crew and found himself destitute, uneducated and on the street, severed from everything he knew. “I had no friends, no one to talk to. I was so lonely. Some days I thought, ‘What am I living for?’ It tears your entire soul. It’s not easy knowing your family doesn’t care if you live or die.”
The apostate and the wife he left behind
On 9th January 2011, Lyle Jeffs summoned Lorin Holm to the church’s large meeting house in Colorado City in the middle of the family’s Sunday lunch. Surrounded by 13 of the church elite, Jeffs told Lorin that the Lord had a revelation for him. Lorin, then 54, was sent away, exiled, “to repent from afar” for an unknown sin.
Lyle instructed Lorin to send money for the church to a PO box address in Las Vegas. As is the case when people are sent away, all contact with family was to be strictly forbidden. Warren Jeffs would now be father to Lorin’s 25 children and the church would take care of his family’s needs. And with that, Lorin packed his bags and left.
Lorin had been born into the FLDS in Hildale. “No one was more of a believer than I was,” he explains. “I was crushed. I wanted my family back.”
The week before he was sent away, he had given $10,000 to the church. Now, working extra hard towards achieving the ‘repentance’ that would allow him to return and be reunited with his family, Lorin began sending $3,000 a week earned from his successful water-filtration business to the designated Nevada post box. He did this for three months.
Everyone in the FLDS community lives in fear of being banished. It is estimated that as many as 1,000 of them have been ‘sent away to repent’ in recent years, leaving their parentless children ‘assigned’ to Jeffs and the church.
Like Lorin, they go in the belief they will be allowed back when they have repented enough. All of them dutifully send funds back to the church as they diligently work towards their unattainable homecoming. Many can be found in the fracking fields of the Dakotas. Typically, they will never see their children or wives or mothers again. But they don’t know that and they don’t give up trying.
This would have been Lorin’s fate had not Helen, the first of his three wives, dared to make surreptitious, forbidden phone contact with him several months into his exile. The electricity and water were going to be cut off. Bills hadn’t been paid. The family hadn’t received any money. She didn’t know what to do. Lorin was horrified when he found out. He had been sending the church $3,000 a week and his family wasn’t getting any of it.
When Lorin discovered that Lyle was stealing the money, his belief system began to unravel. Lorin then discovered that instead of being prosecuted for righteousness, as he had believed, Warren Jeffs was being prosecuted for child abuse. Rumours he had “passed off as nonsense” long ago turned out to be true.
“If I hadn’t been kicked out, I would never have known,” Lorin observes. He had daughters in the church. He wasted no time. “I walked into my ten-bedroom house and told my children Warren was a fraud. They ran out the back door.” Their father had become an apostate.
Helen, a raven-haired beauty, has now jettisoned the mandatory long, braided hairstyles and prairie dresses of the FLDS. She invites me into the Colorado City home she once shared with Lorin and his two other wives, a polygamous family that contained 25 children.
Two pairs of little girls’ shoes sit at the door. A white grand piano stands in the corner of the all-white living room, presided over by a portrait of Lorin. Sunlight streaming in from the picture window gives the room a celestial glow.
“All of a sudden Lorin was gone, the children didn’t have their father and we were left with no financial support,” Helen tells me. “It turned out Lorin had sent thousands of dollars during that time and we never saw a penny of it.” Three months after Lorin left the church, Helen followed. “Then the whole family turned against us,” she recounts.
This is a room built to be at the heart of a large, bustling, happy family. But it is quiet now. Helen’s five children aged under 18 had no choice but to leave and live with their mother. It is not what they wanted. Like the siblings who stayed in the church, they saw their parents as evil apostates. “The children were very upset that they had to live with us. They turned against us,” says Helen, struggling to contain her emotions. “It was vicious. The oldest two would keep going back to the family [in the FLDS]. I spent most of the first few months looking for them.” She wipes tears from her eyes.
Three years later, Helen has had no contact with her children who are still in the church. “I don’t even know where my oldest son is. And I have an unmarried daughter in there. I worry about her.”
In September 2011, Lorin sued for custody of his children, naming Warren Jeffs as a defendant. Jeffs, however, refused to answer questions, pleading the Fifth Amendment when deposed at the Texas prison where he is serving his sentence.
On 20th March 2014, Lorin Holm won his custody battle. The court mandated that his children would spend part of their time with him. It was a landmark case. He was delighted. He couldn’t wait to see the children he hadn’t laid eyes on for three years, since the day they fled his heretical announcement.
