No warm welcome for FLDS returnee

Fiduciary decision: The court official gave back a house to an exile who says the church took it

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. – Despite his reception, Ezra Draper is happy to be home.

Nearly three years ago his house was taken over in one of the many house shufflings characteristic of the polygamous community the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints established in the isolated twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City.

Last week, Draper and his wife were able to return to their pale-blue manufactured home.

“It’s good to be back,” he said Saturday, sitting in his mother-in-law’s house at a huge table surrounded by chairs and covered with a blue cloth – prepped for a barbecue to celebrate his return.

Some of Draper’s cousins came to welcome him, and a lot of his wife’s relatives did, too. Absent were many of his neighbors, who have given Draper and his wife a lukewarm reception, at best. Few greet him, many frown at him and one neighbor gave him a one-finger salute.

Draper left the closed community in 2003 after he and his wife became disillusioned with FLDS church leader Warren Jeffs and the church’s refusal to disavow plural marriage involving young girls to older men.

“We left for our own safety,” he said.

Draper asked a friend, Hyrum Cook, to move into the house and take care of it, but a short time later Cook was told he had to leave because the house had been given to Draper’s brother-in-law, Vaughn Chatwin.

From his new home in Bonners Ferry, Idaho, Draper told Cook to leave peacefully. “I encouraged Hyrum to cooperate and get our things out of the house,” he said, adding that town police knew of the situation and did nothing to stop it.

Things changed after Jeffs became a fugitive to avoid a charge of arranging a marriage between an underage girl and an older man. In his absence, Utah stepped in and a 3rd District judge appointed a fiduciary to protect the interests of the FLDS’ charitable trust and manage its assets.

The fiduciary, Bruce Wisan, allowed Draper to move back to his house after he signed an occupancy agreement that all those living in trust homes are being encouraged to also sign. Even though Draper has returned, there are still issues to be worked out: Draper and Wisan disagree on who owns the home. Wisan considers it part of the trust’s assets; but Draper said he paid for it, has always paid taxes on it and made contributions to the FLDS church to cover property tax for the land it sits on.

Draper, who still considers himself a member of the FLDS even though he’s at odds with its leaders and some of its practices, said now that he is back he would like to see the town take a more progressive approach in letting outside influences into the community.

“We should make peace with Utah and Arizona,” he said.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen, as Jeffs, who is wanted by the FBI, still exerts a powerful influence over the residents of Colorado City and the adjacent town of Hildale.

Draper said he thinks attempts to get the residents to sign occupancy agreements, stating their willingness to pay taxes and cooperate with Wisan as the charitable trust is restructured, might be futile, as many are still loyal to Jeffs.

Instead, he said he expects people to just abandon their houses as Jeffs calls the chosen to live in other FLDS communities being started around the country, leaving those not called to fend for themselves.

Draper, a car salesman now looking for work, is afraid people from the outside are going to come into the community and exploit the people as changes are made to the trust.

“I’m concerned about freeloaders looking to find a way to profit off the backs of the people,” he said.

Since Draper has been back, he has noticed some changes, such as abandoned houses, farmland not being worked, and missing equipment and livestock from the town’s dairy.

Draper attributes the changes to people leaving on Jeffs’ orders.

The number of fences going up around houses has also increased, and blinds are pulled down on windows through which he use to wave at people.

“When you knock on doors now, people don’t answer,” said Draper. “You have to call ahead so they’ll answer the door.”

Cook, the friend who stayed in Draper’s house and who has become disillusioned with the faith, also believes Jeffs is creating an us-against-them mentality.

“He [Jeffs] is taking things to a new level of fanaticism,” said Cook.

He said the church’s 1,500 elders are expected to contribute 10 percent of their earnings to the church as a tithe and an additional $1,000 a month as an offering.

“Figure it out and that’s a lot of money,” said Cook. “But like Warren says, ‘Where the money goes so goes the heart.’ “

Draper said it is sad to see the core principles of a peaceful faith eroded by Jeffs’ tyrannical rule and the breakdown of traditions.

“Jeffs has never put any sweat equity into the town or made an investment, but has just taken,” said Draper. “At one time, people pulled together in the town. We were getting taxes for roads and other things, but now Jeffs is creating a society by invitation only.”

Tribune reporter Brooke Adams contributed to this story.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Salt Lake Tribune, USA
Mar. 27, 2006
Mark Havnes

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday March 27, 2006.
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