“We are dealing with a human rights issue… the (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) is in a massive state of flux.”
That was Elissa Wall’s assessment. Wall was the first person to press charges against Warren Jeffs.
Seventy-five percent of the fundamentalist Mormons, or FLDS, who Jeffs leads as their “prophet,” have been sexually molested, said Tonia Towell, founder of Holding Out HELP.
Now Jeffs, in prison, “isn’t going anywhere — but still has influence,” said Carlisle, a Salt Lake Tribune reporter covering polygamy.
That’s why folks must help, Wall said.
As for Wall, who is largely known for her book Stolen Innocence? She has moved back into the FLDS community.
She’s doing it to “bring change,” she says, asking: “where can (each person) create the greatest change?”
She was one of four participants in a panel, Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Across the West, concerning the influence of the FLDS church. It was among several at the two-day Society of Professional Journalists Region 9 conference in Salt Lake City, Utah. SPJ conferences move annually to a location within their region. Other panelists included investigator Sam Brower, Tewell and teenage survivor Rulon Hamilton.
Carlisle spoke to the panel name when he acknowledged the topic may seem “Utah-centric.” But he showed a map indicating that properties of the FLDS church, a product of the religious movement Joseph Smith formally started in 1830, are found in nearly a dozen-and-a-half other states, into the central time zone. Carlisle covers polygamy for The Salt Lake Tribune.
Among the multiple recent stories about the FLDS church have concerned the church’s efforts for influence over the police, which have been proven to favor the FLDS in their law enforcement. Wall affirmed Carlisle’s statement that Wall and other folks are hoping to “disband” a police force “controlled by the municipalities to ensure fair elections of a secular government.” She announced that Hildale will have the opportunity to elect its first city council in November, and she’s teaching residents how to vote.
Carlisle asked for the FLDS/non-FLDS split in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, which are “basically the same city but there are two city councils because of the state line,” Carlisle said. The two towns are 60 and 90 percent FLDS, respectively, and everyone else are “non-approachables,” Wall replied.
The opportunity is there after Jeffs’ incarceration, other abusive leaders being successfully prosecuted and attention to FLDS problems arising, Wall said.
But “though the medium of the press and media is important, I see (the FLDS) evolving into a much deeper, darker culture,” Wall also noted.
Wall added that the FLDS were expected to keep quiet and “keep sweet” in spite of any fear and were taught about the 1953 raid of now-Colorado City as Americans in public schools were taught about the Holocaust.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed HB99 on March 28. It keeps polygamy a felony in Utah while increasing the penalties for polygamists convicted of committing frauds and abuses. Prosecution for polygamy has traditionally been mostly ignored by the Utah attorney general’s office and prosecutors. Some, like Salt Lake City Weekly reporter Dylan Harris at the conference, have questioned whether the legislation threatens to push these communities “further underground.”
“It is very naïve of us to create a simplistic solution,” Wall said. “To just say ‘criminalize or decriminalize,’ it doesn’t get to hear to the issue.”
She also said that “the loudest on both sides” of the argument” have been “galvanized.”
“We have to ask ourselves: what are the problems of polygamy?” Wall added.
“There is such a broad spectrum of experience of people coming out of the FLDS that we can’t generalize in any way,” she remarked. “The topic is an incredibly complex issue.”
“Why do people stay in this religion?” an attendee asked.
“(FLDS members) are worried about their families getting split,” Carlisle said. “(Church leaders) use it as a weapon.”
“They also believe they need it for eternal salvation to reach highest kingdom, which is the celestial kingdom,” she said. “They believe that when (a woman) gives birth, that child is not considered yours, but of the priesthood.”
The “slave labor” comes with the mandate to women to do what they are told or you could lose your husband and all of your children, Tewell added.
“And girls start at 12 learn to cook, clean, please their husbands — you name it,” she said.
The boys at 12 do slave labor across the country and money they earn is sent back to the church, said Tewell, whose organization is designed to help FLDS survivors.
Hamilton spoke about working in Pocatello, Idaho, South Dakota, Texas and Cedar City, Utah. He wouldn’t be permitted to certain locations, where he still performed child labor for no pay of his own, because he wasn’t deemed as “worthy,” he said.
In Pocatello, Hamilton was with other boys and considering leaving the church. Then each of their mothers arrived in town.
“We can assume the leaders said to the mothers to go to Pocatello to claim your children so they don’t get into state custody,” Carlisle remarked. The children would not be property of the FLDS families — and thus, the church — if they became state custody. That was especially bad for a top-down organization that “revolves around children,” Carlisle added.
“They magically appeared,” Hamilton said, ”to claim their sons legally.”
Washington County put a school in the community after Jeffs, who created a private school, went behind bars.
The far-reaching FLDS property and the entity the boys work for is the company Phaze Concrete, which does hard labor. Carlisle’s investigations indicated revelations of FLDS-owned companies having the across-time-zones locations. Also, Phaze poured concrete at the University of New Mexico and Utah State University. The following year, last fall, the U.S. Department of Labor accused the company of improperly employing children and siphoning paychecks to send to the FLDS church. Phaze then settled a lawsuit from the agency that would require the company to not employ children in ways that violate labor laws, to pay all employees at least the minimum wage, obey overtime rules and to repay two former teenage workers $72,269 each in back wages, according to Carlisle’s stories.
“Nate did a wonderful job on this. He not only listened to sources but went out and did research himself,” said Brower, who did similar work for his book Prophet’s Prey. “And that kind of research and reporting is just wonderful and incredible.”
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