Raid on Polygamy – First Place Photo Essay – SPJ

This edit of my work on the Texas raid on the YFZ Ranch that won 1st place from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Utah Headliners. I could only submit twelve photographs in which to tell the story.

Eldorado, Texas - In April 2008, Child Protective Services (CPS) raided a polygamous sect's Texas ranch and removed 416 children after receiving phone calls, now believed to be a hoax, from someone claiming to be an abused sixteen-year-old girl. This raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch became the largest child custody case in United States history. Here, on the first night of removals, young FLDS women and children are taken into shelter at the First Baptist Church in Eldorado, Texas.

Eldorado, Texas - In April 2008, Child Protective Services (CPS) raided a polygamous sect's Texas ranch and removed 416 children after receiving phone calls, now believed to be a hoax, from someone claiming to be an abused sixteen-year-old girl. This raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch became the largest child custody case in United States history. Here, on the first night of removals, young FLDS women and children are taken into shelter at the First Baptist Church in Eldorado, Texas.

Eldorado, Texas - As law enforcement officials fearing a Waco-type incident prepare to breach the polygamous sect's temple at the YFZ Ranch, Texas State Troopers speed through a roadblock, en route to reinforce the assault which would meet with only minimal non-violent resistance.

Eldorado, Texas - As law enforcement officials fearing a Waco-type incident prepare to breach the polygamous sect's temple at the YFZ Ranch, Texas State Troopers speed through a roadblock, en route to reinforce the assault which would meet with only minimal non-violent resistance.

Eldorado, Texas - After removing nearly 500 women and children from the polygamous sect's YFZ Ranch, local law enforcement officials and the FBI breached the bolted doors to the polygamous sect's temple, producing thousands of boxes of evidence to be sifted through in a search for proof of sexual abuse and underage marriage.

Eldorado, Texas - After removing nearly 500 women and children from the polygamous sect's YFZ Ranch, local law enforcement officials and the FBI breached the bolted doors to the polygamous sect's temple, producing hundreds of boxes of evidence to be sifted through in a search for proof of sexual abuse and underage marriage.

Eldorado, Texas - In justifying the removal nearly 500 women and children from the YFZ Ranch, Marleigh Meisner, spokesperson for Texas Child Protective Services, expressed the agency's concerned opinion that the FLDS culture was one of abuse which raised young girls to be married off to older men and young boys to become sexual predators.

Eldorado, Texas - In justifying the removal nearly 500 women and children from the YFZ Ranch, Marleigh Meisner, spokesperson for Texas Child Protective Services, expressed the agency's concerned opinion that the FLDS culture was one of abuse which raised young girls to be married off to older men and young boys to become sexual predators.

San Angelo, Texas - Janet, an FLDS matriarch, tearfully embraces young girls as they arrive at the old historic Fort Concho, where nearly 500 FLDS women and children would be temporarily sheltered in primitive buildings such as former horse barns. The large amount of people that Texas Child Protective Services called victims overwhelmed the state's foster care system.

San Angelo, Texas - Janet, an FLDS matriarch, tearfully embraces young girls as they arrive at the historic Fort Concho, where hundreds of FLDS women and children would be temporarily sheltered in primitive buildings such as former horse barns. The large amount of people that Texas Child Protective Services called victims threatened to overwhelm the state's foster care system.

San Angelo, Texas - Young FLDS women gather behind a fence at Fort Concho, waving to other FLDS women in another building out of view. Texas Child Protective Services and Texas State Troopers made every effort to keep the nearly 500 women and children in custody out of view, going so far as to confiscate cel phones and other electronic devices.

San Angelo, Texas - Young FLDS women gather behind a fence at Fort Concho, waving to other FLDS women in another building out of view. Texas Child Protective Services and Texas State Troopers made every effort to keep the nearly 500 women and children in custody out of view and out of contact, going so far as to confiscate their cel phones.

San Angelo, Texas - A group of FLDS boys run from journalists at Fort Concho after being ordered away by Texas Child Protective Services officials. Soon CPS would separate the mothers from their children and spread the children throughout the state into foster care.

San Angelo, Texas - A group of FLDS boys run from journalists at Fort Concho after being ordered away by Texas Child Protective Services officials. Soon CPS would separate the mothers from their children and spread the children into shelters throughout the state.

