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Mayor's task: 'Get rid of the media'

  • Story Highlights
  • FLDS members moved to desert towns to escape public scrutiny
  • But with leader Warren Jeffs on trial, they find themselves in the public eye
  • Many are upset and want outside groups -- media, law enforcement -- to leave
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From Amanda Townsend and Gary Tuchman
CNN
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HILDALE, Utah (CNN) -- Members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamous sect, moved to this remote part of the desert to get out of the spotlight. But the harsh glare of public scrutiny is all they've been getting lately.

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The twin border towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, are home base for a sect of polygamists.

Their self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, is on trial charged with being an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old first cousin. So, the news media has descended on the area in search of compelling interviews and unique angles.

It's a development that's upset many residents.

"You've probably noticed throughout the community there's a lot of people that have put fences, high fences, up around their places, because media and the public were just so obnoxious. They would go try to look into people's windows, they would go into their backyards, they'd wander all over," said David K. Zitting, the mayor of Hildale.

Zitting, an FLDS follower, also has done his best to avoid attention.

"The reason I'm talking to you is because I've run into you and I don't really have a choice," he said. "I don't prefer it and I don't talk to journalists. I don't talk to media."

Residents of Hildale and nearby Colorado City, Arizona -- two towns where many of Jeffs' 10,000 followers live and practice polygamy -- rarely speak to outsiders. Most attempts to get comments on Jeffs' trial are met with silence. When approached at the local post office and in other public spaces, followers quickly get in their cars and drive away.

Polygamist on trial
Closing arguments in the case against Warren Jeffs. Tonight on "Anderson Cooper 360."
Friday, 10 p.m. ET

As the trial goes on, Hildale and Colorado City are beginning to look more and more like ghost towns. It appears that some residents have left, presumably moving to other FLDS communities in North America. Those who remain rarely loiter outside and quickly run into their homes and close their doors and curtains when they see outsiders.

Hildale's mayor said this isn't because people have something to hide.

"Nobody in America would put up with that type of thing," he said.

Local police, loyal to Warren Jeffs, have been less than welcoming and on numerous occasions have threatened CNN employees with arrest if they did not leave the community. All of these interactions have occurred in public spaces.

"There is nobody that works in this city, that works for this city that is not a loyal FLDS member, and that's from the mayor all the way through the employees right down to the last marshal here and the last police officer that works here is loyal to Warren [Jeffs]," said Gary Engels, an investigator for the state of Arizona.

Engels said the deep religious commitment of FLDS followers means many of them are willing to ignore the law if it conflicts with their religious beliefs.

"In some aspects they give you the feeling that they think they are above the law, and in fact, they will tell you that if it comes between God's law and man's law, they are going to obey God's law."

On Wednesday, two officers in Colorado City were stripped of their badges after an investigation found them guilty of misconduct for not cooperating in civil proceedings involving the FLDS and a criminal investigation of Jeffs.

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Homes in Hildale and Colorado City range from compounds, which look almost like motels, to trailers. The busiest place is the main grocery store. Women dressed in prairie-style dresses can be seen carting groceries with their children at their sides. Young children are often seen riding in the back of pickup trucks.

It seems that all many of them want is to be left alone. When asked what his constituents want from him, Zitting responded with a laugh: "Get rid of the media." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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