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Polygamous crackdown echoes 1953 Short Creek arrests

Published April 11, 2008 1:20 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

SAN ANGELO, Texas - For seven days, fundamentalist Mormons from Canada to Mexico have been riveted by events unfolding in west Texas.

Each new story, each photograph, evokes emotions ranging from horror to sorrow. Some women have had anxiety attacks; a few have sought counseling. Most cry as they explain their feelings. Their children are frightened.

"It's been very hard emotionally for the children and their parents," said Carlene Cannon, of the Davis County Cooperative Society, some of whose members have plural families.

Cannon said at a hearing that 57 men at the YFZ Ranch knelt, prayed and sobbed when law officers entered the sect's temple.

"I can't believe such inhumane treatment has happened to a group of people," she said.

Authorities here ended a seven-day investigation at the YFZ Ranch on Thursday. The result: 416 children, accompanied by 139 women, are in state custody. Watching from afar are some 37,000 fundamentalist Mormon men, women and children.

For many, the scenes seem ripped from their own family histories: The 1953 Short Creek Raid in Arizona, where allegations of underage marriages also were the primary impetus for the raid.

Short Creek is now known as Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., the FLDS sect's home base.

Stories of the raids - the FLDS even use it in their school curriculum - are retold in nearly every polygamous family as tales of caution and courage.

Susie Timpson, spokeswoman for the Arizona-based Centennial Park Action Committee, was 8 years old in 1953.

As events unfolded in Short Creek, her father hurried home and told Timpson's mother to leave Salt Lake City with their children. They took a bus to Mesa, Ariz., and stayed for two years.

"It was very difficult for me to step out [publicly]," Timpson said. "I was told to keep to myself all my life and not talk about my culture to anyone and especially not to government."

Arizona's effort to "eradicate" the community backfired as news coverage of women and children taken from their homes circulated and caused a public outcry.

The event shaped interaction between fundamentalists and the rest of society for decades. It made the people reclusive, and the government reluctant to intercede.

None condone the underage marriage practices of the FLDS. Most polygamous groups and independents are integrated in mainstream society, sending their children to public schools and colleges. The son of one plural family from Utah is a basketball star at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. They dress, shop and play like most Americans.

Most of these groups have participated in a public education campaign aimed in part at distancing themselves from the FLDS.

Yet, they still feel a connection with and compassion for the FLDS now.

"I'm just devastated," Timpson said. "I don't know what else to say. Where is the ACLU to speak out for these children? The lawyers aren't doing it. No one is doing it."

And they are shocked that a single call triggered such a far-reaching investigation.

"None of us support abuse," said Mary Batchelor, of the group Principle Voices. "At the same time, we still oppose the raid and feel that it was an inappropriate action, the repercussions of which may not be fully realized for several years and those repercussions will impact not only the FLDS, but our communities, as well as larger society."

One plural wife who lives in Canada said her family keeps asking, "How would we feel if that happened to us."

Myra Tolman knows. She was 21 at the time of the Short Creek Raid. One of three wives, she had a child and was expecting another.

She was arrested and "they almost took me away with the women and kids." Tolman was let go after authorities couldn't prove she lived in Arizona.

An officer offered to adopt her toddler so Tolman would always know where she was.

For years, Tolman tucked her children in bed not sure they would be there in the morning. In the past week, that nightmare returned.

"My heart aches for those young mothers," she said.

brooke@sltrib.com