Three wives will guarantee you a place in paradise. The Taliban? No: welcome to the rebel Mormons
As a polygamous husband is jailed and traumatised women start to speak out, a siege mentality grips a fundamentalist Mormon sect, reports Julian Coman from Hildale, Utah
High in the mountains above the most notorious polygamous community in America, two grim-faced men on horseback have come to meet – but not welcome – me. “This is private property,” said one. “No pictures. You have got to leave right now.”
The men are blocking the way to a deep man-made cave. Here, according to the few locals prepared to talk, the elders of an eccentric breakaway Mormon sect have prepared a last stand against further interference by Utah state authorities – stockpiling food and, some say, weapons, as if in readiness for a siege.
The godfearing polygamists of Hildale and neighbouring Colorado City, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) have good reason to be jumpy.
Last week, for the first time in 40 years, the state of Utah jailed a local resident for bigamy. Rodney Holm, a powerful local police officer, will serve a year in prison. He was also found guilty of two charges of sexual misconduct with a minor.
The communities’ church leaders, who have brazenly flouted US law for decades, were astonished by the verdict. These isolated, insular mini-theocracies, 60 miles south of the Grand Canyon, have resisted change for 50 years. Now there is revolution in the air. Perhaps emboldened by the authorities’ decision to prosecute Holm, some of the wives who have suffered as a result of polygamous marriages are suddenly speaking out.
Elderly women are revealing that resistance networks of safe houses in Las Vegas and Phoenix have been used to smuggle girls to freedom.
Meanwhile, the large home of the community’s leader, Warren Jeffs – known throughout the area as “The Prophet” and also under legal investigation – is guarded by young men who are often armed and interrogate strangers as to why they are there.
Dissident churchgoers claim that girls are granted to men by Mr Jeffs as a reward, and taken away as a punishment. Illegal weddings involving girls of 14 and 15, conducted by Mr Jeffs, are claimed to have been commonplace.
According to fundamentalist Mormon theology, Hildale’s male residents need a minimum of three wives to secure a place in paradise. Sisters are often required to marry the same man. Mr Jeffs himself has 12 wives.
“What goes on in that place is nothing less than sexual slavery,” says Flora Jessop, the daughter of a polygamist who as a teenager rejected her upbringing. “At 16, after I rebelled, I was given an alternative: a forced marriage or the mental asylum,” she claims. “The local police and judges were in cahoots with the church.”
Few women in Hildale or Colorado City are encouraged or able to look beyond their tightly controlled circumstances. Absolute obedience to husbands is stressed from childhood. Formal education for girls is curtailed in the early teens. Wives have no access to bank accounts. Newspapers are never seen. Access to television is often banned and always monitored.
“The idea of leaving, to go to an unknown world which you have been taught is evil, is terrifying,” said Miss Jessop. “And for older women, there are the children you would leave behind.”
In the end she fled Hildale with the help of a woman known in Utah as “Auntie Jennie”, who lives in the nearby town of St George and has helped more than 30 girls to escape a polygamous marriage.
In the middle of a hot desert afternoon in Hildale, “sister-wives”, as spouses of the same husband are known, are shopping for groceries in the Foodtown Co-operative. The townspeople eschew many of the trappings of modernity and all the women are dressed in the same blue and pink ankle-length dresses worn by the wives of early 19th-century pioneers, their hair braided in an identical style.
The sect has been a constant embarrassment to the mainstream Mormons of Salt Lake City, who renounced polygamy in 1890. It is also an affront to Utah’s constitution, which outlaws bigamy.
Until now, however, the apparent fear of a Waco-style confrontation with the Hildale polygamists, which the authorities fear could culminate in a serious loss of life, has seen them left alone. Now the truth is coming out.
Last week, four women who fled Hildale and Colorado City were invited on to the Oprah Winfrey Show. The rest of America is suddenly learning about what a senior FLDS leader describes as “our peculiar ways”.
Ben Bistline, a longtime Hildale resident, says that young males are routinely driven out by the elders – often without money or prospects – to reduce sexual competition. Reformers are thrown out of their homes, which are all on church-owned land. “Do these old men really believe the theology?” asks Mr Bistline.
“No. I think they know that this system can satisfy their sexual urges and offer them young women who would never otherwise be within their reach.”
Unlike the young men, girls are jealously watched, guarded and then married off against their will. “If you run away as a minor, they will hunt for you,” explains Miss Jessop, whose sister, Ruby, was caught as she was about to flee. “She was about to be married off at the age of 14. I was to pick her up at night in Colorado City, but when I arrived the plan had been discovered.” Utah child protection officers left Ruby to her fate. Now 17, she has one child and is pregnant with a second.
As the siege mentality grows in the town, rebels find life ever more uncomfortable. Pam Black, one of those invited to appear on Oprah, and her 70-year-old mother were recently evicted from their homes by the leaders of the church.
Pam now lives in a trailer across the city limits, protected by the eldest of her 13 children. “I was creating trouble for the leaders and I mean to keep on doing so,” she says. “My daughter is a polygamist wife who has given birth to seven children in 11 years. She’s on Prozac, as are many, many women here.
“My sister’s husband married a 12-year-old girl. Another 17-year-old girl is being refused a hysterectomy she needs for medical reasons. Her husband told her she had to produce at least three more children for him. This place is like a mixture of the Taliban and the Mafia. It runs on intimidation, ignorance of the outside world and fear.”
Some of the “sister-wives” think differently. Mary Batchelor, who married into a polygamous family, believes that the women of such a family often become very close. “Polygamy offers many challenges,” says Mrs Batchelor, “but also many rewards.” Pam Black rolls her eyes at this kind of talk.
By evening in Hildale, children can be seen everywhere. One polygamous family uses a bus for transport. Open trucks carry other families around the town. The antique dresses make it an old-fashioned scene, almost quaint. But a twilight visit to the chapel where Prophet Jeffs preaches is a reminder of less benign forces. As I approach, a white truck cuts me off. “Can I help you with something?” asks the driver. Within seconds another truck has arrived. “This is private property. You can’t come here.”
For now, outsiders are still kept at bay. But with Rodney Holm in prison, the attorney general demanding financial and other records from Warren Jeffs, and traumatised women appearing on Oprah, secrecy is no longer an option for the defenders of the faith in Hildale and Colorado City.