CANE BEDS, Ariz. – Ben Bistline can’t see worth a darn, and a wood-trimmer took off the tip of his right index finger, which makes it hard as hell to type words that include, say, “h” or “m” or “j.”
Still, the self-taught historian keeps plugging away at a new book about the polygamous sect that straddles the Utah/Arizona state line and its infamous leader, Warren S. Jeffs.
Bistline’s previous works about the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints aren’t best-sellers. His first book, The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City, Arizona, is a roughly written chronicle that is currently No. 565,601 on Amazon.com’s sales list. A condensed version, Colorado City Polygamists: An Inside Look for the Outsider, is No. 300,614.
But for those who want insider details about the polygamous sect led by Jeffs, now facing an April trial on two sex-crime charges, and its complicated, fractious history, Bistline’s books are must-reads.
“Certainly, there is information there that can’t be had anywhere else,” said Marianne Watson, a Salt Lake historian and fundamentalist Mormon. “He is as up close and personal as you can get, being one of the people involved, yet far enough away so that is fairly accurate. I don’t see bias overwhelming it.”
Others do, though. “He definitely has an ax to grind,” said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney and FLDS historian.
The books also give a historical overview of the communal trust that owns virtually all property in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., homebase of the FLDS church. Until May 2005, the sect ran the trust and decided who could build or live in homes in the community.
The trust, now overseen by a court-appointed fiduciary, is being dismantled – a process that is of particular interest to Bistline, a plaintiff in a decade-long lawsuit against the trust in the 1980s.
Today, Bistline, 71, and his wife, Annie, 68, live in a double-wide trailer off a washboard, red-dirt road in Cane Beds, a small community two miles south of the Utah border.
Cane Beds is a live-and-let-live place; Bistline describes his far-flung neighbors as “mostly rednecks” and “ex-Creeker kids.”
As he talks, Annie sits in the kitchen, bottling peaches and filling in details when Ben stumbles for a name or date.
He moved to Short Creek, as the twin towns were once known, when he was 10. Bistline was 18 when Arizona authorities staged the infamous 1953 raid on the community, sending the men to jail and taking custody of the women and children.
Among them: then-15-year-old Annie, whom Bistline planned to marry.
Bistline was among about 40 residents of Utah left behind. He worked at a sawmill near Bryce Canyon and sent off frequent letters to Annie. When she returned to the community in 1955, they married and eventually had 16 children.
As a younger man, Bistline supported his family through timbering and construction. In those days, Bistline was a staunch supporter of “The Work,” as the fundamentalist Mormon movement was called.
“I totally believed I needed to be a polygamist to reach the highest level of heaven,” he said.
But church leaders rebuffed his requests for a second wife, and by 1975, Bistline had determined that entering plural marriage required the right family connections rather than sincere faith. Doubt set in.
“I began,” he said, “to reason things out.”
Ever so slowly. It took Bistline 20 years to give up his beliefs and break with the sect, a process aided by friends he made in the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Among them: Dale Stout, then-mayor of Hurricane; Henry Richards, then a regional area president for the LDS Church; and Max Anderson, who was working on his book Polygamy: Fact or Fiction, a criticism of fundamentalist Mormon beliefs.
“I started studying everything I could get about fundamentalist history,” Bistline said. “I could see Max was right.”
But accepting that conclusion wasn’t easy. “It was my life, my family, my relatives,” he said.
Bistline’s final parting came after sect leaders evicted his brother from a home on land owned by the FLDS church’s United Effort Plan (UEP) trust, a move he saw as mean-spirited since the brother was in the process of moving anyway.
“That was the point when I decided I didn’t want anything to do with these nincompoops,” said Bistline, who joined the LDS Church 15 years ago.
About the same time, the UEP trustees published a new list of beneficiaries and Bistline found his name had been removed.
In 1987, Bistline and about 30 other community residents, all apostates from the faith, sued to claim homes they’d built on trust land. Eleven years and $1 million later, the group won what Bistline considers a partial victory.
The court granted the plaintiffs the right to stay in their homes or negotiate with UEP trustees to buy them out.
“I could live in that house as long as I lived, but then they could evict Annie,” Bistline said.
That, in part, is why he agreed in 2003 to a settlement with the UEP, which sold him the mobile home “real cheap” and helped the couple move to Cane Beds, where some of their children had settled.
Of the Bistlines’ 14 living children, none belong to the FLDS faith; Jeffs kicked out the last one about 2 1/2 years ago.
A handmade history
Both of Bistline’s books focus heavily on the protracted property dispute. But they also provide a who’s-who overview of the sect and help connect the dots between past and current events.
Bistline spent 10 years compiling the first book. He first sold about 500 handmade copies – Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff bought a couple three years ago at the first polygamy summit in St. George.
“It was one of my first in-depth views [of the FLDS sect] from someone who had been in that community,” Shurtleff said. “It was very helpful, very educational – hard to read, but I stuck with it.”
Shurtleff’s office used material from Bistline’s book to help craft its primer on polygamy.
Bistline said he first decided to chronicle the community’s history because no one else was likely to do it. But as Jeffs came to power, he wanted the younger generation to have facts that might “free them from the bondage they are under.”
“I want to try to get the truth out to anyone interested in it to help free them,” Bistline said. Jeffs has “gotten rid of all the old-timers, people who knew what happened, what the history was.”
In Bistline’s view, Jeffs – who grew up in the Salt Lake Valley and moved to Hildale in 1998 – “never did have any love for the UEP like those of us who grew up in it and supported it.”
‘I had so many questions’: His newest work centers directly on Jeffs, Bistline said, offering an explanation of how he came to power and “how the people are brainwashed to believe what he says.”
Bistline’s books are now published by Agreka Books, a Scottsdale, Ariz., company.
He uses a spare bedroom as an office, spending a couple of hours at a time dictating his thoughts into a computer that an assistant later edits.
“That’s about all I can stand,” said Bistline, who also has heart trouble.
He expects to finish the book next summer, after prosecutions in Utah and Arizona are finished.
By then, there likely will be a new chapter to add on the UEP Trust as fiduciary Bruce R. Wisan moves ahead with plans to parcel out lots to residents. Wisan is asking residents to pay as much as $20,000 for those property deeds.
“What has been done is good,” Bistline said. “It’s freeing the people, giving them their homes so they can’t get kicked out. It needs to be absolutely broken up and distributed among the beneficiaries.”
But Bistline is critical of Wisan’s approach to running the trust, particularly his proposal that residents pay for their lots. He calls that “a bunch of B.S.”
“Paying taxes is as far as it should go,” Bistline said. “Is the reason he wants that $20,000 to pay his salary? Those people shouldn’t have to pay . . . for their homes when they already built them. I think it’s extortion.”
Bistline hopes he is around to see the trust dissolved. A year ago, he figured his time was short – and even told his family he didn’t expect to live until spring.
“Obviously, I made it,” said Bistline. Today, he is feeling better than ever, buoyed in part by those who have told him they’ve found his books educational.
“What makes me really feel good is there have been a few people who’ve come out of there and they told me, ‘I had so many questions, and when I read your book it answered all those questions for me,’ ” Bistline said. “That really makes me feel good, that I could help any of them see what was happening.”