Look Past Polygamy

It was July 26, 1953. In the pre-dawn hours, 120 heavily armed Arizona lawmen prepared to descend upon the small polygamous community of Short Creek, home to the roughly 500 men, women and children of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The governor, J. Howard Pyle, had ordered a two-year investigation into polygamy and the marriage of teen girls to older men, and the cops arrived ready to take almost the entire town into custody. But the plans hit a snag. FLDS lookouts spoiled the raid by setting off a dynamite charge when they spotted state troopers and National Guardsmen approaching. Fearing a shootout, the lawmen cranked their sirens and sped into town, guns drawn. "You are all under arrest!" shouted the sheriff over a loudspeaker. "Stay where you are." But no one was going anywhere: officers found the residents of Short Creek gathered in the schoolyard, unarmed and singing hymns.

Pyle told a radio audience that day that his men had broken up "the foulest conspiracy you could imagine," but that's not how the public saw it as details of the raid emerged. Thirty-six men were arrested and jailed 250 miles away in Kingman, Ariz.; mothers and children were shipped to foster homes even farther away. The incident turned into a PR nightmare, and within a few years nearly all the families had reunited and returned. For decades, the lessons of Short Creek have exerted great influence on law enforcement's attitudes toward FLDS. The philosophy guiding last month's raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas, was at least partially shaped by the aftermath of that morning in 1953. The raid proved such a disaster that officials ignored polygamists for decades. It wasn't until notorious child-abuse cases in the late '90s showed the limitations of that approach that law enforcement settled on a new deal: accept, if not condone, the polygamy, but prosecute the abuses of young girls.

Though the mainstream Mormon church excommunicated polygamists in 1890, the practice has lived on among splinter groups in rural pockets. "The goal of that first raid was to eliminate the practice of plural marriage, and it absolutely failed," says University of Utah historian Martha Bradley, author of "Kidnapped From That Land," a book about the 1953 raid. In his rambling radio address, Pyle, a rising Republican who had delivered a rousing speech at the GOP convention a year earlier, blasted a "small handful of greedy and licentious men," who forced "every maturing girl … into a bondage of multiple wifehood."

Despite the harsh claims, the prosecutions fizzled. Six months after the raid, the men were home on probation. A photo spread in Life magazine showed the "Lonely Men of Short Creek" living forlornly without their missing wives and children, and the case seemed less about polygamy than the rights of parents to keep their kids. "I think the public didn't see them as hurting anybody," says Ken Driggs, who has studied the sect. Pyle was voted out of office the next election—a warning to lawmen and politicians to avoid more crackdowns.

But public sentiment has changed. It's been fueled by the recent prosecutions for sexual abuses—and by last year's conviction of the FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, now in prison for charges related to performing a marriage of a 15-year-old girl to her older cousin. Texas officials focused on child welfare—unlike at Short Creek, the men have been left in place pending criminal investigation. A judge ruled the threats of abuse to young girls were enough to remove all kids temporarily, and they're now in foster homes. The state says each child will get a full hearing within a year.

Still, could Eldorado also turn into a prosecutorial dry hole? "This isn't going to be like Short Creek," says state Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, a Republican who worked with the local sheriff and other officials in 2005 to revamp state marriage laws in response to the Eldorado community. Thirty-one of the 53 girls between 14 and 17 years old are either pregnant or mothers already, Texas officials say. But attorneys for the Texas families say many of the young moms are 18, and they complain that the FLDS parents are only practicing their faith. There has been media criticism, and civil libertarians are worried. Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU's Texas office, says opposition is building: "We're concerned that the proceeding didn't meet the requirement in Texas law of imminent harm to a child. We have been inundated with concerns from the public." The lessons of Short Creek may not yet be fully absorbed.