Short Creek redux? Colorado City historian Ben Bistline on the FLDS, Warren Jeffs, and Yearning for Zion.
Yearning for Zion? Yearning for the light of day is more like it...
With shades of Roman Grant's nefarious Juniper Creek Compound on HBO's Big Love and echoes of Arizona Governor Howard Pyle's disastrous 1953 raid on Short Creek, Arizona -- the community that became polygamist haven Colorado City -- chaotic hearings continue today in the seizure of more than 400 kids from the FLDS' Yearning for Zion compound in Texas. Like everyone, I've been fascinated by the morbid Twilight Zone-like tours of YFZ by sometimes unibrowed FLDS moms. And I've been torn by the competing rights of mothers seeking to be reunited with their children and children who may need protection from the FLDS' perverse religious dictums.
Plural marriages and child brides were subjects former New Times staffer John Dougherty continually addressed in a series of articles about the FLDS for our paper. (You can read Dougherty's whole series on polygamy in Arizona, here.) Currently, Dougherty is reporting on the Texas situation for the New York Times, but in 2005 he was already warning the world about the massive white stone edifice being built on a 1,700-acre compound just outside Eldorado, Texas.
The compound was to be the new home for FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs' polygamist sect. The cult was relocating to escape the scrutiny it had come under in Colorado City. Behind guarded gates, they hoped to practice their religion in secret. The raid on that compound by Texas Rangers and other law enforcement has ripped the scab off the FLDS sore. Now we're all spellbound by the aftermath of the raid and the bizarre living arrangements of the cult itself.
For some perspective, I turned to Colorado City historian Benjamin Bistline, author of The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City, Arizona. Bistline, who is in his 70s, grew up in that community, experienced the Short Creek raid, and still lives just outside of Colorado City proper. Oft-quoted by those researching or writing about the FLDS, Bistline has been closely following the Texas situation and spoke to me late last week.
What’s your general impression of what’s happened in Texas? Do you think it’s an overreaction by the Texas authorities?
Bistline: It’s not overreaction. The ’53 raid at Short Creek -- there was no justification for it. I was 18 years old. I was part of that raid, when the state of Arizona raided it. That was a whole, entirely different situation. The town was open and free. We could come and go. We lived in our own houses. We weren’t living behind a big, long wall or anything.
In Texas, they’ve got a compound that’s surrounded by a fence. And those kids cannot go in or out. And I don’t think most of the women even are free to travel in or out. I know there are underage marriages going on there.
How do you know that?
Bistline: I just know those people. I’m related to pretty near every one of them. I knew them growing up, I know what they’re taught, and I know how they live. Have you listened to some of the answers those girls they’ve questioned give when they ask them if they know of any underage pregnancies? It don’t take no psychological genius to know those girls are lying. You can tell they’re lying by their answers.
So it’s definitely going on, and it needed to be stopped. And I don’t know how else they could’ve done it. They went in there with guns drawn and all that because they didn’t know what to expect. They’d lived through the Waco thing. I don’t blame them for that. What they do now, though is crucial. Those kids need to get back with their mothers…Now the ones that have been molested, that’s a different story. They need to be taken care of and put in protective custody. But you’re probably not going to find more than I guess maybe 15 out of the 400. I don’t know how many of the 400 were girls, but if they find 15 of them that are pregnant or have had children under the age of 17, I would be surprised if there are any more than that.
Not being there, not being part of it, not being able to know what all the answers are, I can’t really say for sure. But I know from our own experiences here when women and children were taken from us, they didn’t come back for nearly two years.
Do you think what’s happening in Texas will mean the end for the Yearning for Zion compound?
Bistline: It depends entirely on what they do. If they don’t return the children back there, then there’ll be some kind of a break-up. But if they return the children, the compound will go on. If they return them and they do go back, it needs to be monitored.
In some of the footage from the compound, you see Warren Jeffs' photo on the walls. To what degree is he still in charge of the FLDS?
Bistline: Oh, he’s their god, sure. They’re taking orders from him. He dictates through his henchmen. He’s allowed to make phone calls from behind bars. Write letters.
What do you think the answer to this problem is – especially the underage marriages?
Bistline: They’re not going to stop the polygamy thing. I think that they could stop the underage stuff. The first thing that needs to happen is that the children need to be placed in public schools. So they’re taught correct history, science and so on. Rather than just be totally brainwashed. Then the men that are responsible for the atrocities need to be taken out of their midst, so they don’t have the power to dictate and control them. If they could get someone who was a decent person to be the leader...See, they strictly accord to what their leader says. If he tells them not to marry underage girls, then they won’t. If he tells them to, then he will.
These people are victims. The women and kids are all victims. The young men they give these young wives to, they’re victims. There are a few people I know in their society that would make good leaders that would do what I’m saying. But they’re not going to appoint those leaders, because then [those loyal to Jeffs] would lose control. It’s going to assimilate slowly. Take Colorado City for instance. A large portion of Colorado City people no longer follow Warren Jeffs. It was just a matter of them having their freedom, when he lost the power to kick them out of their homes if they didn’t do what he said. Then they no longer paid him allegiance.
