COLORADO CITY, ARIZ. — Annie Jessop lay sleeping outdoors, hoping to escape the summer heat in the stone home she shared with 40 others in 1953, when authorities raided this polygamist enclave to investigate “open and notorious cohabitation.”
Officers with flashlights roused the children, including the 15-year-old Jessop, and rounded up the men. Some 260 children were removed. Jessop suddenly found herself moved from one temporary home to another, including a nursing home, a converted army barracks and a Phoenix apartment 370 miles away.
“I went from a place where I knew everybody by their first name to a high school of 2,500. It was totally overwhelming,” the now 70-year-old Annie Bistline told The Houston Chronicle. “We were so homesick that, if we thought we could get away with it, we would have just gone back.”
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Nearly 55 years later, a similar raid would thrust the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints into another volatile period, with authorities taking custody of 416 children in West Texas, this time amid allegations of child abuse.
The 1953 case fell apart. But it would take months, in some cases years, before the displaced women and children returned to their community and resumed lives devoted to the practice of plural marriages.
That life continues today for several thousand people in this remote region along the Arizona-Utah border.
In recent years, however, prosecutors have become more diligent and aggressive. A handful of members have been arrested and jailed, including Warren Jeffs, who has been the sect’s spiritual leader since 2002 and whose father led the church for 16 years before him.
Jeffs’ spiritual philosophy has ignited criticism from some members and child advocates who say the group must stop marrying underage girls to older men.
With those tensions have come increased secrecy and isolation, including the drive to send members to places like the Yearning for Zion Ranch outside Eldorado, they say.
“Change is going to come now; there is no way to avoid it,” said Ben Bistline, Annie Bistline’s husband and a historian who has lived in Colorado City since 1945 but who is not in a plural marriage.
The Yearning for Zion residents came to Texas from a community of about 5,000 in the desert towns of Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah — a place far removed from the Eldorado compound’s precise construction, insulating fence and soaring white temple.
Several hundred houses are spread across this desert community, but there is just one grocery, one restaurant and no stoplight. There is no fence, no temple, no signage to signal the presence of the largest collection of fundamentalist Mormons in the United States.
The houses are oversized, large enough to accommodate plural families that can include more than 50 people. Women and girls wear their hair long and cover their bodies from wrist to ankle in long, loose dresses. Pickups and minivans zipping down the town’s dirt roads teem with children.
The 1953 raid against this community provoked such public outrage that Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle lost his bid for a third term. For decades after, authorities ignored the group rather than risk the controversy of intervention, according to residents and officials. They did little to discourage the practice of marrying underage girls to older men and all but abandoned prosecuting polygamy.
The people here prospered. Men ran successful businesses, working mostly in construction and often getting government contracts, according to interviews with a dozen former members. After Colorado City incorporated, church members assumed positions of power. They became mayors, city council members and police officers.
Members donated large percentages of their earnings to help “build up the kingdom,” and the church promoted a “united order” under which members shared assets and the church’s trust controlled their land, according to former members and court documents.
The quiet era ended, however, in 2002 with the ascension of Jeffs, who succeeded his father as spiritual leader, or prophet, of the sect. Rulon Jeffs, his father, died in 2002 at age 92. He is reported to have had dozens of children and between 20 and 75 wives, many of whom his son assumed after his death.
Warren Jeffs took control as the FLDS faced growing tensions from within over its direction and new interest from prosecutors. Within three years, Jeffs faced child sex charges and spent months on the FBI’s Most Wanted list before his August 2006 arrest.
“When Warren took power, he restarted the talk that if the rest of society knew what was happening here, the whole way of life would be brought to an end,” said Ross Chatwin, who left the church in 2004 and still lives in Colorado City. “Things had been getting more and more open, but he drove people into isolation and obedience with fear.”
Jeffs cast out some members, mostly men, ordering them to “repent from afar” while reassigning their wives and children to other men. Some disillusioned members broke away.
Among them is Marvin Wyler, whose 2002 decision to leave cost him contact with 10 of his children.
Sitting in his living room, under an array of 34 portraits, one for each of his children, ages 42 to 14, Wyler described a contented life with three wives. He spoke fondly of building a swimming pool in the garage for the children — “We’re Mormons, so we swim in all our clothes,” he quipped — and of cramming layers of children into the bed of his pickup for a trip to Knott’s Berry Farm.
“We caused quite a stir, with all of those children, all those long dresses,” the 63-year-old said. “It has been a wonderful life. We are living the laws of God.”
His second wife, Charlette Chatwin, said she never had to worry about child care and always had the companionship of the other wives, the youngest of whom was her sister.
“There were jealousies at times, but we learned to get over it,” she said. “I liked having another woman in the house.”
The couple concedes that the marriages of underage girls have been a practice common in the FLDS but maintains some of the allegations coming out of West Texas are out of line with what they know about the group.
“Polygamy can be a great way of life,” Wyler said. “I just don’t want to see all these kids adopted out. Don’t punish the whole from the crimes of a few.”
When Jeffs came into power, with his doomsday prophecies and unrelenting control, Wyler said, he had to leave. Ten of his children refused to follow. To this day, they will not speak to him.
“I thought I had taught my children well enough to recognize the problems with his approach,” Wyler said, “but Warren’s teachings were just too strong … so they left me. They left me in tears. They were the most wonderful children, and now I know nothing about how they are.”
Other former members say Jeffs fractured their families by ordering young boys out of the sect to keep available girls for plural marriages or, in some cases, reassigning men’s wives based on “revelations.”
Richard Holm, a member of the community since his 1953 birth, said it was the “shock of his life” when he lost his family to one of Jeffs’ orders.
Holm served on the Colorado City Council for 18 years and, with his brother, ran some of the most successful businesses in town. He said they used their company’s twin-engine plane to fly the sect’s leadership, including Jeffs father, and donated some $350,000 to the construction of the Jeffs’ compound in town.
“It hurt the hell out of our company, but we thought it was the thing to do,” Holm said.
Holm’s position of prominence began to diminish when Jeffs took over. Within months, Holm began to hear that Jeffs wanted him out.
One afternoon, his second wife received word of an order from Jeffs that she and her younger sister, Holm’s other wife, should leave him to avoid being “destroyed with the wicked,” Holm said. He said he attempted to reclaim his family, but Jeffs performed a spiritual marriage, reassigning the two wives to Holm’s brother.
“I thought my wives loved me enough to stay no matter what,” said Holm, who remains excommunicated from the FLDS. “We had wonderful lives together, but with one word from Jeffs it was over. ”
Some of the intricacies behind the complex relationships within the sect are documented in court records from the recent prosecutions of FLDS men who married underage girls.
Dozens of letters pleading for leniency fill the file of Vergel Bryce Jessop, who in 2005 faced charges of sexual contact with a minor and conspiracy to have sexual contact with a minor. His second wife, the alleged victim and 17 at the time of their spiritual sealing in 2002, declared her love for her husband more than 20 years her senior.
“I don’t consider this child abuse like you do, for this is my religion,” she wrote the court.
Her husband served one day in jail and is required to register as a sex offender.
Since 2002, authorities in Arizona and Utah have brought charges against 10 men from the sect, including Jeffs.
A Utah jury convicted Jeffs of two counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old.
Prosecutors have prevailed in three other cases, several are pending and the rest unraveled, partly because the alleged victims were reluctant to testify, according to court documents.
“If no one had pursued these cases, the FLDS would have continued on as it was for a long time, said Ben Bistline. “It’s a certainty that things here never will be the same.”
• Original title: Former sect members recall family unity, oppression