Mother details harrowing time without utilities in polygamous town

Family says FLDS wouldn’t provide utilities because they weren’t church members.

The Salt Lake Tribune/February 25, 2014

By Jim Dalrymple II

For the Cooke family living on the Utah-Arizona border, it was struggle just to survive.

The family relocated to the mostly-polygamous Short Creek community — made up of Colorado City, Ariz., and neighboring Hildale, Utah — in 2008. The move was supposed to offer the family a refuge and new start after husband and father Ron Cooke suffered a debilitating injury at work. But almost as soon as they arrived, the Cookes ended up embroiled in a lawsuit over the city’s refusal to hook up water and other utilities to their home.

The question at issue in the lawsuit: Whether the city discriminated against the family because they weren’t members of the polygamous FLDS Church, or whether the Cookes themselves are to blame for not complying with city policies.

Wife and mother Jinjer Cooke took the stand Tuesday in Phoenix to testify in the resulting trial. She said that she and Ron Cooke met sometime in about 2000 while they were both living and working in the Phoenix area. They quickly fell in love. They moved in together and married. Jinjer’s three children almost immediately began calling Ron Cooke "Dad."

Everything was going well for the new family, Jinjer Cooke said, but in 2005 a truck hit Ron Cooke while he was doing roadwork in Phoenix. The accident devastated him, leaving him with brain and spinal cord injuries, as well as in a temporary coma.

The accident also ravaged the family’s finances, and they eventually decided to move to Colorado City — Ron Cooke’s hometown until he left the FLDS Church and moved away in his late teens.

Jinjer Cooke testified Tuesday that the problems began soon after the family arrived. They selected an empty, unfinished home owned by the FLDS trust, the United Effort Plan, but the city wouldn’t connect the home to the water, sewer or electric utilities. As a result, they spent their first two years in the town living in a roughly 35-foot trailer they heated with propane.

"When you go without utilities for years, it just becomes a nightmare," Jinjer Cooke testified.

She went on to say that the family of five had no privacy. Each of the kids had a cabinet to put their things, plus "whatever would fit on their bed with them."

Even worse was hauling water. During Jinjer Cooke’s testimony, her attorney William Walker showed a series of photos showing tanks that hold hundreds of gallons of water. The family drove the smaller tank to a spigot in the community and filled up once a week, lugging all of their drinking, cleaning and bathing water back across town. The water tank was so heavy that it actually bent the axles on their trailer.

The family eventually got electricity and sewer hookups but to this day lack running water at the home.

Jinjer Cooke said things got worse during the coldest months. The hoses the family used to move the water from their tanks to their home froze and were vandalized. Local law enforcement wasn’t any help — the Cookes’ attorneys also say the police are control by the church — and at one point FLDS and town leaders dug a massive hole in their front yard in an attempt to prove they were stealing water.

Later during Jinjer Cooke’s testimony, Walker showed a video of the water gushing out of a tank. When the video zoomed in, it showed a large crack down the middle of the Cookes’ pump, apparently the result of frozen water.

"It was just like fighting to live," Jinjer Cooke recalled. "It was like fighting to exist."

The experience would have been harrowing for anyone, but Jinjer Cooke testified that it was particularly difficult for her family due to her husband’s ongoing health problems. He uses a catheter that needs running water for cleaning, and he also needed electricity for a sleep apnea machine. Moreover, during the Cookes’ time in the trailer, they were unable to use Ron Cooke’s disability equipment for basic tasks like showering.

The struggles the family faced raise an obvious question: Why not just leave? When Walker posed that question, Jinjer Cooke said they grew to view the area as their home. Her children didn’t want to move again, and she said she felt like she shouldn’t have to leave because she couldn’t get running water in the town.

"I understand your question," she added, "but it is offensive to me."

Still, Blake Hamilton, an attorney for Hildale — which is also named in the lawsuit — repeatedly pointed out during cross examination that the Cooke family stayed by choice. He also hinted that the emotional damages the Cookes experienced — damages that are the crux of their lawsuit — could have stemmed from an array of things that happened earlier in their lives, from Ron Cooke’s accident to the murder of Jinjer Cooke’s mother when she was a child.

In his cross examination, Hamilton paraded out a series of letters between the Cookes and city personnel, dating to when they first moved to Colorado City. Hamilton argued the letters show the city had a clear water policy — and that the Cookes knew about it.

Attorneys for the cities have argued that the policy stemmed from a water shortage and prohibited new water hookups unless the homes added water to the overall system.

The letters also apparently showed clear policies for getting electricity, which Jinjer Cooke admitted the family didn’t follow.

Hamilton said the Cookes didn’t access utilities because of their own disregard of city policy. During open arguments in the case, city attorneys also argued that the Cookes were pawns in a scheme by state-appointed land managers to circumvent city policy, subdivide land and sell it off.

Hamilton’s cross examination will finish Wednesday, after which Ron Cooke is expected to testify. Seth Cooke, Ron’s brother, also took the stand Tuesday.

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