In the polygamist cult of theFundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, cousins wereencouraged to marry in order to preserve certain bloodlines. Years ofinbreeding have resulted in children born with serious birth defects—many ofwhom don’t make it past a few years old.
“Itwasn’t until I left the FLDS and moved away from the community that I realizedI’d been to an unusually high number of funerals growing up in the Creek,”says Alyssa Bistline over a crackling phone connection. “Outside, peopledon’t die that often, and usually they’re really old.”
TheFundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) is apolygamous sect straddling the Utah and Arizona state lines; the twin towns ofHildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, are known collectively as ShortCreek (pronounced “crick”). The FLDS split off from the mainlineMormon (LDS) church in 1890 after the church denounced the principal of pluralmarriage. The FLDS believe they are practicing the one true religion as ProphetJoseph Smith intended it to be. Mormons, however, take care to denounce the FLDS “polygs”as having absolutely no relation to their Latter Day Saints.
In2006, Warren Jeffs, then the president and prophet of the FLDS, was arrested and charged with accomplicerape, for just two of the underage marriages he had arranged. In 2011, Jeffswas sentenced to life in prison,plus 20 years. Through his brother Lyle—Bishopof the FLDS and mouthpiece for his imprisoned brother—Jeff enacted a Judgment wherein FLDS memberswere asked a series of bizarre personal questions; their answers were judged,and the most righteous were welcomed into the United Order of FLDS elite. Thosewho did not make it into the UO were separated from their families, placed inpatchwork homes of other UO “orphans,” and told to repent.
I’mdriving around Short Creek with Alyssa—who is in Boise, Idaho, where she is acollege sophomore—piped in through the bluetooth-enabled speakerphone in therental car I’d picked in Las Vegas the previous night. She is guiding me allaround town, following my route, turn by turn, on Google maps. We pass thehouse she grew up in with her mother, three eldest brothers, and father beforehe was kicked out of the cult. She directs me to the houses she lived in afterthat: her stepdad Jim Jessop’s home; then the rotten, roach-infested house sheand her mother shared with nearly two dozen cousins and friends after beingremoved from Jim’s following the Judgment. I pass the dairy, the zoo, the park,the former birthing clinic, the condemned high school built on a foundation ofadobe bricks, and so on. Eventually, I pull up to the corner of Canyon Street and Jessop Avenue, where I find thebaby cemetery.
Thelot is unmarked and unremarkable. There is no sign. A scrappy white woodenfence runs the length of it along Canyon Street. It is bordered to the north bya well-maintained lot where there sits a stately red brick home with UEP(United Effort Plan, the church trust which is now controlled by the state of Utahin the aftermath of Jeffs’ conviction) spelled out in white brick on itssouth-facing side. At the lot’s northwest corner, a metal gate—the kind youmight find on a cattle ranch—hangs open on its hinge. The baby cemetery is amess of overgrown weeds and dry, cracked dirt, home to hundreds of infant andtoddler-size graves, not all of them marked. Many of the souls interred herelived not longer than a day, some just two days, two weeks, or two years. Somefeature more expensive-looking gravestones, and include, beyond names anddates, terms of endearment such as: “Sweet baby girl,” “Ourson,” and “Heaven’s very special child.” Still more, rathercryptically, feature child-size palm and footprints.
Thereare baby graves year that date back as earlier as the 1950s, potentially evenearlier: many are unmarked. The last infant grave marked in this cemetery isdated 2010; Warren issued an edict from prison banning sex in 2011, so few infants have been born since then (thefew babies born each year are the product of institutionalized rape by cult-appointed seed bearers). Thereare also graves lacking any dates whatsoever. Some read simply, “BabyKeate,” or “Baby Bateman,” or “Baby Cooke,” with holeswhere numeric date tiles might otherwise be placed.
Thequick answer for why this polygamous community has buried so many of itschildren is inbreeding, according to community members. Almost everyone here issome variation of cousin, and, until Warren was locked up and decided to put ahold on all marriages, most men and women were paired together in order to preserve certain esteemed bloodlines.Sisters married the same man in polygamous celestial weddings; brothers fromone family married sisters from another (meaning their kids are doublecousins). And, because this cult is so tight-knit and averse to strangers, thegene pool is rather limited.