But being with their father is not what Lorin’s children want. It is an impossible position for them. They are being forced to spend time outside the church with a father they see as the very personification of evil. They disrespect Lorin and Helen and take out their anger on Helen’s children, their siblings, behaving aggressively and abusively towards them. The situation has taken its toll and the marriage has come under strain. Nothing is as it was.
This used to be a “happy, family-oriented community,” Helen tells me. “I was part of this town when families were forever, for eternity. But now, it is the opposite. And there is no confidence in the father of the family. Now, it is only the prophet [Jeffs]. If he breaks a family, it is God’s will.”
The chosen few
It is dusk and we are standing on a bluff overlooking Short Creek. The cliffs glow scarlet in the setting sun. In the middle of the town below, an American flag flaps in the breeze, illuminated brightly in the last rays of light.
Brower and Chatwin scrutinise it closely. It is an unfamiliar sight here. The FLDS is anti-government, exhorting women to get food stamps and welfare to actively “bleed the beast”. But this flag is flying at the brand new school. The first school in Hildale since Jeffs outlawed schooling a decade earlier, it recently welcomed its first students, none of which belong to the FLDS – church members’ attendance remains forbidden.
While the community here bleeds the beast, the men and boys ‘sent away’ provide significant financial benefit to the prophet and FLDS.
The unpaid child-labour crews swell the coffers of some of the 149 businesses – mainly construction companies – listed in Hildale (where 85 percent of the population is under 18) on the business website Manta. The sums are not insignificant. The company Cedric worked for as a child, for example, is listed as having an annual revenue of well over $2 million.
“People will do absolutely anything to get into the United Order, to follow a convicted paedophile. Anything”
In March 2012, the divisions within the community widened when the Jeffs formed a church elite called the United Order. “Those accepted into the United Order are loyal because they are constantly trying to keep what they have,” explains Brower, “while those who don’t make the cut and are relegated to the ‘repentance’ church are loyal and obedient, trying desperately to get back in.”
An atmosphere of fear and mistrust underpins a desperation to be accepted into the United Order and its assured route to salvation. Families have been split into elite and unworthy members, forced to eat different food from one another, with the ‘unworthy’ often exiled to live in a shed.
Chatwin traces the path of a road with his finger as it dips over a shallow, dried river crevasse. “In the coldest nights of winter, we have to come here and check for boys sleeping in the creek so they don’t freeze to death,” he says. Jinjer Cooke has also set up beds in her home to take in those who have been exiled. “The worst are the minors; being abandoned by your family is really hard.”
Conditions are only getting more bizarre and extreme. “People will do absolutely anything to get into the United Order, to follow a convicted paedophile. Anything…” Jinjer says.
By decree of the prophet, there have been no sexual relations in Short Creek since he was jailed. There shall be none until he is released. If a woman wants to get pregnant, permission must first be obtained from Lyle Jeffs. If granted, her husband must watch as she is impregnated by a ‘Holy Seed Bearer’ – one of 14 men from the United Order deemed holy enough by Jeffs.
The numbers of those being ‘sent away’ have escalated. More and more women are ‘assigning’ their children to the church upon leaving. Asked to speculate about Jeffs’s motivation, those I spoke to repeatedly raised the spectre of eugenics, seeing his goal as reducing the community to a pool of church-controlled girls, impregnated by designated followers and financially sustained by both the child labour of boys and the funds sent back by the banished men. As those who have left the church struggle to rebuild their broken lives, their worry for those left behind grows.
Such is the strength of the Jeffs brothers’ spiritual chokehold on these communities that the FLDS followers seem to have forgotten they are living in the 21st century United States – where child labour is illegal, the separation of church and state is enshrined in the Constitution and religious freedom is a right for all.
The Cookes’ victory has brought the actions of the FLDS into the spotlight. And the settlement of their suit hasn’t been the end of FLDS problems. A federal civil rights lawsuit filed in 2012 is being aggressively pursued in the wake of the Cookes’ victory, as is a Department of Labor investigation into child labour, also filed in 2012. And for the first time there is action from within the community to force change. On 19th September Lorin Holm, along with other former FLDS members, filed a lawsuit to fight Jeffs’s effective appropriation of all the homes in the community.
Whatever the future holds for Short Creek, leaving feels like a relief. I wait to turn onto the main road, pausing for traffic making its way to the nearby Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks. Tourists speed past, blissfully unaware of the turmoil of the small community just a short drive away. As the community shrinks in my rear view mirror, my devil-red car becomes just one
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