Town's fears of FLDS easing

Colorado burg has formed group to educate about sect

Desert News, Utah/October 14, 2008

Residents of a tiny Colorado mountain town are adjusting to their new neighbors, but some remain uneasy about Fundamentalist LDS Church members' intense desire for privacy.

"I'm not opposed to the FLDS being here. I'm opposed to the crimes associated with the FLDS in our community," said a woman named Maura, who lives in Westcliffe, Colo. "I have an issue about the fact that they're affiliated with numerous leaders who have been indicted or found guilty of numerous crimes." Maura declined to give her last name out of concern for her safety stemming from an unrelated personal issue, but she has founded a group called Step Up whose mission is to educate the town about the FLDS. In recent town meetings, they have invited guest speakers who have worked with those who have left the faith.

"There's a fear of the unknown," said Elaine Tyler, the director of the St. George-based HOPE Organization, which helps people leaving abusive situations in the polygamous communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

Tyler was in Colorado last month to speak at a community meeting organized by Step Up. About 50 people attended.

"There are fears on both sides. People won't communicate, and then your imagination starts running wild, and that's unhealthy," she said.

Ex-FLDS member and social worker Laura Chapman spoke about her experiences growing up in the faith and problems within the sect. She praised Step Up's education efforts.

"It would be better to be educated and prepared for a boy who might be kicked out or a woman leaving with five children like I did, or a girl trying to escape an arranged marriage," she said.

Chapman, who is a board member of the group Tapestry Against Polygamy, urged the community to avoid a knee-jerk response. She said in Step Up's first meeting there was a feeling of wanting the FLDS to "just up and leave." Since then, she believes the tone has softened.

"This was a nice balance of useful information and holding people accountable," Chapman said. "If they are committing crimes, hold them accountable."

Lee Steed, an FLDS member who purchased the property in Westcliffe, recently told the town's Wet Mountain Tribune newspaper that it is merely a home for his family and some elderly women and their caregivers.

"I appreciate their concern and their wanting to help, but they need to help someone who wants to be helped. I feel bad that maybe we've been painted with a broad brush," he said.

But a lawsuit filed against the FLDS Church claims properties in Westcliffe and surrounding communities had once been safe houses for then-fugitive FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and some of his wives. Steed and an FLDS woman interviewed by the Wet Mountain Tribune said they just want to live quietly.

"We are seeking to be peaceful and law-abiding and pleasant people. ... We like to live by our convictions and let others do the same," the woman told the newspaper.

Maura said her group just wants to educate the town and provide resources for those within the FLDS community. She would not object if an FLDS member sought to speak at their meetings.

"We're doing everything we can to learn," Maura said. "We're doing everything we can to connect with people who have knowledge and are willing to share it and help us try to brainstorm the best way we can create a good community for everybody."

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