The setting of my recently released novel, The Scent of Rain, is the cult town of Colorado City, Arizona. The story follows 16-year-old Rose as she begins to question the abusive world in which she lives.
People are often astounded when I explain about the situation in Colorado City. They wonder how, in 2017 in the United States of America, there can be a cult enclave where children are routinely physically and sexually abused by design and where old men take girls as young as 12 in forced “marriages.”
First, let’s backtrack a little. The community of Short Creek, which straddles the Arizona-Utah Line, was founded in 1913. The mainstream Mormon church had publicly denounced the practice of polygamy – what was a mainstay belief of the religion – in 1890, as a requirement by the US government for Utah statehood. Those Mormons who insisted on maintaining multiple wives spread throughout Canada, Mexico, and the western parts of the US. They became the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the FLDS, and were subsequently rejected by the mainstream Mormon church.
The people of Short Creek practiced polygamy in relative peace until 1953, when Arizona Governor John Howard Pyle launched an armed raid on the community. But word had leaked and the polygamists were ready. Records show that three explosions signaled the arrival of 200 state troopers. The town’s men stood near an American flag that fluttered in the schoolyard, singing “God Bless America.” The women and children hid in their homes, terrified. The men were arrested, the women forced to move to away, and many of the children were placed in foster care, some never to return to their families.
The whole affair became a media nightmare when pictures of crying children and dejected women were splashed across the pages of the national media. Life magazine wrote a scathing article, decrying the treatment of the people, saying, “It was like hunting rabbits with an elephant gun.”
As the people crept back to their town, which was renamed the dual communities of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, a new secrecy took hold. Rulon Jeffs made himself sole leader of the group in 1986 by eliminating the council of the FLDS church. When he died in 2002, his son, Warren Jeffs, took charge, becoming what the people called “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator.”
The ascension of Warren Jeffs – the 14th of Rulon’s 60 children – was problematic because, even as a young man, he showed a predilection for perversion. In a video released by the Washington County Office of the Attorney General in Texas, Jeffs admitted to “immoral actions with a sister and a daughter” when he was 20. Two-time cult escapee Flora Jessop told me in an interview that Jeffs designed the prairie-style dresses the women wear, outfits that press their breasts flat and hide female curves, because he was more attracted to children than adults.
“If the world knew what I was doing, they would hang me from the highest tree,” Jeffs wrote in one of his many journal entries.
Today, the “Prophet” sits in a jail cell in the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, serving a term of life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting his 12 and 15-year-old child “brides.” Sadly, he continues to run the cult from prison. According to a report by ABC News, FLDS children are taught that Jeff’s is the President of the United States and his people are expected to pray for him every waking hour, an effort to free him from prison. Those who disagree with his many edicts are stripped of their possessions. Wives and children are confiscated like property and distributed to men who toe the “Prophet’s” line. Others, especially teenage boys – who young girls are naturally more attracted to than the old men who covet them – are cast out of the community to fend for themselves in a world they know nothing about.
But why do so many of the estimated 10,000 people living in and around this polygamous community believe Jeff’s outlandish lies? The answer is simple. They don’t know any better. Many of them were born in the local birthing clinics and have never been away from the area, which sits on the desolate Arizona Strip. They have no access to TV or the Internet, or books, or newspapers, or films. They only know what they’re told: The world they live in is Eden, the outside world Hell on Earth. And Warren Jeff’s is their god, who has the right to deny them and their loved ones entrance into the Celestial Kingdom.
So, what can we do? This is a question the state of Arizona has been grappling with ever since the ill-fated 1953 raid. And today, the stakes are higher, because the people are, once again, ready. A system of man-made caves drilled into the mountains behind the community is the place the standoff will occur, if they are attacked again. Jessop told me that cult members’ homes are replete with weapons, often hidden in the walls. The people expect the “Beast”- their term for the government – to make an assault and they will fight and die, if need be, for their way of life.
If the pictures from 1953 provoked an outpouring of sympathy, imagine the images such a confrontation might sear into our brains, an event that would make the horrors of Waco and Jonestown seem like average blips in our 24-hour news cycle.
There is no easy answer. Though, it appears nature might eventually solve the issue of Colorado City. Almost the entire population can trace roots back to just two families: the Jessops and the Barlows. Somewhere along the line a recessive gene appeared. The birth defects caused by what is called Fumarase Deficiency are both widespread and horrendous, resulting in both physical and mental handicaps. Despite this scourge, the people refuse to marry anyone outside the cult community. So, eventually, inbreeding will destroy the people.
But at what cost to the innocent?
Anne Montgomery’s new YA novel, The Scent of Rain, tells the story of two Arizona teenagers whose fates become intertwined. Rose flees into the mountains to escape from her abusive polygamous community where her only future is marriage to a man older than her father. Adan, whose only wish is to be reunited with his mother, is on the run from the cruelties of the foster care system. Are there any adults they can trust? Can they even trust each other? The Scent of Rain is available at http://www.amphoraepublishing.com/product/the-scent-of-rain/ and wherever books are sold.