The Yearning for Zion Ranch, the FLDS Church’s compound outside of Eldorado, Texas.
This edit of my work on the Texas raid on the YFZ Ranch that won 1st place from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Utah Headliners. I could only submit twelve photographs in which to tell the story.
How cool is this? I made City Weekly’s Best of Utah list. And just look at the name of the award:
BEST RECORDER OF A BACK STORY BEHIND A MEDIA CLUSTERF*CK
Thank you very much, City Weekly. My parents will be so proud!
For anyone who came here from the City Weekly mention (which is quite a chore considering the crazy URL we’ve got here- 166.70.what?), I’ve linked to some of the posts they praised in the text of the award:
When hundreds of journalists descended on West Texas for two months to cover the state raid on the FLDS compound in El Dorado, Salt Lake Tribune chief photographer Trent Nelson kept careful account of the details on his blog Fly on the Wall (http://tribblogs.com/fly/). Nelson puts some of his best photos on the blog, as well as ironic and sometimes deeply emotional posts related to the stories he documents. His posts on the FLDS story illustrated the drama, as well as frequent boredom, that comes with hunkering down in a small town to cover a big story.
Thanks again to City Weekly.
The last time I was in San Angelo I took souvenir photographs of the courthouse and grounds, thinking, “This is it. I’ll never be back to this place.”
As you can guess, I was wrong. But so was the guy who told me something to the effect of, “Today’s custody hearing is going to be over quick— No more than five minutes.”
Barbara Jessop was in court today for a custody hearing on her 14-year-old daughter (who CPS alleges was married to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs when she was 12) who is currently in foster care. So I was after photos of Barbara going in and out of court as well as whatever else I could find. If I was lucky, there would be a good photo to be made.
I was tipped off about which direction they would walk in from. Positioning myself across the street made for a lousy start, as the downtown construction they walked through, well, you can see for yourself (above).
I tried to incorporate the courthouse in a way I hadn’t really done before. There was lots more freedom of movement today, with only me and two video cameramen on the scene.
After they went in it was time to sit and wait. Five minutes went by but the hearing wasn’t over. Then five minutes went by at least twenty more times. While we waited, the TV guys would film anyone who walked into the courthouse, just in case they were involved. One guy, below, who had nothing to do with the FLDS cases, held a blue folder in front of his face to conceal his secret identity:
I thought I had a good angle for when they came out, with the shadows of a tree falling on the columns of the courthouse. It didn’t quite work, with too many people grouped too tight. Here is that shot, cropped loose:
As Barbara walked off with her son Dan and her two attorneys…
…I ran down to shoot with the courthouse behind them. Looking at the photo now, the overly joyous looks on the attorneys’ faces had me thinking of a funny article I read earlier today.
The photograph tells you where I saw the sun go down Wednesday night.
Okay, if you don’t know it’s the FLDS temple outside Eldorado, Texas.
This is how the trip goes:
Wake up before 6am.
Make my kids’ lunches for the next three days. Let my wife’s dog out to pee.
Say goodbye. Drive to airport. A bunch of other annoyances en route to getting on plane, like the $15 charge to check a suitcase and the TSA agent who asks me to remove my hoodie.
Buy three chocolate chip scones at Starbucks, which I will eat at various moments over the next couple days and/or finally discard when they get too stale and hard.
Talk on plane with Brooke about how to save the newspaper industry and swap a bunch of polygamy news so that we’re current. Here’s one item we talked about, the blog of a “young” “mormon” “girl” “looking into” joining a plural marriage. Interesting, and a bit creepy. But I’m thinking it’s fake
as all get out.
We land in Dallas to an urgent text message from a source: “Call me immediately!”
The news? Two polygamist leaders in Canada arrested and charged with polygamy. We both think, Why does this always happen when we travel somewhere?
Now we’re working a story in Canada and one in Texas. Too much chaos, too many phone calls. It’s nuts.
Layover is lunch time. Nearly settle for Popeye’s Chicken. Came this close. Instead, find a sit-down Mexican restaurant with power outlet at the bar to charge dead laptop and cel phone batteries.
Bad, expensive airport lunch.
