Flash flood in small polygamous community opens old wounds

Sheldon Black
Sheldon Black, Jr., lowers his head as one of his two surviving sons looks on during a news conference Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015, in Colorado City, Ariz. Black expressed his gratitude for the outpouring of support after his wife and children were swept away in a flash food Monday. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

HILDALE, Utah (AP) — Two smashed cars covered in mud and a few bunches of wildflowers arranged nearby mark the few visual reminders that nine children and three women died when flash flooding ripped through this small polygamous town on the Utah-Arizona border.

Small makeshift memorials have only started emerging. There are no public plans for a memorial service, and few outward signs of grief.

There is just red mud on roadways and a strange, quiet divide in a community that holds non-believers at arm’s length.

The deaths briefly united followers and defectors of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs as they scrambled to find survivors from the Monday flood. But the animosity soon returned.

“Though there seemed to be some mingling, the lines of segregation were pretty obvious,” said Dowayne Barlow, who left the church three years ago but recently returned to Hildale, Utah, a town ruled by the sect.

In this secretive religious group run by Jeffs, funerals are handled discreetly. If you’re not a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS, you’re not welcome.

The majority of the 7,700 residents in the sister towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, belong to the sect. Hundreds of others have ties to FLDS members, though they are no longer followers.

Members are regularly ostracized for transgressions. Some of them, usually young men, repent and may return. Others are barred for life. Many have left on their own, deciding not to follow the strict rules or a leader serving a life term in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow, an FLDS member and Dowayne Barlow’s cousin, has demurred when asked about memorials, saying the community was allowing the families to mourn. He emphasized the desire for privacy, displayed in the little information released about the victims or the three young survivors.

But Dowayne Barlow and other former members hope more is done to honor the victims. They started by hanging drawings and messages of sympathy done by schoolchildren at a town park Thursday. They are hoping to organize a public memorial next week.

“We don’t want this to be an unnoticed event,” Barlow said.

Non-fundamentalists also held a modest candlelight vigil Wednesday that no sect members appeared to attend. Until then, the desperate search was the only way for some people, including Willie Jessop, to honor their loved ones.

“The only way we can show it, is to find ’em,” he said.

Jessop, a former FLDS spokesman and Jeffs bodyguard who left the sect in 2011, said two of the women who died — Josephine and Naomi Jessop — are his cousins. He described them as devout, energetic women with a rare spark.

“They were people that had an uncanny ability to be very happy” despite trying circumstances, he said.

The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven. Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream faith prohibits it today.

The sect has a deep-seeded loathing of government and outsiders, a belief that stems from government raids in Hildale in 1953 and at a sect compound in Eldorado, Texas, in 2008. Hundreds of children were taken from their families by authorities enforcing bigamy laws and, in Texas, allegations of child sexual abuse.

Though Jeffs has been in jail since 2006, it is believed he rules the sect through letters and phone calls from prison. One of his brothers, Lyle Jeffs, ensures the leader’s commands are carried out. To the faithful, roughly estimated at about 6,000, Warren Jeffs is a prophet who speaks for God.

Utah and Arizona ban polygamy, but prosecutors rarely enforce laws unless they can prove other crimes, such as child abuse.

The sect’s desire for autonomy and its distrust of government was on display at a Thursday news conference given by two men who lost wives and children. They expressed gratitude for support while also decrying what they called religious persecution.

Sheldon Black Jr. quietly read from a statement, which didn’t mention by name his missing 6-year-old son, Tyson, or his wife Della Black and four daughters who died. He did say a private funeral would be held.

But he quickly turned to evictions ordered by officials running a church trust seized a decade ago by the state of Utah. The evictions came after residents refused to pay $100-a-month occupancy fees for years, depriving the trust of more than $4 million.

“We ask that this religious genocide stop,” Black said.

Joseph N. Jessop, who lost five children and his wives Josephine and Naomi Jessop, who were also sisters, said Thursday that he hoped he and fellow church members would get their homes back and be allowed “to live our religion in peace.”

Despite the lingering chasm, some see encouraging signs. Government officials are usually shunned, but Lt. Gov. Spencer J. Cox was welcomed to town Tuesday.

“I want you to know that if there’s a silver lining that’s coming out of this, it’s that they’re letting us help,” Cox later told lawmakers.


Associated Press reporter Michelle Price contributed to this report.

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