Polygamy sect crisis as seen through eyes of Texas mayor

Scripps Howard News Service/May 7, 2008

San Angelo, Texas - I was elected mayor of San Angelo, a nice West Texas town of 90,000, in 2003, the same year a bunch of polygamists bought a ranch in Eldorado, about 45 miles south of here on Route 277.

Let me just say, I had no idea those two events would collide as they did this month, when my town had to use a historic fort to house hundreds of women and children after a raid at the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) compound.

April 5, a Saturday, was a routine day. I spent the morning helping with a Keep America Beautiful cleanup in the nearby community of Christoval. The Tom Green County Sheriff's Office was supposed to participate, too, but we received notice that they couldn't make it. They were at the FLDS compound - which believers called the Yearning For Zion Ranch - helping to serve a search warrant. Frankly, I didn't pay any more attention to the matter.

Later I would find out that they were responding to a caller who said she was a 16-year-old who had been sexually abused in the compound. Officials asked for a key and were denied. After a locksmith opened a front gate, officials tried to gain access to the temple. They used a Jaws of Life to try to chew open the doors, but in the end relied on the sheer force of a SWAT team to batter them in as dozens of men from the church formed a circle around them to bear witness.

After the raid, more than 400 children would be placed in temporary state custody on suspicion of being abused or under the threat of abuse or neglect, and more than 100 women voluntarily left the ranch to care for them.

I didn't know it yet, but my life as mayor was about to change.

That Saturday night I attended a fundraiser for our local Boys Ranch at the San Angelo Coliseum. I gave a speech about a local effort to send three boys and a chaperone to Washington, D.C., to see our nation's capital. I don't know if it's because we're from Texas, but first lady Laura Bush agreed to a VIP tour of the White House for the boys.

Early Sunday morning, I received a call from my emergency management coordinator. The governor's director of emergency management wanted to know if San Angelo could house 100 to 150 women and children from the Yearning For Zion Ranch (YFZ).

We evaluated our options. Our coliseum and fairgrounds were being used for a home and garden show, and then a state conference for the Jehovah's Witnesses. So they were out of the picture.

We decided we could best house the "guests" at San Angelo's Fort Concho, an 1867 fortification built to protect frontier settlements in the vast West Texas region. It is a tourist attraction, the best preserved frontier fort in the United States, but it could work as temporary housing. (The last time the fort protected a large number of women and children from harm was during the winter of 1872-1873.)

I worked under this principle: If we shake hands before a disaster there will be less finger pointing afterward. So I didn't hesitate to sign a disaster declaration and offer the support of San Angelo.

My secretary brought the disaster declaration to my home around 10 a.m. Sunday. Wearing a pair of shorts, I signed it on my front porch. Honestly, I had no inkling just how big this was all going to get. I went to the fort Monday morning, but not before an early inspection of our local high school ROTC program.

Around 9 a.m. Monday I drove from Lake View High School to Fort Concho. The scale of what was happening became very clear, very fast. As I drove down South Oaks Street, I counted a dozen national media satellite trucks across from the fort. I had to park a block away and walk to the fort's administration building.

Within hours of the original notification for housing needs at the fort, the number of individuals multiplied fourfold. All in all, more than one half of the fort was used to house the women, children and to accommodate state and local law enforcement officials.

Media crews were setting up makeshift tents by the curb and running cables across the railroad tracks to their satellite vans. Now, we rarely have trains come through town, but we had one that morning. You should've seen the media scramble to clear their cables from the tracks.

I had to produce my city ID card before anyone would let me into a state office building next to the fort. State troopers were already on guard, controlling who got in - and out.

I quickly sought out my emergency management coordinator, who said San Angelo would be part of a multi-agency effort to care for the women and children. Our role would be largely logistical.

A conference room had already been converted into a command center. In the middle of the room, the incident commander coordinated, tasked and dispatched workers to perform an array of activities: procurement of bedding, food, water, wastewater setups, refreshments, IT, communications, heating and cooling, transportation, security, etc.

The Baptist Christian Family Services was coordinating all activities associated with the operations of the shelter. In an adjacent room, the state Child Protective Services was coordinating interviews, medical services and other matters pertaining to the welfare of our guests. (This was all complicated by the nature of the FLDS, whose polygamy and hierarchy produced complex and confusing lines of siblings.)

Daily media briefings at 3 each afternoon were coordinated at the nearby offices of the Upper Colorado River Authority. City staff arranged for portable toilets to be delivered to the parking lot where all of the media huddled. Every media outlet complimented me and the city of San Angelo for the Port-A-Potties and refreshments we delivered. One hundred and fifty city employees helped with the first four days of operations.

One side note on the media: We have one windmill - one - in downtown San Angelo. I found it interesting how quickly they discovered it and used it as a backdrop.

Citizen response to the situation was initially one of great sympathy. However, that public feeling is now starting to turn into anger.

Initially many saw the women - and, in particular, the children - as helpless victims. However, with the passage of time and the nonstop news coverage, public opinion has taken a decidedly different course; that is, great outrage and anger at YFZ males.

The YFZ women are now viewed by many as willing participants who lie to protect their distorted way of life. One prominent San Angelo citizen pretty much summed up current thinking on the YFZ bunch when he said, "No matter which way you cut it, it's nothing more than a quasi-religious harem for a few select old men."

His take on the situation is starting to become the prevalent public opinion about the YFZ group. Many constituents are calling for an aggressive overhaul of current laws and regulations to make it more difficult for YFZ-type groups to operate in Texas or to even contemplate a move to Texas.

While we San Angeloans have an independent frontier "live and let live" attitude, we have zero tolerance about the abuse of children. In many ways, the YFZ clan has done the "outside" world a great service by helping us recall a basic American tenet - that no religion or group has the right to deny any American the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness. I'm sure I speak for the majority of my fellow San Angeloans.

As DNA testing of the sect's members continues to figure out who is related to whom, most of the children are being scattered across the state in 16 foster facilities. Officials hope to keep mothers under 18 with their children and also to keep sibling groups together. Remember, some of the families may have dozens of siblings, and this is one of the largest custody cases in American history.

I lament that one of the outcomes of this drama is that the easy comings and goings at city hall will never be the same. No longer will citizens be able to freely roam the halls there. Now they will be required to check in with a secretary and be subjected to a security screening.

Though our role as "host" is drawing to an end, you will still see plenty of San Angelo on TV. All those mothers you've seen strolling up courthouse steps in their pastel prairie dresses? That's the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo. And their day in court isn't over.

(J.W. Lown, 31, is the mayor of San Angelo, Texas.)

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