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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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:
As Barbara walked off with her son Dan and her two attorneys…
…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.
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.
Dream about cheesecake.
More photos of reaction to Judge Barbara Walther’s decision to keep over 400 FLDS children in CPS custody. It was a somber parade. I will let the photos speak for themselves.
This is the end of my YFZ Revisited series. Thank you for following it through. I will likely post more photos from Texas and the events of late April, May, June, July, etc. But it won’t be every day.
At the end of the second day, Judge Barbara Walther made her decision. Over 400 FLDS children would remain in CPS custody. The FLDS began to come out of the Tom Green County Courthouse, and I was looking for reaction. Since they weren’t talking, I was looking for body language to show their emotions. We’ll go in chronological order.
These three ladies were next to come out.
I stayed focused on them as they slowly walked down the steps.
They walked right past me.
And then they were caught in the media pack.
I followed from behind.
For just a little while and then ran back to look for other people.
Only just now did I find this frame and it’s now one of my favorites. Symbolically, I think of someone wading into the surf at oceanside. (The media is the surf.) And thanks to college photographer of the year Tim Hussin for adding so much drama as he runs toward the shot with his camera swinging wide. The more I look at it the more I look at it. Here’s the entire sequence.
So I’m guessing that the woman at right is a CPS escort, accompanying these two women to the courthouse and then back to the shelter where their children are being held.
After my favorite shot up top, this is where we pick up.
The FLDS woman wades into the surf…
The cameras part…
Everyone looking for a comment of any kind…
I don’t think there was one…
I worked this angle a lot, trying to get people and the columns of the Tom Green County Courthouse but I never got a shot as nice as some of the other photographers. The lighting at this moment was too harsh. There were some great photographers covering the hearing who produced amazing, artistic work. I think I left the artistic style behind and went more with a straight documentary approach, looking for content and moments. It’s a constant struggle for me, deciding between the two approaches.
Judge Barbara Walther arrived under heavy security, entering through the back door of the building.
Sam Brower, Brent Jeffs.
This was an interesting moment.
And when these ladies walked up, it seemed like more of the same. Until I looked closer:
Some kind of tag on their arm. These women must have been staying with their children in state custody and had been given the wristband as some kind of ID.
Another early start, I arrive early at court to photograph people as they arrive.
I photograph the group from a distance. Marie is there on the phone. She moves out of sight behind a column.
Waiting for the doors to open.
At one point this group exited the courthouse and headed toward City Hall, where a simulcast of the hearing was being broadcast.
They were quickly swarmed by cameras. It’s amazing how interesting people walking down the sidewalk can be at a big news story.
They came to the end of the block and waited at the crosswalk for the light to change.
Notice the smart tactic of the two women standing behind the group. Looking through the photos now, I’m noticing that those two would often walk in the “second row,” behind other FLDS women. Because of this, most of the TV cameras seemed to miss them.
I’m sure reporters were asking questions during all this, but no one said anything.
I circled around.
More questions being asked…
…Still no answers.
I went into City Hall for a while and listened to what was going on. With over four hundred attorneys, it was a complete circus (and I’m not talking about any decisions being made, it was a circus procedurally). Every minute seemed to being a new objection from one lawyer or another. I could tell we were going to be here for quite a while.
I took this photograph back at the courthouse, when I realized that it was dark and I’d been outside the courthouse for twelve straight hours. The attorneys in the courtroom were taking a break, and shortly after this shot they recessed for the night. The hearing would continue bright and early the next day.
Officers outside the Tom Green County Courthouse to provide security for the mandatory 14-day custody hearing for over 400 children removed from the FLDS Church’s YFZ Ranch.
People began arriving pretty early. I had met this woman the day before when we poked our heads into her SUV. She stood outside the courthouse for a brief moment while the man she walked in with (her attorney?) talked with some reporters.
Two very different emotions in the photo above and the one below, considering that she would either have her kids returned or kept in custody in the hearing to follow.
In walk the attorneys for the FLDS: Rod Parker, “spokesman” Willie Jessop, Richard Wright, Bruce Griffen (he’s back there somewhere).
I love the look on her face after wading through the media, who gathered in a pack at this entryway. Doesn’t she look calm in contrast to their frenzy?
Out of the 400+ attorneys who came to the hearing to represent all sides, Susan Hays was the only one who stopped to talk. She became a regular fixture in news reports on the case. If she was a cartoon character, her catchphrase would be, “I won’t talk about my client.”
The line began to form outside the courthouse, and pretty soon it stretched halfway across the block.
A tornado ripped through San Angelo the night of the 9th. Around midnight I stood at the window of my pitch-black hotel room staring out at the natural fury. Huge hailstones pelted the window which I expected to shatter at any moment. Soon water was pouring in through leaks in the drywall.
A few hours later it was dawn and I was on a plane flying above the storm, heading home for a two-day break.
I know I’m going to lose some street cred for this, but I put on Coldplay’s X&Y album and stared out the window at the passing storm and rising sun. The music and exhaustion brought me to a feeling of weightlessness.
Feelings from the past week pulsed through me. In this state of consciousness, I wrote down a bunch of words straight from the heart, which are in a steno pad somewhere around here…
…Oh, here it is…
Tuesday was a long one day. And then came the tip that I could go the airspace over the YFZ Ranch had opened up.
