Wow. That’s all I can say. After more than a year of intense work on the polygamy beat, I never imagined myself in a Las Vegas courtroom just ten feet away from FLDS president Warren Jeffs. This is one of those moments you never forget.
My first hint that Tuesday would go nuts came from the 8:15 a.m. breaking news headline on the Tribune’s Web site that reported Jeff’s capture in a routine traffic stop after months on the FBI’s most wanted list. Immediately I started packing, then stared at the phone, willing it to ring. While plans were forming in the newsroom, I was sent to the Grand Hotel to photograph Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. While waiting for our allotted 10-minute interview, I kept in touch with Tribune photo editor Lori Post via text messages on my cell phone (I was getting really awful cellular reception at a hotel – imagine that!).
So many questions early on:
Would he go to Kingman, Arizona? Phoenix? St. George?
Where should we fly to?
What will the access be?
The text messages flew back and forth. I got one from Griff — “Having fun yet?” Yeah, right.
I photographed Condi and drove home, where I edited out the photos where her eyes looked mean.
While I wait for the plans to form, I unpack all my bags and then pack again — this time with enough clothes to last the trip. Finally I’m on a plane to Vegas. I think about Warren Jeffs as we fly over the Bingham Copper Mine. I doubt he’s every been photographed by an outsider. Despite having never seen the man, I’ve been in and around his life for a while now.
I’ve seen teenage girls, his followers, walking home from their private high school in British Columbia. They’re wearing colorful hand-sewn dresses with their hair pulled back in braids and they carry themselves like royalty down a gravel road. Their world impenetrable to an outsider like me, they ignore my presence.
I’ve photographed his large compound in Hildale, Utah, and struggled to find an angle from public property to get a good shot of the chimney that says, in brickwork, “Pray and Obey.” Still haven’t gotten that shot.
Through windows I’ve seen his photograph hanging in private elementary schools, this man, considered by his followers to be their prophet, smiling down on the children urging a march to Zion. (I find it fascinating to see pictures of fourth graders surrounding a portrait of a federal fugitive.)
And I’ve listened to his voice, in sermons where he extols obedience to the priesthood and living for an increase in the spirit of God. His words come out in a monotone and without emotion.
The details of Warren Jeffs’ reign have been widely published. Yet we have heard nothing from the man himself. For every accusation made against Jeffs and the FLDS, there has been no response, no defense. The idea of seeing this man who has hidden himself so well fascinates me.
Once in Vegas, we immediately head to the Nevada Highway Patrol where the officer who caught Jeffs is finally giving a press conference. All of the TV reporters ask questions like, “How did it feel to catch someone on the FBI’s top 10 list?” It’s like they want to trooper to jump for joy with his arms outstretched in celebration. But he’s a professional and pushes the spotlight away from himself and onto his fellow officers, the department, and their training.
After it’s over we corner the officer and ask about the clothes Warren Jeffs and his wife, Naomi, were wearing when arrested. The trooper confirms that Warren was wearing shorts and a short-sleeved T-shirt and Naomi was in pants and a “normal” shirt. This is significant, considering that FLDS followers always wear long sleeves and long pants or ankle-length dresses. For Jeffs to be caught “out of uniform” is a newsworthy detail.
But the significance of Jeff’s casual dress when captured was apparently lost on the Highway Patrol, FBI, and whoever allowed Jeffs to put on a white button-up shirt for his jailhouse mugshot. We were told he asked for and was given permission to change before the mugshot was taken. Since no photos have surfaced of Jeffs wearing shorts and a T-shirt when arrested, the stories about what he was wearing are easily discounted by his followers as lies made up by law enforcement.
Now it’s Thursday morning, the day of Jeffs’ extradition hearing. I show up extra early in the courtroom. There’s already one other still photographer and soon another arrives, making three of us.
If this were in a Utah courtroom it would likely be covered in a pool situation. In a pool, only one photographer would be allowed into the courtroom and would then share their photographs with the various media outlets covering the trial. Thankfully we were in Nevada, where court officials haven’t forgotten that a courtroom is a public place. A few minutes later another photographer came in and now the four of us were crouching low and out of the way, waiting.
The judge came in and started hearing a couple of quick motions on unrelated cases. At this point I saw a fifth photographer walk into the courtroom. In the middle of the judge conducting one of these hearings, photographer 5 walked right through the courtroom and up to the front where we were. The whole time I was waiting for the judge to go ballistic on this photographer for not respecting the decorum of the court. Never happened. Soon after, photographer 6 did the same thing.
And it was so refreshing. Our country, the land of the free, is so full of rules, regulations and restrictions. What has happened to the free spirit of the West?
Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for.
I’ve got three cameras ready to go (I’ve checked my settings, memory cards, and battery power on each at least a dozen times by now).
Then the secure door leading to the prisoner holding area opens and two SWAT officers in bullet-proof vests bring Warren Steed Jeffs in to face the judge.
My first reaction was: He is so skinny!
After that I didn’t really think. I knew this would be quick and I felt it was such a historical moment so I just took picture after picture. One camera for the wide scene, one for a closer view and one for the very close shot – just his face.
It was over in three quick minutes. In that time, I shot 141 photos. Back at the hotel I sent in a wide range of photos, something like seventeen, trying to show the hearing as I saw it.
Looking at the photos you may see a prophet of God or you may see a power-mad cult leader. You may just see a skinny guy. Whatever you think, it’s in the history books now.
Still can’t believe I was there.