As I photograph the Schleicher County Courthouse in Eldorado, a voice behind me says, “Nice building, huh? It’s the same kind of limestone that the polygamists used for their temple.”
Surprised, I turn to see a man maybe in his late forties, five feet away but coming closer, and I ask him, “Have you been to the compound, or talked to anyone there?” The sunshine is intense as we study each other, standing on the tended lawn. I squint but he wears sunglasses, his hands are on his hips, and he seems fit, as if he might be employed in construction.
“Never been there,” he says, “but I’ve driven by, and I’ve seen pictures. Did you know that they have a quarry on their land? They did all the excavation and stone work themselves, putting that temple up, and it’s beautiful, very white—not with all the yellow you see in this stone.” He points to the courthouse.
“So, you’ve never met these people.”
“They kept to themselves, never bothered anyone. Sometimes the men came into town, to trade. You know, I can see their side, because they were just practicing their religion. But they were breaking the law. Polygamy is against the law!” He laughs, and adds, “Man, what a mess.”
Both the “mess” and the artful labor of the YFZ colony in Eldorado were noticed by Flora Jessop, who twice fled the FLDS compound located in Colorado City, Arizona. She finally made a complete break at age eighteen, though at the time she was married (against her will) to her nineteen-year old cousin Philip Jessop. Afterwards she suffered a horrific adjustment that included the use of cocaine, because she was, in her own words, “socially retarded,” having few skills, given her limited education in FLDS schools. Eventually, she organized The Child Protection Project to help kids transition from polygamous families and to bring their experiences to the public’s attention.
According to reports published in the Eldorado Success newspaper in 2004, it would seem that Flora Jessop helped Texas officials to identify the purchaser of the YFZ acreage, David S. Allerd, as a surrogate of Warren Jeffs; she also pointed out that the homes going up within the compound—large and complex cabins—were designed for polygamous families, and were similar to the architecture in Colorado City. The image below shows the three original cabins photographed by a pilot flying over the YFZ compound. More images.
At times, Flora Jessop has been accused of being a “publicity hound.” Such attacks on her credibility, according to the Los Angeles Times Magazine, seem part and parcel with attempts to portray polygamous religious sects as mere eccentric lifestyles, or to treat the abuse endured by FLDS women and children with “flippancy.”
Jessop, however, is persistent, especially as an advocate for her sister Ruby Jessop, forced into marriage and raped. Ruby’s plight was briefly chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven.” The book primarily focuses on the murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month old daughter by FLDS zealots, but an excerpt on Ruby Jessop’s ordeal and Flora’s activism on her behalf can be read here. In summary, the excerpt suggests that if you are born into a religious sect it is almost impossible to have abusive behavior committed against you recognized, investigated, and prosecuted. Perhaps the raid of the YFZ compound can serve as a pivotal and constructive change in legal policy …
Traveling home to Lubbock, less than an hour into a nearly four-hour drive, I decide to stop in San Angelo, 45 miles northeast of Eldorado, where the trials regarding the YFZ children are ongoing. Once there, I find my way downtown without trouble. Just a few turns and I arrive at City Hall and a parking lot. Now late afternoon, about 4 PM, I hurry to take a few photos of the main downtown blocks and buildings, including the courthouse, a grand structure where I briefly watch men working on the fountain.
Debating how best to respond, at last I say, “Sure.” I open my wallet. On the cop’s request, I remove my driver’s license from its plastic-covered slot. He glances at my picture, and then apologizes, trying to smile: “We’re having some security concerns, because of the … incident.” Obviously, he’s uncomfortable, perhaps not wanting to offend me with any reference to polygamy.
“Oh, that Eldorado group,” I answer.
“Right,” he nods, again momentarily grinning, and radios my information to a dispatcher. I wait at the passenger window of his vehicle, wondering if I can be held in custody until he’s satisfied that I’m not a threat; I’m dark haired, olive-skinned, and sometimes mistaken for someone of Middle Eastern descent. Soon after 9-11, I was twice patted down by airport security, before being allowed onto my flights.
Prompted by the cop, I start talking about my life and views of Lubbock, where I’ve lived for almost twenty-four years, and he fidgets. “Just go about your business,” he finally tells me, while simultaneously the dispatcher says, over the car’s radio, “I don’t have anything on her.”
Though I gave short shrift, in previous sections, to the civil liberties of the YFZ community, my encounter with the San Angelo cop reminds me of the erosions of constitutional rights since 9-11. As the fellow I met on the lawn of the Eldorado courthouse said, there is “another side” to this story, and it is true that overwhelming force was used in the YFZ raid. Residents of compound took their own photographs and videos, which show police in military gear, riding in armored personnel vehicles and sporting automatic weapons. Some of this media is available here. According to the Deseret News, lawyers for the FLDS have petitioned Texas officials to “preserve all evidence” of the raid, and are considering federal lawsuits over “lack of due process” in removing children to foster care. (More here.)
The raid may also challenge the “wall of separation” between Church and State. If the FLDS is indeed a legitimate religion, then it does deserve constitutional protections. Keep in mind, however, that the FLDS practices, what it calls, “bleeding the beast”—that is, draining funds from the U.S. government. The bleeding in Texas cannot be staunched, and already the costs of the raid, housing of women and children, trials, and DNA testing are estimated to be near a million dollars. A column by Elaine Freidman, available through the Institute for Humanist Studies website, describes how the tactic is typically used:
“Bleeding the beast” refers to a similar practice implemented by founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and his successor Brigham Young during the height of Mormon “persecution.”
“The beast” is not too bright, as it actually enables welfare fraud through its ungodly laws. Since it will only legally recognize one wife, all the other wives are legally single women with large broods to support. The government, recognizing their plight, generously provides these women with welfare payments and food stamps.
Given all we know about the raid and the FLDS, just where are lines protecting freedoms to be drawn? Jon Krakauer said in the closing paragraphs of “Under the Banner of Heaven,” “Accepting the essential inscrutability of existence, in any case, is surely preferable to its opposite: capitulating to the tyranny of intransigent belief.” In this inscrutable, chaotic time, who can be sure that protections from search and seizure—and other rights—will prevail, or if the tyranny of religious practices, enslaving women and children, finally might end? These days it seems that even the humblest investigation into a critical event, like the raid of the YFZ compound, can bring you into the maelstrom, where the forces of freedom and coercion are unbounded, whirling, leaving you unsure where you’ve been and what is ahead.