After the flight
As I’ve said repeatedly, the flight was amazing. Another photographer (who also went up) texted me: HOW SICK WAS THAT?!
(Sick meaning cool in this case.)
As I drove back to San An It was a 45 minute drive back to the hotel. I powered up the iPod, listening to music for the first time in five days. With the familiar tunes came an initial sense of exhilarating peace calm. My mind stopped thinking and I felt sated in the hard work of the day.
And then, as often a wave of emotion. If I could describe it maybe I would say a severe sense of feeling of humility that comes when it hits you me that what I do has the power to impact so many people. The humility is based in a sense of concern that I’m doing this job of reporting correct and fairly.
It’s a humbling feeling.
Part of it is just the emotion that you suck up watching events that are impacting other human beings. I don’t really allow myself to feel anything when I photograph scenes like when the women were in tears and praying for some sort of peace.
But you have to emotionally process it sooner or later and as I drove, the music brought it all up and I was grateful to have been able to tell the stories show this history through my photographs.
I’m flying home to take a short break from the YFZ story. Back to Salt Lake to hug the kids wife, play with the kids, and turn 40.
The events of the last week happened caught me completely by surprise. But the three years Brooke and I have spent covering polygamy together put us in position to dominate this story. And with a few lucky breaks along the way, I think it’s clear that we did.
But it doesn’t happen
But it was
But it would be
But I’ve got to be honest. So many people contributed to making it all come together. Some thanks are in order.
Thanks first to Brooke for pushing me. Her work ethic is unmatched.
Thanks to all of Brooke’s sources, who I believe make our coverage deeper and more fleshed out that anyone else’s. Your knowledge is invaluable as we seek to tell this story often
Stan of the X-Bar Ranch- thanks for the hospitality
Randy and Kathy Mankin- thanks for the stew. I know you think it’s weird but I fell in love with your (can I say) wonderfully cluttered office. Never throw out the border tape!
Khampha and Bill from Fort Worth
Erich Schlegel – huge thanks.
Mike Terry and Brian West – our honorable competition. Great work.
Aaron at Channel 4, Tony Gutierrez at AP, Patrick Dove.
Jerry and Susan @ The Old Chicken Farm
Kyle the helicopter pilot
Knowing that the crew Having rock-solid support from the Tribune was greatly appreciated, especially from Susan, Michael, Jeremy, Emily. (Hope you read this before you see my timesheet!)
Of course, thanks to Laura and my boys.
You guys put up
Know that when I’m away
This kind of shot is something you pre-plan. You know they’ll be walking down the steps so you try to make it interesting. Also interesting, since this was the first hearing, none of the Texas media knew who this guy was, or that he was an FLDS member.
He made it past the media pack and only one crew made any attempt to get him to talk. He didn’t. After he passed I went back to the steps for the next guy.
It’s attorney Gerald Goldstein. No matter how many times he said he would only talk in the courtroom, reporters kept asking questions.
Look at the mad scramble to get in front of him.
Next to leave were these three.
Mystery man in denim, Willie Jessop, and attorney Richard Wright.
Later that night, over some Olive Garden take-out and a few long distance phone calls, we were able to name the mystery man. And don’t hate on the Olive Garden; It was our third day in San Angelo and we hadn’t yet found the good spots.
Here’s how the whole “coming out of court” would go for your typical FLDS witness or big player lawyer…
At this first hearing we were allowed on the courthouse steps, so that’s the first shot. Most everyone else is waiting at the bottom of the steps, filming you as you walk down.
Then there’s kind of a mad scramble as the cameras try to stay ahead of you:
Some cameras leapfrog you.
If you’re lucky you’ve got a big guy on your legal team who walks in front of you as a human shield.
About half the cameras stop as you leave the courthouse property for the parking lot.
But a few cameras stay with you all the way to your car.
Soon they run back to the steps for the next subject and it starts again.
I show up late to the Tom Green County Courthouse and fire off this frame of the scene before running over to join the throng. There’s a hearing today on the legality of the raid. And you know, for the Utah media, this building being named after Tom Green is quite ironic. Tom Green was Utah’s most famous/notorious polygamist earlier in the decade.
I’m not on this side of the cameras because I want to be on TV. It seems important to show the cameras, the amount of them, etc.
On a story like this you try to photograph everyone going in, whether you know who they are or not. We knew who Willie was. The guy at center, we’d spend a good part of the day figuring out who he was.
After the FLDS woman goes in, the waiting game begins. They have to come out eventually, so we sit and wait.
A microphone stand is set up at the bottom of the courthouse steps and everyone adds their mic to the mix. When everyone leaves this hearing, no one will stop to talk.
Another day, another press conference. At this point Marleigh Meisner is one of our only sources of information, as the FLDS aren’t talking much.
The press conferences have been moved into the auditorium of an art museum. Finally enough room for all of the cameras.
At the end Marleigh gets swarmed by reporters asking further questions. I have audio of all of this, which I need to go back and listen to. In fact, that’s my blurry hand holding what looks like an electric razor. It’s the audio recorder we got, replacing the older model that looked like a stun gun. People are much more receptive to me holding an electric razor up to their face than they were with the stun gun.
This panorama of the scene was built automatically by PhotoShop, working from several photos. For the record, I had nothing to do with making the guy at center right look like an elf with a big ear. The computer did it.