Polygamist Cult Found Guilty of Violating Civil Rights
Which leads to the following question: Why now? The crimes that appear to be the undoing of the church — underage marriages, tax evasion, welfare fraud, child labor — have been well known to law enforcement in Utah and Arizona for at least a decade, if not longer. But other than a raid on Short Creek in 1953, both states have more or less looked the other way.
Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah who has studied the FLDS, says it’s partly because of the political blowback caused by the 1953 raid, when Arizona law enforcement took 263 children into custody and arrested every polygamist in town. Pictures of children crying as they were separated from their mothers sparked outcry across the country and ultimately cost then Arizona Governor Howard Pyle reelection.
“Ever since then they’ve been able to hide under the banner of religious freedom, and law enforcement has turned a blind eye,” says Sam Brower, a private investigator who wrote a book about his years investigating the cult called Prophet’s Prey. “In some ways, leaving them alone helped create what we’re seeing now.”
Eventually, the crimes the FLDS leaders were committing could no longer be ignored, Guoria says, especially after Warren Jeffs took over in the late 90s and the sect took a dark turn, increasing the practice of underage marriage, banishing teenage boys for perceived sins and “bleeding the beast” of government through welfare fraud and tax evasion.
“It takes a long time to build these cases,” Guiora says. “You have to have people who are willing to talk, but I know that for years there were people talking, and they couldn’t get law enforcement to listen.”
Flora Jessop was one of the first to leave the community and speak out about what was happening. She left in 1986, and over the years ran a sort of underground railroad out of Short Creek, helping over 100 women escape. Like Guiora, she says that former FLDS members complained for years to law enforcement to no avail. “We’re so happy that this is finally happening, but women have been coming out of this cult for 20 years and no one would believe them because they were women,” she says. “They treated us like bitter ex wives. Once the men started leaving and talking, then they listened and started building cases.”
Jessop says that in her day, new brides were given a pamphlet called “The Coming Crisis.” It warned that the government would go after the FLDS, but that if women left and talked to police, no one would believe their stories. “‘Women won’t be believed, because people don’t believe women,’ that’s what they told us,” Jessop says. “The way this has all worked out has just reinforced that idea. So it’s frustrating it’s taken this long. It’s kind of a slap in the face.”
So what happens to the FLDS now? On top of losing control of Short Creek in the wake of this afternoon’s verdict, Lyle Jeffs and other key FLDS leaders are facing charges for their role in food stamp fraud that allegedly bilked the government of millions. At a hearing in Salt Lake City this morning, a judge denied Jeffs bail, meaning he’ll stay in jail until the case goes to trial. In a separate federal case, he faces accusations of using FLDS children as child labor.
“All of this kind of gives me hope, but at the same time, causes a lot of apprehension and worry too because the people who are still in are really the most loyal and zealous,” Brower says. “They’re going to consider this a test and the outside world is intruding on them and they could feel like they’re backed in a corner. I do worry this could result in some kind of violence and bloodshed.”
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