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Fatal flood opens old wounds for an isolated, polygamous sect with a dark past

A divided religious community led by a convicted child abuser lost 12 women and children this week.

Fatal Flash Floods Source: Associated Press

TWO SMASHED CARS covered in mud, and a few bunches of wildflowers arranged nearby are the only visual reminders that nine children and three women died this week, when flash floods ripped through this small polygamous town on the border between Utah and Arizona.

Small makeshift memorials have only started emerging. There are no public plans for a memorial service, and few outward signs of grief.

There is just red mud on roadways and a strange, quiet divide in a community that holds non-believers at arm’s length.

The deaths briefly united followers and defectors of jailed polygamist leader Warren Jeffs as they scrambled to find survivors from Monday’s flood.

But the animosity soon returned.

“Though there seemed to be some mingling, the lines of segregation were pretty obvious,” said Dowayne Barlow, who left the church three years ago but recently returned to Hildale, Utah, a town ruled by the sect.

utah-5 FLDS community members in Colorado City, Arizona. Source: PA Images

In this secretive religious group run by Jeffs, funerals are handled discreetly.

If you’re not a member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), you’re not welcome.

The majority of the 7,700 residents in the sister towns of Hildale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, belong to the sect. Hundreds of others have ties to FLDS members, though they are no longer followers.

Members are regularly ostracized for transgressions. Some of them, usually young men, repent and may return. Others are barred for life.

Many have left on their own, deciding not to follow the strict rules or a leader serving life in prison in Texas for sexually assaulting underage girls he considered brides.

Jeffs Auction Vehicle Warren Jeffs Source: Associated Press

Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow, an FLDS member and Dowayne Barlow’s cousin, has demurred when asked about memorials, saying the community was allowing the families to mourn.

He emphasized the desire for privacy, displayed in the little information released about the victims or the three young survivors.

But Dowayne Barlow and other former members hope more is done to honour the victims.

They started by hanging drawings and messages of sympathy done by schoolchildren at a town park Thursday. They are hoping to organize a public memorial next week.

We don’t want this to be an unnoticed event.

Fatal Flash Floods Searchers comb through mud and debris while looking for the last remaining victim of this week's flooding. Source: Associated Press

Non-fundamentalists also held a modest candlelight vigil Wednesday that no sect members appeared to attend.

Until then, the desperate search was the only way for some people, including Willie Jessop, to honour their loved ones.

The only way we can show it, is to find ‘em.

Jessop, a former FLDS spokesman and Jeff’s bodyguard who left the sect in 2011, said two of the women who died — Josephine and Naomi Jessop — are his cousins. He described them as devout, energetic women with a rare spark.

They were people that had an uncanny ability to be very happy.

Fatal Flash Floods Source: Associated Press

The sect is a radical offshoot of mainstream Mormonism whose members believe polygamy brings exaltation in heaven.

Polygamy is a legacy of the early teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the mainstream faith prohibits it today.

The sect has a deep-seated loathing of government and outsiders, a belief that stems from government raids in Hildale in 1953 and at a sect compound in Eldorado, Texas, in 2008.

Hundreds of children were taken from their families by authorities enforcing bigamy laws and, in Texas, allegations of child sexual abuse.

Though Jeffs has been in jail since 2006, it is believed he rules the sect through letters and phone calls from prison. One of his brothers, Lyle Jeffs, ensures the leader’s commands are carried out.

To the faithful, roughly estimated at about 6,000, Warren Jeffs is a prophet who speaks for God.

Fatal Flash Floods Source: Associated Press

Utah and Arizona ban polygamy, but prosecutors rarely enforce laws unless they can prove other crimes, such as child abuse.

The sect’s desire for autonomy and its distrust of government was on display at a press conference on Thursday, given by two men who lost wives and children.

They expressed gratitude for support while also decrying what they called religious persecution.

Sheldon Black Jr. quietly read from a statement, which didn’t mention by name his missing six-year-old son Tyson, or his wife Della Black and four daughters who died.

He did say a private funeral would be held.

Fatal Flash Floods Sheldon Black, Jr., and his two surviving sons speak to the media on Thursday. Source: Associated Press

But he quickly turned to evictions ordered by officials running a church trust seized a decade ago by the state of Utah.

The evictions came after residents refused to pay $100-a-month occupancy fees for years, depriving the trust of more than $4 million.

We ask that this religious genocide stop.

Joseph N. Jessop, who lost five children and his wives Josephine and Naomi Jessop, who were also sisters, said on Thursday he hoped he and fellow church members would get their homes back and be allowed “to live our religion in peace”.

Despite the lingering chasm, some see encouraging signs. Government officials are usually shunned, but Utah’s Lieutenant Governor Spencer J. Cox was welcomed to town on Tuesday.

“I want you to know that if there’s a silver lining that’s coming out of this, it’s that they’re letting us help,” Cox later told local politicians.

Read: Polygamy sect leader jailed for child abuse – but his cult ‘will continue’>

Read: Polygamist church leader Warren Jeffs convicted of child sex abuse>

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