An Encounter with the FLDS Subculture – Part 1

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I was last in the conjoined towns of Colorado City, AZ, and Hildale, UT, a few years ago, before Warren Jeffs was captured, tried and convicted in a Texas criminal court on various charges relating to his many “celestial” child brides, including aggravated child rape.  At that time I rode my bicycle around the towns and took some pictures of the high-occupancy houses with their 8-ft. fences and parking lots containing high-occupancy vehicles; the female inhabitants, young and younger, with their pastel floor- and wrist-length dresses and standing-wave hairdos; and the males with their long-sleeved, buttoned-up shirts and long, ambiguously-colored pants.  No one then paid more than slight attention to the passing of the brightly colored cyclist.  This time I was more interested in the general feeling of the place, the ambience post-Jeffs-conviction.  Would that intrusion of the wider world make any apparent difference?

The towns’ main thoroughfare, Central Avenue, begins at the southern end and runs north through both municipalities.  I drove – slowly because the posted limit is 25 mph and I didn’t want to run legitimately afoul of local law enforcement – its entire length into and through Hildale and then decided to see where a promising cross street, Hildale Street, might lead.  It ended just past Jessop Avenue (Joseph Smith Jessop was a co-founder of the town of Hildale.) at a walled, gated, guarded compound.  I turned, slowly, onto Jessop and cruised past the property.  To the left of the gate, sitting in the shade were two men in the long-sleeved, long-pants uniform.  One of them was peering through an expensive (Swarovsky, on closer inspection) spotting scope, generally in my direction.  The other appeared to be on a walkie-talkie.  The electric sliding gate in the high wall was just opening to admit a vehicle, an FLDS-typical [1] high-occupancy one – minivan or sport ute – driven by a standing-wave-haired, pastel-dressed female.

I drove past, but then my curiosity got the better of me and I hung a U at the next intersection and came slowly back on Jessop.  Both gate-men were watching me.  I turned left onto Hildale Street, drove away from the compound and parked in the middle of the block.  In my mirrors I could see the two men, one of them still, or again, on his radio.  I made a few travel notes in my log, tried again to call my daughter (with whose move to Seattle I was trying to coordinate my arrival there) and got out of my car with my official “United States Secret Service” camera lanyard (It was genuine, a gift from my daughter.) around my neck.  When I looked back toward the gated compound, one of the men was gone; the other was looking in my direction with his radio at this ear.

At that point I was feeling an odd disquietude, almost guilt.  Why was this man looking at me and talking on a radio?  I had done nothing wrong, I was on a public street in the USA and yet I felt uneasy.  Well, that made me angry (with myself?) and I began walking right toward the gate-guard radioman.  As I approached I could hear him talking.  I stopped at a polite distance and waited for him to finish:  “Yeah.  Yeah.  OK.  His badge says Secret Service.”  They are talking about me!  Then:  “He’s standing right here.  I’m talking to him.  OK.”  And he clipped the radio back on his belt.  “What can I do for you?” he said.

“What’re you looking at through that nice scope?” I said, gesturing toward the Swarovsky.  He looked down at it and then up at me.

“Just looking at the ridge,” he said, indicating the impressive geological feature behind the towns.

“Game?” I asked.

“Yep.  Game.”

“What kind of game?”

“All sorts of game.”

“I mean, like deer, sheep?”

“Yep.”

“Who were you talking to on the radio?” I asked.

He looked confused.  “What?”

“The radio,” I said.  “You were talking about me.  Who were you talking to?”

His pause was that little bit too long, the delay that says, I’m about to lie to you.  “I don’t know,” he said.

“Excuse me,” I said.  “You don’t know who you were talking to?”

“I don’t know his name,” he said.  “There are a lot of people.  I don’t know all their names.”  And then he asked, “What’s your name.”

“Skip,” I said.  “What’s yours?”

“Zeke,” he replied, without hesitation.  And then again, “What can I do for you?”  Not using my name.

“I want to get some ice, Zeke,” I said.

“Ice,” he repeated, with scorn in his voice.  “You want ice.”

“Yeah, a bag of ice.”  He looked at me, deciding if I was just jerking him around, then proceeded to give me fairly elaborate directions, first to one store, then to another.  During his route descriptions, and while we were talking earlier, a sputtering but steady stream of vehicles approached the gate, the drivers either swiping a card to activate it or, sometimes, apparently entering data on a keypad.  Once, Zeke walked backwards to the gate-control mechanism while talking to me, had a brief exchange with a driver after which the gate opened; then he came back to me.  As far as I was could tell, the vehicles were always high-occupancy and the drivers always standing-wave-haired women.

When Zeke finished his ice-store directions, he looked at me – he had been looking down Hildale Street, presumably the route I would take to buy my ice – and said, “Have a nice day.”  And sort of smiled.

I said, “What’s behind the gate?”

Again he seemed confused.  “What?” he said.

“I see all these cars go in, almost nothing coming out,” I said.  “What’s in there?”

Again the too-long pause.  “A residence,” he said.

“A residence,” I repeated, openly disbelieving.  “Who lives there?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “There are a number of residences.”

“Well, tell me who lives in one of them.”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know any of the people who live in those residences.”

“No.”

“And you don’t know who you talk to on the radio.”  Zeke’s look was now unfriendly.  “And you’re guarding the gate.”

Zeke’s gaze was not threatening, but . . . appraising.  “And there’s a clinic,” he said.

“What kind of clinic?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  Just a regular clinic,” he said.

Then two things happened:  Zeke got a call on his radio and I noticed that an official-looking SUV – lights on the roof, indiscernible graphics on the door – had come along Jessop and stopped before the Hildale intersection, facing me.  Zeke put the radio down.

“Who’s that guy?” I said, looking at the sport ute.

Zeke didn’t turn to look at it.  “I don’t know,” he said.  “I didn’t call him.”

Because of the angle of the light, I couldn’t see through the windshield of the sport ute, but it felt like whoever was in there was watching.  “Who did call him?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Zeke said.  It struck me as significant that he didn’t deny awareness that someone had called the sport ute.  That uneasiness started seeping in again:  I was parked near a school and the butt of my Airweight .38 was peeking out from under my driver’s seat.  Even here in the Wild West that could be a problem.  It seemed like time to go.  As I started to move out of Zeke’s shaded area his attention at the gate was required by another vehicle and the sport ute cruised slowly past on Jessop.  The driver appeared to be the only occupant; the door had a generic fire department logo and the inscription, here in Hildale, said “Colorado City Fire Department”.

“Why does the clinic need a high wall and a secured gate?” I called out to Zeke as he walked toward the idling vehicle.

He turned toward me.  “To keep nosy people like you from asking so many questions,” he said, walking backwards.  “We had a guy try to crash through here a couple of days ago.”  That made the situation seem more threatening, but I decided to go for it.

“I’m just going to take your picture,” I said, bringing up my camera.  He turned away after my first shot and I took a zoom of the gate and one of the street signs as I walked to my car.  The sport ute was still driving slowly away, down Jessop.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamentalist_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-Day_Saints

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