Polygamist townsfolk eager to stay under cover

HILDALE, Utah—It is quiet here in the coppery shadow of the Canaan Mountain, except for the sounds of children playing behind high walls. The high-pitched happy voices sound eerie to me because they’re indistinguishable. Are there 10 children behind those walls or 100?

On a recent afternoon in this community of 1,900, the sidewalks are nearly deserted. The men turn their heads to avoid looking at you, the women look down. Up walkways to houses, blinds suddenly close and persistent door knocks are steadfastly ignored.

It would be easy to believe you’re invisible in this town except for the men following you, everywhere you walk or drive.

Members of the polygamist community that settled here thought they were out of reach of lawmakers and prying neighbours. That may have been the case 60 years ago when this vast area of near-desert and rich red sandstone mountains was remote, unreachable.

The reluctance of people to talk here is the clearest sign that Warren Jeffs, the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, still has influence among his followers. Since his arrest last year and throughout his week-long trial, Jeffs has been living at the regional prison known as Purgatory, which is halfway between his compound in Hildale, where his wives live behind brick walls, and the courthouse in St. George.

In that courthouse this week, Jeffs, 51, was found guilty by a jury of being an accomplice to two counts of rape after he urged and blessed the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.

The intrusion of outsiders is resented.

“When we get people prodding customers and asking questions, it’s not welcome,” says David Jessop, manager of the local supermarket. To stop a photographer from taking pictures from the sidewalk, Jessop shielded his customers with his white SUV as they entered and left his store.

It is a town where the graveyard is vast, the fields overgrown and the houses never seem to stop expanding. The average American family size is three people; in Hildale, it is eight. Almost every home is in the midst of building additions and is barely visible behind walls.

Outside Jeffs’s compound at the corner of Elm St. and Utah Ave., two trucks pulled up as a photographer and I got out of our car to look. The drivers in the other two vehicles remained behind their steering wheels, their expressions clearly unwelcoming.

When we got back in our car and drove away, they followed us around the block to the other side of Jeffs’s home. A third truck pulled in front of our impromptu caravan from the oncoming direction when we pulled over to look at the community hall.

We got out; they stayed inside their vehicles. At each stop, the pattern was repeated. They just stared as we stared back at them. One of the drivers looked awfully young as he craned his neck to look over his steering wheel.

The young men in this community are intensely loyal to Jeffs. Even those who have been kicked out cannot cut all their ties.

St. George resident Henry Mendoza rented a room to one young man who had been ordered out of Hildale but still hung up pictures of “Uncle Warren” all around him.

Mendoza attended the trial to get a glimpse of the so-called prophet in person. He was not impressed.

“I thought this guy must be really something because he obviously still had people believing in him.”

Elaine Tyler, who runs the Hope Organization, a support group for women, children and young men who have left the community, says even away from the prophet, many of them remain devoted to him.

After being disowned by their families, the boys live in cars or in rundown places with many other cousins, stepbrothers and halfbrothers. They call their new homes “butt huts” and eke out a living doing anything they can.

“People were extremely traumatized when he was arrested. This is their prophet still to many of them,” Tyler says. “It takes them a long time to realize that it would be good to see justice served.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday September 30, 2007.
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