Mysterious surveillance cameras watch polygamous towns
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Colorado City, Ariz. • It's about as close as most people will get to experiencing George's Orwell's dystopian classic "1984."
In the twin polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., dozens of security cameras constantly peer down streets. They hang from public utility poles and poke out from tall fences.
At least two cameras point at the Holm School, where William E. Jessop meets for Sunday services with his breakaway congregation of former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
During a recent trip to the area, Salt Lake Tribune journalists documented 29 of the cameras. Most of the cameras have white casings with black domes hiding the lenses, though some have been painted brown, seemingly to blend into the environment.
Not surprisingly the cameras aren't accompanied by any signage explaining their purpose or function.
But resident Willie Jessop who used to manage security for the FLDS before leaving it and who is sometimes confused with the new congregation leader of a similar name said the cameras were designed to monitor community members and keep them in line with FLDS leadership. According to Jessop, the cameras are wired into a central monitoring system and are controlled by Lyle Jeffs, the brother of imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, and other leaders.
The surveillance system formerly fed into a command center at the Leroy S. Johnson meetinghouse, Jessop said, but now periodically moves to various locations within the community in an effort to keep it secret.
A group of about 50 FLDS men shares the responsibility of monitoring the cameras, which among other things are used to check license-plate numbers and have sophisticated facial recognition software, Jessop added.
Jessop said he has learned about the cameras both from observing them and from talking privately with friends who are still in good standing with Lyle and Warren Jeffs.
Several people in the community, including Jessop, also mentioned the cameras have been brought to the attention of the U.S. Department of Justice because in some cases they're mounted to public property. Department representatives did not return calls seeking comment.
Blake Hamilton, the city attorney for Hildale, said that the city operates some cameras on city property, including the local marshals office. Hamilton called the city's system fairly standard and said it was similar to those in other cities that monitor sensitive areas such as water-treatment plants.
Hamilton also said the city's cameras are not wired into any larger, private system. The city also does not monitor cameras that are on private property, Hamilton said.
But it's difficult to confirm what the rest of the cameras particularly those on private property are doing or how many of them might be controlled by FLDS leadership. Jessop himself, for example, said his own excavating business has a camera that he uses for security. It isn't wired into any larger network.
But it is clear that some cameras are actively monitoring what happens on the streets. When a Tribune reporter walked in front of a camera near the medical clinic in Hildale, the lens pivoted and tracked him. At another point, a Tribune photographer began taking pictures of cameras mounted to the fence of a large compound and the street quickly filled with slow-moving trucks and vans with darkly tinted windows.
Other cameras are placed at seemingly odd locations. One camera attached to a fence looks down Central Street and could potentially see any approaching vehicles. In another part of town, Tribune journalists found two cameras attached to a black streetlight standing in an empty dirt lot. Another camera hangs from a silo high above town, potentially offering a vantage point to see anything in the area.
Jessop said that while he was a member of the FLDS church and monitoring security, the feeling among the leadership was that potential threats came from the outside. The leadership consequently watched for outsiders and was wary.
That began to change after the 2008 raid on the YFZ Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, that resulted in criminal charges against Warren Jeffs and other FLDS men related to child rape and underage bridges. FLDS leadership began to believe the threat came from within the church's ranks. As a result, Jessop said, the cameras are designed to monitor whom church members talk to, where they go and if they are returning to the community after being exiled. Jessop has compared the situation to being like living in a prison or a cartel-ridden Third World country.
"If they're identified going into certain buildings, it's grounds for immediate excommunication," Jessop said, adding that such a move usually means losing family members and being ordered out of town.
Jessop also said that the cameras increased significantly in number about six months ago and now he sees new ones every week.
William E. Jessop said that he doesn't pay a lot of attention to the cameras but has noticed them. He described the situation as "crazy" and agreed the cameras are controlled by the FLDS leadership.
"I don't appreciate the breach of privacy," he added.
Both men also said the cameras reduce the number of people who attend William's fledgling congregation, as potential members fear being seen and retaliated against by the ostensibly watchful eyes of the FLDS.
Still, William E. Jessop said he and his congregation try to carry and live a normal life, even as dozens of mysterious cameras constantly monitor them.
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