TheFLDS started out as a few fringe families in the late 1890s; as more seeking tofollow the principal of plural marriage moved to the polygamous towns in theearly-to-mid 20th century, the gene pool grew, but by the 90s, under thestricter control of prophet Rulon Jeffs (Warren’s father), they were tighteningup and selectively marrying andbreeding in a sort of misfired eugenics experiment that ultimatelyyielded its own genetic disorder:fumarasedeficiency (FD), otherwise known as Polygamist Down’s. Fumarase deficiency (FD) is an autosomalmetabolic recessive disorder, meaning it is necessary for an individual withthe condition to receive the mutant allele from both parents. Those affected bythe genetic disorder suffer grand mal seizures and often have facial featuredeformities and severe mental retardation, with IQs as low as 25. A simpleurine test will reveal whether there is an excess of fumaric acid in the urine,if the other, more external symptoms aren’t obvious enough. Until the 1990s,there were only 13 known cases of FD in the world. But by 2006, Dr. TheodoreTarby, of Arizona, had discovered atleast 20 more children living with the condition in Short Creek, allwithin just blocks of each other.
Fumarasedeficiency, however sensationalized, is not the only genetic disorder foundhere. One man, who asks to remain nameless to protect his and his family’sprivacy, describes a lifetime of round-the-clock care and too-frequent hospitalvisits for his five sons. His eldest died six years ago at 10 years old, hesays, and another died in infancy, leaving behind two remaining brothers from aset of spontaneous identical triplets. Those two—and a fifth boy—also sufferfrom the condition that all of this family’s sons were born with: x-linked hydrocephalus. A rareneurological disorder characterized by water on the brain, muscular stiffness,adducted thumbs and aphasia, x-linked hydrocephalus is expressed only in menand carried by women. “You have to either accept” the responsibilityof caring for so many children with major healthcare needs “or let itdestroy you,” says this man, whose wife recently suffered a stroke. Theknowledge that one’s children are likely to be born with conditions like thisone does not prevent FLDS couples from becoming pregnant; instead, they see itas a responsibility and blessing to have many children.
Andthen there are the more livable genetic conditions. The most common birth defects for children born of close cousins,anywhere, are: harelip, cleft palate, clubfoot, and certain forms of heartvalve conditions. These conditions are disproportionately common, relative tothe size of the general population, in Short Creek. According to many of theindividuals interviewed for this story, these children are seen as specialangels sent from God to the FLDS community. They’re given the utmost attentionand care because the FLDS faithful believe everything in this life is a testbefore entering the celestial kingdom, and caring well for all ofHeavenly Father’s children is part of that test.
DawnaBlack Bistline (Alyssa Bistline’s father’s brother’s wife) has seen firsthandhow the children of cousins suffer. Two of her sisters married their firstcousins—men with whom they share the same grandfather; the sons of theirfather’s second wife, who is their mother’s full sister. One of her brothersmarried a woman whose grandmother is a sister to their father. “My fatherand her grandmother were full brother and sister,” she explains,recognizing the bloom of confusion on my face. “And she’s not the onlyone; three of her sisters married three of my brothers. And another one of hersisters married one of my half-brothers, but we have the same blood andgenetics because our moms are full sisters.” Dawna’s husband is a brotherto her older sister’s husband, “but they’re only half-brothers, so him andI aren’t blood-related at all, because he was from the youngest mother, whichhad no relation to us other than marriage, and then my sister was married tothe older brother and his mom and my grandmother were full sisters.”
“Howdo you keep track of that?” I wonder aloud.
“Well,needless to say, we had a lot of, uh…. Well, my sister had a little baby witha cleft lip; it was her first child and it had a cleft lip and cleft palate,because they were both Jessops, and Jessops are carriers of that gene. She alsohad a child with a clubfoot, and I think probably half of her children hadrespiratory problems when they were babies, because they were so related.”
Dawna’syounger sister has a little boy with two clubfeet. That sister, too, dealt witha lot of respiratory problems with her kids, “because of therelation,” Dawna explains. “It’s not really talked about; I don’tthink [people here] even research to see how related they are” beforegetting married or pregnant, she adds.
Thisis all compounded by the splitbetweenthe FLDS and an offshoot group of polygamists that moved to nearby CentennialPark following a disagreement over how the community should be governed, and bywhom). The two groups split when Dawna was growing up. “They were calledthe Second Warders and we were called the First Warders; we weren’t supposed tohang out with kids from the Centennial group because they were wicked forhaving left,” she says. Dawna’s eldest son is now dating a Centennialwoman whom he recently found out is a distant cousin. “It’s doesn’t stopanybody,” Dawna says. “There are times when it has gotten kind ofgross, like when they marry an uncle to a niece,” she continues. “Andmy oldest daughter, she’s 18 and she’s dated a couple of my cousins, whichmakes them her second cousins, and we’re like, Eww, that’s gross.”
