Best of Utah 2009 – City Weekly

bestofutah.jpgHow cool is this? I made City Weekly’s Best of Utah list. And just look at the name of the award:


Thank you very much, City Weekly. My parents will be so proud!

For anyone who came here from the City Weekly mention (which is quite a chore considering the crazy URL we’ve got here- 166.70.what?), I’ve linked to some of the posts they praised in the text of the award:

When hundreds of journalists descended on West Texas for two months to cover the state raid on the FLDS compound in El Dorado, Salt Lake Tribune chief photographer Trent Nelson kept careful account of the details on his blog Fly on the Wall ( Nelson puts some of his best photos on the blog, as well as ironic and sometimes deeply emotional posts related to the stories he documents. His posts on the FLDS story illustrated the drama, as well as frequent boredom, that comes with hunkering down in a small town to cover a big story.

Thanks again to City Weekly.

Meeting Betty Jessop

NOTE: I have spent years covering polygamy and events in the FLDS community, including the first trial of Warren Jeffs and the 2008 raid on the YFZ Ranch in Texas. You can find all of my posts on polygamy by clicking here: Category:Polygamy

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There are two competing story lines to Betty Jessop, which I think are summed up in the two photos above.

1. The FLDS view (on the left) is a smiling and happy young FLDS woman who returned to her faith and family when she turned 18 and now lives a wonderful life surrounded by family and friends.

2. The worldly view (for lack of a better term) is a curiosity and sadness that this young girl had escaped a cult but chose to return to its secretive culture and give up her freedom.

Please use a permanent marker to circle your position on the computer screen. Especially if you are at work.

Hey, did I mention that I met Betty Jessop?

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We were ushered into this dining room area in a home on the YFZ Ranch and met Betty. She was surrounded by (I’m guessing) her sisters and other family members. They were all a little nervous at all the attention, and there was much giggling. I don’t think too many strangers with cameras come around.

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Betty laughed and was a little camera shy at first. It was the end of a long day and she hadn’t expected to have her photo taken tonight. She was hardly the first young woman to ask me to delete any “ugly” pictures. I thought she looked great. We sat down and she talked, and after thirty minutes or so it was over.

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Last night I went to a local bookstore to hear Betty’s mother, Carolyn Jessop, talk about her bestselling book, Escape. As she read about Betty, Carolyn got emotional. At one point, reading about her leaving, she told of going back into the house to get her daughter and saying, “Betty, I will not leave you behind!”

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During the Q&A Carolyn was asked how her kids are doing now. Speaking of Betty, she said that Betty had turned down a friend’s offer to pay for college. About Brooke’s article on the front page yesterday, FLDS Teen Disputes Mom’s Book, Carolyn said, “That’s been very painful.” Brooke’s story focused on a book that Betty has been writing about her experiences in and out of the FLDS community. Someone described it to me as “Escape From Escape.”

Carolyn said that Betty had lots of friends when she was attending public school after leaving the FLDS (in West Jordan, a suburb of Salt Lake City), and she worried that the book might destroy Betty’s relationships with those friends, further locking her into the FLDS society.

Someone asked if the FLDS members of Carolyn’s family had read the book. Carolyn said she didn’t know, that if any had they would never admit it as the book would be contraband. During our interview with Betty, she said she had read parts of her mother’s book, and expressed hurt by some of it.

Carolyn talked about how smart Betty was, and suggested that Betty would be saddened at the state of education among the FLDS. She said Betty had taken a child development class in high school, and would know sexual abuse when she saw it.

Someone said to Carolyn, “I have a hard time understanding what is pulling Betty back.” Carolyn said that Betty was a favorite of her father, that he named her his favorite name. She said Merril was very protective of Betty. If the girls got in trouble the punishment would be, “A slap to the sisters and a sucker for Betty.”

According to Carolyn, leaving the community was a big blow to Betty. In the FLDS community, she never got in trouble. She was the favored daughter of one of the most powerful men. Teachers bowed to Betty. She had the world by the tail. When she left and went to a public school, she felt alone. She missed her half brother. All the kids had a hard time without their siblings.

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I think you are seeing some of the people that Betty felt alone without in these photos.

The mind control is really strong, Carolyn said. We sent her to twelve therapists; it was impossible to break through the mind control.

Carolyn said she calls and texts Betty all the time, though she wasn’t sure if it was really Betty’s number or if Betty even had access to a phone. “Once in a while I get a call,” Carolyn said.

I remembered that Betty had a phone and a camera, which you see in most of these photos.

Carolyn said that if Betty wanted to get out, she would. “I would make sure,” said Carolyn.

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.



Dream about cheesecake.

YFZ Revisited – April 18, 2008 – The End

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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.

