Power of polygamous group wanes in tiny town among red rocks

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(Source: Associated Press) (Source: Associated Press)
HILDALE, UTAH (AP) -

In a place where political contests are virtually unknown, the campaign signs offer the latest hint that a polygamous group is losing its grip on this remote red rock community straddling the Utah-Arizona border.

"For Hildale mayor vote Donia," reads one sign featuring Donia Jessop, a candidate pictured with a contemporary hairstyle and a red business suit.

The signs hanging from fences and walls are unusual because elections here have long been decided behind the scenes by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a Mormon offshoot that has made its home among the rocks for more than a century and hand-picked men to run unopposed.

Just five years ago, Jessop was a member of the group also known as the FLDS. She wore the sect's traditional prairie dresses and her hair in a conservative up-do. Now she is among a swelling number of former members who have returned to buy foreclosed homes, open businesses and try to turn Hildale into a place that resembles a typical Western town, not a cloistered religious community.

The competitive elections scheduled for Tuesday could deal a crushing blow to traditionalists if the 367 registered voters elect Jessop and the non-FLDS candidates for two city council seats. It would be another in a series of recent changes to shake up Hildale and its sister city, Colorado City, Arizona, which have a combined population of nearly 7,800.

The government-ordered evictions of sect families from nearly 150 homes forced many members to seek refuge in trailers around town or in different cities across the West. The town governments and the police are being watched closely by court-appointed monitors after a jury found them guilty of civil rights violations. And a food-stamp fraud case led 10 people to plead guilty and exacerbated a leadership void.

[SPECIAL SECTION: The Polygamy Diaries]

Jessop and other former sect members hail the changes as long-overdue progress that will help the community break free from the reign of sect leader Warren Jeffs, who is serving life in prison in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

"The things that were happening in the church were so destructive. And now that destruction can stop, and we can start to rebuild," Jessop said. "This city is completely at a standstill until we change the city government."

But FLDS members believe the town they built is being destroyed. Norma Richter, a 50-year-old mother of 13 kids, said the changes overtaking the town feel like "a cultural cleansing," echoing a common refrain among church members and sympathizers.

At the heart of the split is Jeffs, who has been jailed in Utah or Texas continually since 2006.

His followers consider him a prophet and believe he was the victim of religious persecution based on fabricated allegations. Former sect members and outsiders consider him a dangerous man who tore apart families and committed sex crimes.

Jeffs is "a very sick man" who controls the people through "fear of not making it to the highest celestial kingdom of glory," Jessop said. She notes that it was he and other leaders who set the evictions in motion more than a decade ago when they opted not to challenge in court allegations of mismanagement of the church trust, leading Utah and Arizona governments to take it over.

His supporters are steadfast in their beliefs. Jeffs is "still is the only man on this earth that can receive revelation from heavenly father for the people," FLDS member Lori Barlow said. "That's a pretty important link to me."

Authorities say Jeffs still sends some guidance from prison, but Richter says followers have not heard his voice for years and that it's unclear who is in charge of the church locally.

One of Jeffs' brothers, Lyle Jeffs, ran the day-to-day operations until last year, when he was arrested in the food-stamp case. He fled home confinement while awaiting trial and was captured in South Dakota after a year on the run. He faces up to five years in prison.

Amid the leadership void, and with so few people left in town, followers no longer meet for regular worship services, Richter said. Marriages that are arranged by the religion's prophet are on hold until Jeffs returns, Richter said.

Members of the FLDS believe the evictions were accelerated this year to clean out voter rolls and rig the elections to usher in the outside candidates. The evictions stem from an order by a Utah state judge who became fed up with people not paying $100-a-month occupancy fees.

Sect members refused to pay the fees because they believe the money was being used by attorneys overseeing the church trust to take legal action against the FLDS. They also believe the trust should still belong to them.

Across town, many large houses with enough room for plural families stand empty as a community board in charge of the trust works out redistribution of the evicted homes. Others are in disrepair, a result of an edict from Jeffs in the early 2000s, when he ordered a halt to all construction in the Utah-Arizona community to focus on building a compound in Texas.

After seeing so many of her fellow church members evicted, Barlow and her husband want to buy a home but fear they won't find anything suitable in other towns in the region for their five kids and 14 cows.

"Everything I ever needed was here," Barlow said. "The very idea that I'm looking to buy a house somewhere else is shocking to me."

When authorities recently served an eviction notice at the sect's meetinghouse, Barlow and Richter hugged and cried as they recalled the building's history and all the funerals and services held inside. The trust leaders made a deal to stave off eviction, but it served as more evidence of the sect's waning power.

Other signs of the sect's dwindling presence abound. Public elementary and high schools that reopened several years ago are now bustling with some 500 kids, despite most FLDS families home-schooling their children.

Women and girls in prairie dresses used to be seen all around town - pumping gas, riding horses and chatting. Now they are harder to find. Several new businesses are opening, including a brewery and hotels.

Incumbent Mayor Philip Barlow, a member of the FLDS and lifelong Hildale resident, said people are coping with change by "doing what they have to do." He acknowledges that having a challenger is new but says he will accept whatever the voters decide.

Jessop wants to make the town an accepting place for everyone. She said she would love to rekindle fond memories of growing up there with her two mothers and 25 siblings.

"I would love to see families reunited," she said. "I want them to stay. ... They are my sisters, my brothers, my aunts, cousins, uncles. They are my people."

Jessop left the FLDS four years ago with her husband and 10 kids over unrest about how Jeffs was running the group. She and her husband later brought a "sister wife" into the family, and the two women now raise their children and run the family business together.

When she returned, Jessop bought one of the foreclosed houses and reopened a corner gas station as a convenience store. If elected, she would be the town's first female mayor.

Richter said FLDS members won't cower no matter what happens at the ballot box.

"We have a very good man as a leader, but we follow a religion," she said. "They have not conquered us. They can take everything, but they can't conquer our spirit."

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