Eldorado, Texas - Back on the YFZ Ranch for the first time since the raid began ten days earlier, Marie Musser, an FLDS mother of three, clings to a post for support while telling the story of CPS taking her three children from her away earlier that day. For a secretive group that had long kept the outside world at a distance, the thought of their children living in the modern world among outsiders and without their parents had become a painful reality.

Eldorado, Texas - Back on the YFZ Ranch for the first time since the raid began ten days earlier, Marie Musser, an FLDS mother of three, clings to a post for support while telling the story of CPS taking her children from her earlier that day. For a secretive group that had long kept the outside world at a distance, the thought of their children living in the modern world among outsiders and without their parents had become a painful reality.

San Angelo, Texas - Hundred of attorneys, officials, and FLDS members lined up to get through security and into the Tom Green County Courthouse for the initial 14-day hearing to decide the fate of the 416 children removed in the raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch. As each child and parent were entitled to a state-appointed attorney, the hearing was quickly bogged down with objections from dozens of attorneys. After two long days of hearings, including twenty-one hours of testimony, Judge Barbara Walther ruled that CPS could keep the FLDS children in foster care until at least the next hearing, scheduled for two months after the raid began.

San Angelo, Texas - Hundred of attorneys, officials, and FLDS members lined up to get through security and into the Tom Green County Courthouse for the initial hearing to decide the fate of the 416 children removed in the raid on the FLDS Church's YFZ Ranch. As each child and parent were entitled to a state-appointed attorney, the hearing was quickly bogged down with objections from dozens of attorneys. After two long days of hearings, including twenty-one hours of testimony, Judge Barbara Walther ruled that CPS could keep the FLDS children in foster care until at least the next hearing, scheduled for two months after the raid began.

San Angelo, Texas - FLDS member Dan Jessop and his wife Louisa Bradshaw wade through media cameras as they leave the Tom Green County Courthouse after a custody hearing on the status of their newborn son. CPS had refused proof that Bradshaw was an adult until her child was born in state custody, at which point they sought to take custody of the newborn. Bradshaw did her case no good by refusing to answer such seemingly simple questions as who attended her wedding and who else lived in her home.

San Angelo, Texas - FLDS member Dan Jessop and his wife Louisa Bradshaw wade through media cameras as they leave the Tom Green County Courthouse after a custody hearing on the status of their newborn son. CPS had refused proof that Bradshaw was an adult until her child was born in state custody, at which point they sought to take custody of the newborn. Bradshaw did her case no good by refusing to answer such seemingly simple questions as who attended her wedding and who else lived in her home.

Eldorado, Texas - Nearly two months after 416 FLDS children had been removed from the polygamous sect's YFZ Ranch, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that CPS must return the children due to a lack of evidence. Having spent two months in a shelter, Edson Jessop's young sons Zachery, Ephraim and Russell Jessop wanted nothing more than to see an end to the persistent media coverage and return to their quiet family life on the ranch.

Eldorado, Texas - Nearly two months after 416 FLDS children had been removed from the polygamous sect's YFZ Ranch, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that CPS must return the children due to a lack of sufficient evidence. Having spent two months in a shelter, Edson Jessop's young sons Zachery, Ephraim and Russell Jessop wanted nothing more than to see an end to the persistent media coverage and return to their quiet family life on the ranch.

Eldorado, Texas - FLDS member Sarah Draper waits to testify to a grand jury at the Schleicher County Courthouse. Though CPS was forced to return over four-hundred FLDS children to their parents, evidence seized in the raid led to grand jury hearings that resulted in sexual abuse and underage marriage charges being filed against several FLDS men including the polygamous sect's imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs. The men are currently awaiting trial.

Eldorado, Texas - FLDS member Sarah Draper waits to testify to a grand jury at the Schleicher County Courthouse. Though CPS was forced to return over four-hundred FLDS children to their parents, evidence seized in the raid led to grand jury hearings that resulted in sexual abuse and underage marriage charges being filed against several FLDS men including the polygamous sect's imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs. The men are currently awaiting trial while courts examine the validity of the search warrants.

Children Return To YFZ

We wait at the locked gate of the YFZ ranch. It’s over 100 degrees out, coupled with that West Texas wind that never seems to stop blowing. Two hours later we are admitted. We drive down the long road to what I’ve heard called the guard tower (by outsiders) or the gatehouse (by insiders). Today it has a new sign: “Information Center.”

