Thursday, April 10, 2008

A dark history repeats for religious sect



ALONG THE ARIZONA-UTAH BORDER (CNN) -- A monument stands in a park in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, commemorating the 263 children taken from their families during a predawn polygamy raid in 1953.


This monument near the Utah-Arizona border commemorates the 1953 Short Creek raid.

The raid at Short Creek, as these isolated border communities were known back then, holds an ignoble place in the region's history.

It was a public relations nightmare from the start. Crying children in their bedclothes were yanked from their parents in the dark of a July night.

The backlash drove a governor from office and discouraged officials from taking action against the practice of polygamy for half a century.

It also left a traumatic imprint in the collective mind of a community that has withdrawn from an outside world it views as evil.

Now, more than 800 miles away, history appears to be repeating itself for the descendants of Short Creek. It is deepening their fear, distrust of outsiders and sense of persecution.

This is the heart of FLDS country; the letters stand for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The polygamist sect is headed by imprisoned "prophet" Warren Steed Jeffs and is said to include some 10,000 followers.

Colorado City is also home to Dale Evans Barlow, named in a Texas arrest warrant as the middle aged man who allegedly physically and sexually abused his seventh wife at the YFZ Ranch near Eldorado, Texas.

In a series of hushed cell phone calls to a family violence hot line in Texas, she said she was just 15 when she married him. Her calls sparked last week's raid.

FLDS members practice plural marriage, which is against the law in Utah, Arizona and Texas and has been disavowed by the mainstream Mormon church.

Women are taught to "keep sweet" and obey their husbands, who hold their "priesthood," or way into Heaven.

And so, the families here are large and extended. Besides Jeffs, some of the most common surnames are Barlow, Jessop, and Steed.

Critics say girls as young as 13 or 14 are placed in polygamous marriages to older men.

Sect members don't watch television or read newspapers, and they are told not to talk to outsiders. But still they know what happened last week in West Texas.

Not surprisingly, the raid at the 1,700-acre YFZ Ranch is playing here as another Short Creek. Some remember, some just know what they've been taught about it.

The monument is a constant reminder: "We must never forget how the Lord blessed us by restoring our families taken in the '53 raid."

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, 39 men, 86 women and 263 children were arrested or taken into state custody during the Short Creek raid. The men were placed on probation after promising to give up polygamy.

After the raid, most of the women and children spent two years as wards of the state of Arizona, then returned to Short Creek.

In the Texas raid, 416 children were removed from the ranch and placed in state custody. They are in temporary shelters and face a series of court hearings beginning April 17.

Investigators said Thursday they have left the YFZ ranch. The investigation, which also involves the FBI, is continuing.

In Hildale and Colorado City, people are reluctant to speak with outsiders, much less go on the record. Their responses ranged from indignation to resigned vows to leave matters up to the Lord.

"It's very unjustified. It's -- it's religious persecution," said a woman who would not give her name.

A man who identified himself only as Nephi said he will remain prayerful and dedicated to his church.

"I think I am going to be at peace about it. It's in the Lord's hands. And we will leave it at that," he said.

Marlene Hammon, a plural wife, was a small child when the Short Creek raid took place. She remembers being very frightened by the threat of being separated from her five mothers and 38 siblings.

Fawnetta Carroll was 7 when she was separated from her family in the 1953 raid. She returned to polygamy and believes one of her 24 sisters was in the Texas compound with her children.

"If there is abuse, that should be investigated and taken care of," she said. "But I do not see how you can use that to justify taking 416 children out of their homes and away from their families."

Priscilla Hammon was born just after the raid and also lives in a polygamous marriage. She says she has many children and grandchildren, and that the threat of being separated by outsiders is always there.

The children are scared, she says.

"How can I possibly promise my children nothing will happen to them, when I see something like this taking place?"

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