So they need to give those people their freedom. Open those gates, let them come and go. I’m talking about if they go back into the compound. Divide the dormitories into individual apartments, living quarters for individual families. Just give them their freedom, that’s what it amounts to. It would make a lot of difference. If they allow those girls to wait until they’re of age to decide if they’re going to marry that man who they’re told to marry, the biggest percentage of them won’t do it. They’ll pick someone their own age. And that’s the problem. That’s why they’d have to marry them young. Otherwise they’d not able to have the influence to coerce them.
Those girls on TV kept saying there’s no force, there’s no force. They have their choice, they have their choice. I’ll tell you what their choice is. The choice is: You marry who you’re told or else you’re locked up in that room until you decide to marry him. And if you reach 17 before you decide to marry him, then you’re just kicked out and you’re on your own. That’s the choice they have. Now if that’s force or not, you tell me.
Is there physical coercion going on, beatings? Or is it mostly psychological?
Bistline: In some respects, yes, there is [physical coercion] They believe that their leader Warren Jeffs has absolute control over them in this life and the next. If they don’t obey him, then they’re condemned to hell when they die. It’s the greatest power they have to control those kids. That’s why they need to get into public schools to start learning some of the truth.
Do you think the Arizona authorities have done enough to address the problem of underage marriages in Colorado City?
Bistline: I think they’re doing what they should do. I think they’re handling it right. Whenever they can get a girl to make a complaint, they arrest the man and prosecute him. You can’t prosecute someone unless you have evidence of a complaint. If they can’t get a girl to complain against a man, then they can’t prosecute him. But the few that they have prosecuted now have changed the situation. The men don’t want to marry a younger girl now because they don’t know if they’ll turn against them or not. It’s making a difference. Arizona and Utah both are handling it as they should.
Are there other polygamist sects like this that don’t follow Jeffs?
Bistline: There are half a dozen different splinter groups. There’s Winston Blackmore in Canada. There’s John Timpson of Centennial Park. There’s a group back in Missouri, and there are others. Different ones that don’t follow Warren Jeffs. But there are a lot of people living in Colorado City that really don’t have allegiance to anybody. They’ve just got their freedom, and so they’re just kinda going down the road. Some have joined the regular LDS. My wife and I have joined the regular LDS.
Were you at one time a member of the FLDS?
Bistline: I was a member of the group, of the cult. But it was never the FLDS until about 1987 when we filed a lawsuit to get the deeds or security in our homes. Then they drummed up that name FLDS, so they could hide behind a religious entity. They never really filed a written document organizing an FLDS until about 1990. I’d broken away from them in about ’84 or ’85. I was a member of the cult. That’s all it is, a cult. But I was never a part of them when it was the FLDS.
How did people refer to it before it took FLDS as a name?
Bistline: They referred to it as the group, or the priested group. The priested work. Then they had the United Effort Plan that was the trust that owned the property [of FLDS members]. Whoever the leader was had full control of that trust. Whatever he said, that’s what happened. Now the state of Utah took that away from Jeffs and put it in the hands of a man named Bruce Wisan who is now the man who is administering that trust. So he cannot kick people out of their homes. [Jeffs] was kicking people out of their homes if they would not give him the $1000 a month he was demanding from them.
What was your experience of the Short Creek raid?
Bistline: They didn’t arrest me, because I was 18, and back then a male didn’t reach maturity until you were 21. The juvenile court said we have no jurisdiction over you. And I was under 21, so the superior court says we have no jurisdiction over you. So I was just left to my own devices. But my mother and my three siblings were taken. The men were arrested and taken to the county jail. They were taken to Kingman, Arizona, and they held them for a week. Long enough to get the women and kids out of there. They plea-bargained. They pled guilty to the conspiracy to commit open and notorious cohabitation, and were sentenced to one year probation. The women and children were gone for two years before they were able to come back home. My mother was gone for almost 2 years.
How did they put them up?
Bistline: The [authorities] declared the children wards of the state. They let the children stay with their mothers. And they would give the mothers an allowance. Out of that, she would pay the rent, take care of utilities and food and so on. It was hardly enough. They suffered. There’s no question about it. But that’s how they handled it.
Was this an incredibly traumatic thing for you?
Bistline: It wasn’t so much for me. I was a young buck. It was a big adventure to me. I was smuggling women back and forth across the Utah side. See, the Utah side was not bothered. Arizona had no authority. Utah refused to participate with them. There were people still living on the Utah side, which is now Hildale. So I was smuggling people back over to their homes in Utah – the women, so they wouldn’t get picked up by the cops. That’s the way it was for me.
It was traumatic, in some ways. The two years that my mother was gone, and so on. I didn’t get to see my girlfriend but a couple of times. She was one of the ones that was taken. Eventually we were married. She’s my wife now.
Where was she taken?
Bistline: To Phoenix. Then they moved her up to Winslow. Then eventually over to Snowflake, with her mother. She was 15 at the time.
Was it traumatic for your mother?
Bistline: Oh, I don’t know. She took everything in stride. It was religious persecution. My mom reveled in being persecuted. I don’t know if you can understand it. She didn’t have a hard time. She had a brother that lived in Mesa. They put her with her brother when she first down there.
What was your view of Gov. Howard Pyle, the man who ordered the 1953 Short Creek Raid?
Bistline: To me he was just a despot. The public sentiment went against him. And that’s what’s going to happen in Texas. The way they’re interviewing those girls, they’re crying because they can’t have their kids. They’re going to lose the public support. That’s what happened with Short Creek.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.