COLORADO CITY, Ariz. | As our crew drove toward this small, isolated town on the Utah-Arizona border, we almost missed it. Only a few small businesses line the highway and the city limits sign sits isolated along the desert road.
A few minutes of exploration later, we discovered a few small roads leading off the highway that take you into the center of town. Unlike most downtown areas, there are no signs pointing you in the correct direction of businesses and city hall. Immediately, you get the sense that this town is not trying to draw the attention of outsiders.
I have covered news in just about every corner of the U.S., and my visit to Colorado City was one of the most interesting and unique places I have ever observed. It’s home to an isolated religious sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-day Saints, or FLDS. The church and town are at the center of a federal lawsuit from the Department of Justice, alleging that the town is controlled by the religion, denying residents basic civil rights.
The first person we spoke with was Lenora Allred. We met her at a small satellite office set up by the area’s community college. Allred, 39, is taking classes, hoping she can get a job, support her children and eventually move out of Colorado City.
I was struck by the traditional pastel prairie dress she still wears even though she is no longer in good standing with the FLDS. Her hair was neatly braided and she wore no makeup. And even though it was nearly 100 degrees outside, she still had on special, full-body undergarments - a requirement for members of the church.
Allred agreed to speak to us on camera after consulting with a counselor who is helping her adjust to the possibility of life outside Colorado City. Within moments of our conversation, you cannot help but feel sympathy for this woman. Growing up here, she was strictly raised under church rules, with very limited knowledge of what life is like outside of FLDS.
Allred shared personal stories about physical and verbal abuse she has suffered. As a reporter, these accusations are always hard to substantiate. Talking with her, it was obvious that years of isolation have been emotionally draining. She wants a different life, not only for herself, but for her children.
We also spoke with Tonia Tewell from Holding Out Help, a nonprofit that helps people leave the FLDS and other polygamous communities. Tewell says over the past year an unprecedented number of people have been kicked out of the FLDS by church leaders, with no explanation. Last year she helped over 200 people leave the Colorado City area. “Families that are leaving or kicked out [are] just like refugees, domestic refugees….They need food, clothing, shelter, life skills...Sometimes we can’t give them everything they need”, says Tewell.
Inside FLDS, women own absolutely nothing, as everything belongs to the church or the males in their family. Many of them have very limited education. They are not supposed to access the Internet. They are told to remain silent around outsiders. Also, after being raised in Colorado City, FLDS is not only their church, but their family.
A memorable conversation happened a few feet over the border in Utah during a lunch break on the second day of our shoot. We stopped at the Merry Wives Cafe, the only restaurant you can clearly see from the highway, thanks in part to a sign featuring three cartoon character women cooking. It is well known this part of the country is home to a number of less-reclusive polygamist groups, some have even featured on reality TV shows, such as “Polygamy, USA.”
When we got our food, we sat at a long table with three gentlemen, all of whom were kicked out of the FLDS years ago by FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, whom church members regard as their prophet despite his conviction and incarceration for child sexual assault. I asked the most talkative gentleman, Richard Holm why he left the church. Holm was once a pillar of the FLDS community, with three wives and 17 children, but in 2003 he says he was told by a church elder to leave community and repent for his sins. While he was away repenting, the church re-assigned his wives and children to his brother.
“I decided that the only thing I can do is fight this thing”, says Holm. But he also had an incredible sense of humor, joking about how hard it was to keep his multiple wives "happy."
On a more serious note, Holm and his friends are among the first people to get their homes back from FLDS. The church owns nearly all of the private property in Colorado City. If the church decided to kick out members, their homes were lost. Now the state of Utah has taken over management of the church’s land holdings, but many of the same problems remain.
Holm told me about the pain he felt watching his home end up in the hands of other families, and losing everything he once had. Now after a series of lawsuits, Richard and his friends are back in their homes. Even though they live next door to other members of the church, he and his friends are looked down upon. Many claim they are harassed and intimidated on a regular basis.
As we left Colorado City after days of speaking with as many people as we could, I was left with one question: What will happen to the children raised in this environment?
During our visit we witnessed loads of children riding in the back of pickup trucks. We were told many of them were heading out to work at a very young age, doing chores to support the community. For education and entertainment for children, it’s slim pickings. According to residents, Jeffs forbade FLDS children to attend public schools. He also forbade them to visit the town’s park, and closed down the local zoo.
While most of the children waved at me when I attempted to say hello, a few children were not so polite. Witnessing a camera crew in their community, two young children no older than 8 years old started to scream at us. More specifically, they called us "God-haters."
I wish I could have taken those children to the park, let them jump in a swimming pool and splash around on that hot Arizona day. (Or simply buy them a candy bar.) Children taught to voice that kind of anger have never experienced the simple pleasures that are routine for other American children.