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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.

YFZ Revisited – April 18, 2008 – The Decision

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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.

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These three ladies were next to come out.

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I stayed focused on them as they slowly walked down the steps.

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They walked right past me.

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And then they were caught in the media pack.

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I followed from behind.

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For just a little while and then ran back to look for other people.

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YFZ Revisited – April 18, 2008 – Wading In

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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.

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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.

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After my favorite shot up top, this is where we pick up.

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The FLDS woman wades into the surf…

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The cameras part…

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Everyone looking for a comment of any kind…

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I don’t think there was one…

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YFZ Revisited – April 18, 2008 – Walking In

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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.

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Judge Barbara Walther arrived under heavy security, entering through the back door of the building.

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Sam Brower, Brent Jeffs.

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This was an interesting moment.

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And when these ladies walked up, it seemed like more of the same. Until I looked closer:

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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.

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YFZ Revisited – April 17, 2008 – Lunch Break and Beyond

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At one point this group exited the courthouse and headed toward City Hall, where a simulcast of the hearing was being broadcast.

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They were quickly swarmed by cameras. It’s amazing how interesting people walking down the sidewalk can be at a big news story.

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They came to the end of the block and waited at the crosswalk for the light to change.

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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.

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I’m sure reporters were asking questions during all this, but no one said anything.

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I circled around.

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More questions being asked…

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…Still no answers.

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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.

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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.

YFZ Revisited – April 17, 2008 – Hearing Begins

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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.

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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.

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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.

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In walk the attorneys for the FLDS: Rod Parker, “spokesman” Willie Jessop, Richard Wright, Bruce Griffen (he’s back there somewhere).

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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?

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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.”

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The line began to form outside the courthouse, and pretty soon it stretched halfway across the block.

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YFZ Revisited – April 14, 2008 – Marie

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Last post from the media availability with FLDS women on the YFZ Ranch after they were removed from their children by CPS. This is Marie, who had three children taken in from her earlier in the day.

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From Marie’s personal account of the raid:

We loaded into vehicles and came right to Grandfather’s home. We immediately met with some of the attorneys. They asked us if we wanted to give our stories. About 5:30, they let the media in, and we gave our stories by Grandfather’s house. Our emotions were high, and the experience was fresh on our minds.

That night we slept on some bunk beds at the Big House. That bed felt good! My thoughts continually turned to my three boys. I yearned unto the Lord that they would not feel that I had forsaken them, for as I walked back to famous side room, I thought, “I’d rather die than have them take these precious children from me. I’d rather fight to the death then let them do that.” But the Heavenly Father had a different plan, and I have learned that His ways are best.

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After she had talked with several reporters, a concerned Rod Parker walked over and told Marie to head upstairs, for her own sake. She was obviously spent. You can read Marie’s personal account of the raid at this link.

YFZ Revisited – April 14, 2008 – The Balcony

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(For the record, that’s a composite panoramic of several photographs.)

During the media availability with FLDS women whose children had been taken by CPS at the YFZ Ranch, the balcony overlooking the scene was a sort of time out box. When they were done reliving their stories to reporters, they could go up the stairs and be away from us.

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YFZ Revisited – April 14, 2008 – Stories Told


As the media availability on the YFZ Ranch continued, the FLDS women were very emotional telling their personal accounts of being separated from their children by CPS earlier that day.

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Not only the Kleenex, look at the body language in the fingers.

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The reporter from People Magazine spoke a lot to this group of women:

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They seemed to be speaking more about their lifestyle than about losing their children, though I can’t be sure— it wasn’t my interview. I wondered if they would get the cover over Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie.

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These two were posing for the photographer People Magazine had hired:

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And this is the moment when he took the shot that put them on the cover of People Magazine. Bet they never thought in a million years they would staring out at every check-out lane in America’s grocery stores.

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Last frame for today:

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This woman told me about the mormon hymn book she had taken with her to the shelter, “I’m so glad I had this with me.”

YFZ Revisited – April 14, 2008 – Media at YFZ

More photos from the first ever FLDS media opportunity at the YFZ Ranch, this time focusing on the journalists and media that were there.

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You know how I said before that it turned into a mix and mingle? See:

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Marie got a lot of attention. She was obviously very distraught over her three young children being taken away.

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One reporter gave her a hug:

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At one point I started watching a reporter asking Sally questions about the claims of child-brides and criminal activity among the FLDS living on the ranch. She wouldn’t answer and kept trying to keep the conversation on the children being taken away from their mothers, but the newsman kept pursuing his line of tough questions. Finally she couldn’t take it anymore and put her head in her hands:

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Here is the rest of the sequence as Sally walked off on the reporter. This happened fast, two seconds tops: