Photographs show the intense surveillance FLDS Church focuses on its own members
Colorado City, Ariz. • Someone took the photos from inside a heavily tinted truck cab, lurking in shadowy street corners and behind rocks. They captured children boys and girls playing basketball and riding bikes. The pictures show driveways littered with colorful toys. The unknown photographer peered through windows, snapping sequences of polygamists who left the faith.
The exact origin of the photos is something of a mystery, but they appear to have been shot by a security team working for the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap acquired the photos in two separate batches earlier this year. The first arrived Aug. 14 and included about 500 images. The second batch numbered more than 1,000 images and arrived about two weeks later, on Aug. 27. According to data attached to the photos, the earliest were taken in November 2011 and the most recent in April 2013.
Belnap received the images on a flash drive from a confidential informant. He declined to provide additional information about the photos' path to his office, saying they could end up as part of an investigation.
For now, however, Belnap considers the photos "lost property," and officials hope to track down their owner. He also said the images are not currently part of an open criminal investigation and it is unclear if any laws such as privacy or trespassing statutes were violated by the person or persons who took them.
Most shocking about the images is what they reveal about the extensive FLDS surveillance network: Church officials appear particularly interested in spying on their own congregants and documenting verboten behaviors.
In one series of photos, for example, a girl sits on a bicycle an activity that reportedly was banned sometime in the past year or two. In another series, boys and girls play basketball together, also reportedly a forbidden pastime.
Other images seem to fixate on particular locations, cars or people. A large number of the images, for example, are shot through a kitchen window with the curtains open. Another series seems to track an SUV as it drives through Short Creek the name given to Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah and nearby Hurricane. And several batches focus on known former FLDS members, even following them to a Texas Roadhouse restaurant in St. George.
The photos also offer insights into the FLDS security team itself. For example, one image shows a dashboard of a truck. On a built-in screen that normally would display GPS information, pictures of Warren and his brother Lyle Jeffs are both visible. A walkie-talkie and other unknown equipment also are visible in the vehicle.
One thing conspicuously absent from the photos are images of outsiders with no connection to the FLDS Church. Law enforcement, tourists and the media are all either barely represented or not represented at all. Guy Timpson Â who once worked with the FLDS security operation but since has left the church was not surprised by the photos' focus on the FLDS. He said that in his experience, church leaders were mostly concerned with whom FLDS members associate and what they spend their time doing.
"The outsiders are not the threat to the FLDS," Timpson said. "It's people within the society. They were afraid of people breaking up testimonies."
Author and private investigator Sam Brower agreed with Timpson, pointing out that the FLDS Church operates numerous cameras in the Short Creek community, many of which are used to watch the faithful.
"Warren [Jeffs] doesn't trust any body," Brower explained of the cameras' purposes. "It's a constant weeding-out process."
But Brower also said FLDS leaders have extensive archives of photos beyond those obtained by The Salt Lake Tribune, some of which also document outsiders. Brower said he had been photographed in the community before and once even picked up a radio conversation in which Brower himself was the topic of discussion between local law enforcement and church security.
According to Brower, the conversation and photos all point to a larger issue brought up by an ongoing Department of Justice lawsuit: alleged collusion between the FLDS Church and city leaders. The lawsuit claims town and law enforcement officials enforced the edicts of sect leader Warren Jeffs above the law, held people against their will, practiced housing discrimination, euthanized the town's dogs and committed other misdeeds.
Belnap said he is "happy to share any information we have with anyone who is interested." Anyone with information about the photos should call the Washington County Attorney's Office at 435-634-5723.