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We are told about a reunion that’s about to take place. A van full of boys is here and they are going to see Grandma Gloria for the first time since they were removed in the raid two months ago. We had met and photographed Grandma Gloria a week before.

We meet the van at an industrial part of the ranch. I grab my cameras and walk up by the driver’s side with an FLDS man who is escorting us. Brooke continues on around the van to see the reunion but I’m stopped. Our escort says no pictures. I offer to photograph the boys from behind so their identities are protected.

No dice. No pictures.

I look through the tinted glass window and see Grandma Gloria hugging the boys on the other side of the van. Now I’m missing this great moment. I’m at my boiling point now. We wait two hours to get onto the ranch only to get shut out. Frustrated, I turn around and walk back to the car, putting my cameras on the back seat. I get in, lean the seat back and let out a huge exhale of tension. Here I am looking at a touching, authentic scene that humanizes their community and illustrates the reunion of families and they don’t want it shown.

After the reunion is over, we talk with our escort about the no pictures thing. He gives his reasons, which amount to the FLDS not wanting to antagonize CPS. We explain that photographs of these boys would violate nothing in the judge’s order sending the children home. We even give him a copy of the order, which he says he hasn’t seen. He drives off and we sit in the car staring at a junk pile for a half-hour.

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I’m very frustrated at this point, after the two-hour wait and then no pictures. The moment was right there, five feet away, and my cameras had to stay at my side. Am I naive to hope for more openness from this secretive community? I’m fully aware that their history has given them countless reasons to avoid publicity, but moments like the reunion I just witnessed seem completely harmless.

Looking at the large pile of scrap metal junk, I start to wonder what is the point of being here? What are we going to get? Is it worth sticking around? But of course getting on the ranch is no small thing, so we wait.

Our escort comes back and says that a family is going to go out to the gate and do a press conference for the assembled media. We can either leave the ranch and do that or we can wait for them to finish and they’ll come back in and do something separate with us. After spending the past two weeks doing press conferences, we opt for talking to them alone.

Twenty minutes later we meet Edson Jessop and his wife Zavenda with their three sons and one daughter. A photographer and reporter from the Deseret News are now present. We sit in the shade in front of the schoolhouse. Very quickly, the oldest boy covers his face with his hands. And pretty soon the younger boys notice and follow their brother’s lead. The oldest says something like, “Stop taking pictures. We don’t like you taking our pictures.”

“If I was you,” I said, “I’d feel the same way.”

A statement of empathy like that usually works to calm children down, but this boy had a great response.

“Then why are you doing it?” he asked.

I was surprised and it took me a moment to figure out my response. I said, “I guess I’m doing it because I know who I am, and if you knew me you’d know I was a nice guy. Then you wouldn’t be half as mad as you are about me taking pictures.”

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The boys kept their heads down. And you know, it’s not like I wanted them to look up or anything. How they were reacting showed how much they had been through after being taken from their parents two months ago (and the all-night drive home from a faraway shelter).

At one point one of the boys said he wanted to throw rocks at our cameras. Their parents apologized for their behavior but we all insisted that it was completely normal considering the circumstances. After I had a few photos of the boys, I started to focus on the daughter, who had no problems with the camera being there. She just wanted her parents’ attention. An interview situation like this is usually poor for candid moments, but they can still be found.

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After a while the three boys walked off and climbed back into the family’s van. I thought I should go talk to them. The Deseret News photographer beat me to it. I don’t know what he said, but when he was done I left my cameras on the grass and went over to the van. The boys wouldn’t look at me as I thanked them for coming out and talking to us. They asked why I wanted photos of them. I said something like, “Well, because we want to show people that you are home with your family now. There are people who want to take you away from your family and…”

“People DID take us away from our family,” the oldest boy interrupted.

Again I thought, this boy is quick and smart. I said, “You know boys, you are going to remember today, the day you came home, for the rest of your lives. I am going to send each of you a photograph from today and I hope you keep it to help you remember the day you came home to your parents.”

They still weren’t looking at me, but I continued. “Now you don’t have to do this, but if you want to come out and take one picture where you are all smiling with your family, you can. I’m going to go back over there and let you decide. But you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. Thanks for letting me take your picture.”

I walked back to Edson and Zavenda, who were talking to the writers and playing with their young daughter. We sat for a while and then it was time to go.

As we got up to leave, the three boys walked over from the van and stood by their parents. They wanted the family picture.

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