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.

People Walking Into Court … or … Having More Fun Than Humanly Possible

The last time I was in San Angelo I took souvenir photographs of the courthouse and grounds, thinking, “This is it. I’ll never be back to this place.”

As you can guess, I was wrong. But so was the guy who told me something to the effect of, “Today’s custody hearing is going to be over quick— No more than five minutes.”

Barbara Jessop was in court today for a custody hearing on her 14-year-old daughter (who CPS alleges was married to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs when she was 12) who is currently in foster care. So I was after photos of Barbara going in and out of court as well as whatever else I could find. If I was lucky, there would be a good photo to be made.

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I was tipped off about which direction they would walk in from. Positioning myself across the street made for a lousy start, as the downtown construction they walked through, well, you can see for yourself (above).

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I tried to incorporate the courthouse in a way I hadn’t really done before. There was lots more freedom of movement today, with only me and two video cameramen on the scene.

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After they went in it was time to sit and wait. Five minutes went by but the hearing wasn’t over. Then five minutes went by at least twenty more times. While we waited, the TV guys would film anyone who walked into the courthouse, just in case they were involved. One guy, below, who had nothing to do with the FLDS cases, held a blue folder in front of his face to conceal his secret identity:

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I thought I had a good angle for when they came out, with the shadows of a tree falling on the columns of the courthouse. It didn’t quite work, with too many people grouped too tight. Here is that shot, cropped loose:

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As Barbara walked off with her son Dan and her two attorneys…

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…I ran down to shoot with the courthouse behind them. Looking at the photo now, the overly joyous looks on the attorneys’ faces had me thinking of a funny article I read earlier today.

At the End of a Long Day

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The photograph tells you where I saw the sun go down Wednesday night. Okay, if you don’t know it’s the FLDS temple outside Eldorado, Texas.

This is how the trip goes:

Wake up before 6am.

Make my kids’ lunches for the next three days. Let my wife’s dog out to pee.

Say goodbye. Drive to airport. A bunch of other annoyances en route to getting on plane, like the $15 charge to check a suitcase and the TSA agent who asks me to remove my hoodie.

Buy three chocolate chip scones at Starbucks, which I will eat at various moments over the next couple days and/or finally discard when they get too stale and hard.

Talk on plane with Brooke about how to save the newspaper industry and swap a bunch of polygamy news so that we’re current. Here’s one item we talked about, the blog of a “young” “mormon” “girl” “looking into” joining a plural marriage. Interesting, and a bit creepy. But I’m thinking it’s fake as all get out.

We land in Dallas to an urgent text message from a source: “Call me immediately!”

The news? Two polygamist leaders in Canada arrested and charged with polygamy. We both think, Why does this always happen when we travel somewhere?

Now we’re working a story in Canada and one in Texas. Too much chaos, too many phone calls. It’s nuts.

Layover is lunch time. Nearly settle for Popeye’s Chicken. Came this close. Instead, find a sit-down Mexican restaurant with power outlet at the bar to charge dead laptop and cel phone batteries.

Bad, expensive airport lunch.

At gate, sit on floor for almost two hours because it’s the only place near a power outlet. Fix multiple issues with Brooke’s laptop. Continue working Canada story. Wondering if we’ll rerouted there instead of Texas, but remembering how cold even southernmost Canada is at this time of year.

Fly to San Angelo. Rent car. Nibble on chocolate chip scone while driving to YFZ Ranch. Rushed in and meet a few people, some of whom have appeared on the blog.

Sent out to drive around the ranch, sans escort. Photograph beautiful sunset. Park on the rock pile and smell the mulch pile while we make calls reporting on and planning possible travel to Canada. Mom gives border crossing advice and says there is six feet of snow in Spokane.

Rejoin group at main house. Watch people eat olives, carrots, nuts, pickles. My picture is taken. Photograph subject of interview (which can’t be talked about just yet).

Drive to San Angelo while on phone about Canada (can’t really discuss the final plans here). Arrive at Outback Steakhouse ten minutes before closing. Order. Eat. Order cheesecake.

Check in at hotel. Talk Brooke into not leaving for tomorrow’s story until the late hour of 8:15am local time. Put cheesecake in fridge, uneaten.

Blog.

Sleep.

Dream about cheesecake.