Justunder eight miles southeast of Short Creek is an area called Cane Beds,Arizona. Their lives Ross LeBaron Jr., a descendant of another polygamous sect(separate from the FLDS but quite similar in practice) called the Church of theFirstborn of the Fulness of Times. He shares a last name and a not-too-distantrelation with the polygamous LeBarongroup in Chihuahua, Mexico. LeBaronJr. has been accused by three of his own sons, who purport to have DNAevidence obtained by saliva samples, of fathering four children with his ownbiological daughter. A fifth child, they say, was fathered by their eldestbrother Wayne LeBaron, (who was married to Dawna Black Bistline’s cousin at thetime of this child’s allegedly incestuous conception). These men are livingfreely in the Cane Beds area. Ross LeBaron Jr. recently took to the Internet to express his support for the Bundy familyin Oregon, as well as for LaVoy Finicum, the lone fatality in thatordeal.
“Haveyou ever heard of the term The Turkey Baster?” Dawna asks me.
Itell her I’m not sure, given the context.
“Therewas a guy out here, who was married to a couple of young girls, and he wasgoing to get in trouble because he was having children with these young girls,so he said, ‘Well, I never had sex with them—I used a turkey baster.'”Dawna says that, when people refer to what’s going on over in the Cane Beds,they say it’s probably another turkey baster situation. But Dawna disagrees:”I think it was actually, you know….” Sex.
“Ididn’t touch her; I just used a turkey baster,” she mimics, rolling hereyes. “I’m like,Really? That’s still gross.” It’s also stillrape with a foreign object, I remind us both unnecessarily.
Allof this is to say that incest and inbreeding have been going on for so long—andso prevalently—in the polygamous sects along the Utah/Arizona border that thesestories have been woven into the fiber of the communities. Everyone knows it’shappening, few talk about it unprompted, it just sort of..is. Whichbrings us back to the baby cemetery.
Theadult residents of Short Creek today—both those still in the FLDS and those whohave left the cult—are mostly able-bodied, seemingly healthy individuals. It’sthe kids who are disproportionately handicapped as compared to the demographicsof any other comparably small town. Some would say that is because it takesgenerations for certain inbred recessive genetic traits to manifest. JonathanTurner, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside,hypothesized exactly that, in an artclepublished by the ABC news network in 2008. “You had a fairlydiverse pool to start with, so only if that went on for a long time within thissame population would you see real effects,” he told ABC.
RonRohbock, 64, who was kicked out of the FLDS in 2002 after serving on churchsecurity for decades at Warren and Rulon Jeffs’ side, has a different answer.”There were so many young children who were born withabnormalities—harelips, club feet, heart valves—that were… they were going todie within a year,” says Ron. “Many of the parents did not want tohave to deal with some of those children. So they would hand them over to AuntMartha, who was the midwife,” he says. Martha’s husband was”Uncle” Fred Jessop, longtime Bishop to the FLDS people, who died in 2005 at 94, after beingdragged from state to state by Warren Jeffs in what many ex-members believe wasa transparent scheme of murder-by-stress: Dragging around a physically ailing,elderly man in need of constant medication is one way to kill a person withoutcommitting any outright murderous act, they say.
“Theywould hand them over and say, ‘Would you mind please taking care of them,because we can’t?’ Now let me just simply state: He took care of them.Or Aunt Martha did, or somebody did. And the graveyard grew exponentially.”
Ina portion of Warren Jeffs’ PriesthoodRecord –– a mostly dry document that details his every move and meeting–– one entry, a written transcription of an announcement made by Warren atlunch with his late father’s family, stands out as particularly creepy.
October 15, 2002: “There willbe a viewing at father’s house at 3p.m. for Nathanael Allred’s baby. The graveside funeral services will be at the grave side in Babyland at 4p.m.”We’re sitting in Ron’s largekitchen, eating a meal of homemade tomato sauce and sweet Italian sausage thathis wife Geri—a retired marriage and family therapist originally fromHurleyville, NY, who he met six years ago on Zoosk!—has prepared in aslowcooker.
Geriand I ask the same question at the same time: “What exactly do you mean by tookcare of them?”
“Theytook their lives,” Ron says. “Fred was in charge of the cemeteries,the gravediggers, all of that. If you find a grave up there that’s not marked,that’s the way Fred wanted it.”