At gate, sit on floor for almost two hours because it’s the only place near a power outlet. Fix multiple issues with Brooke’s laptop. Continue working Canada story. Wondering if we’ll rerout there instead of Texas, but remembering how cold even southernmost Canada is at this time of year.
Fly to San Angelo. Rent car. Nibble on chocolate chip scone while driving to YFZ Ranch. Rushed in and meet a few people, some of whom have appeared on the blog.
Sent out to drive around the ranch, sans escort. Photograph beautiful sunset. Park on the rock pile and smell the mulch pile while we make calls reporting on and planning possible travel to Canada. Mom gives border crossing advice and says there is six feet of snow in Spokane.
Rejoin group at main house. Watch people eat olives, carrots, nuts, pickles. My picture is taken. Photograph subject of interview (which can’t be talked about just yet).
Drive to San Angelo while on phone about Canada (can’t really discuss the final plans here). Arrive at Outback Steakhouse ten minutes before closing. Order. Eat. Order cheesecake.
Check in at hotel. Talk Brooke into not leaving for tomorrow’s story until the late hour of 8:15am local time. Put cheesecake in fridge, uneaten.
Dream about cheesecake.
NOTE: I have spent years covering polygamy and events in the FLDS community, including the first trial of Warren Jeffs and the 2008 raid on the YFZ Ranch in Texas. You can find all of my posts on polygamy by clicking here: https://trent.photo/category/polygamy/
There are two competing story lines to Betty Jessop, which I think are summed up in the two photos above.
1. The FLDS view (on the left) is a smiling and happy young FLDS woman who returned to her faith and family when she turned 18 and now lives a wonderful life surrounded by family and friends.
2. The worldly view (for lack of a better term) is a curiosity and sadness that this young girl had escaped a cult but chose to return to its secretive culture and give up her freedom.
Please use a permanent marker to circle your position on the computer screen. Especially if you are at work.
Hey, did I mention that I met Betty Jessop?
We were ushered into this dining room area in a home on the YFZ Ranch and met Betty. She was surrounded by (I’m guessing) her sisters and other family members. They were all a little nervous at all the attention, and there was much giggling. I don’t think too many strangers with cameras come around.
Betty laughed and was a little camera shy at first. It was the end of a long day and she hadn’t expected to have her photo taken tonight. She was hardly the first young woman to ask me to delete any “ugly” pictures. I thought she looked great. We sat down and she talked, and after thirty minutes or so it was over.
Last night I went to a local bookstore to hear Betty’s mother, Carolyn Jessop, talk about her bestselling book, Escape. As she read about Betty, Carolyn got emotional. At one point, reading about her leaving, she told of going back into the house to get her daughter and saying, “Betty, I will not leave you behind!”
During the Q&A Carolyn was asked how her kids are doing now. Speaking of Betty, she said that Betty had turned down a friend’s offer to pay for college. About Brooke’s article on the front page yesterday, FLDS Teen Disputes Mom’s Book, Carolyn said, “That’s been very painful.” Brooke’s story focused on a book that Betty has been writing about her experiences in and out of the FLDS community. Someone described it to me as “Escape From Escape.”
Carolyn said that Betty had lots of friends when she was attending public school after leaving the FLDS (in West Jordan, a suburb of Salt Lake City), and she worried that the book might destroy Betty’s relationships with those friends, further locking her into the FLDS society.
Someone asked if the FLDS members of Carolyn’s family had read the book. Carolyn said she didn’t know, that if any had they would never admit it as the book would be contraband. During our interview with Betty, she said she had read parts of her mother’s book, and expressed hurt by some of it.
Carolyn talked about how smart Betty was, and suggested that Betty would be saddened at the state of education among the FLDS. She said Betty had taken a child development class in high school, and would know sexual abuse when she saw it.
Someone said to Carolyn, “I have a hard time understanding what is pulling Betty back.” Carolyn said that Betty was a favorite of her father, that he named her his favorite name. She said Merril was very protective of Betty. If the girls got in trouble the punishment would be, “A slap to the sisters and a sucker for Betty.”
According to Carolyn, leaving the community was a big blow to Betty. In the FLDS community, she never got in trouble. She was the favored daughter of one of the most powerful men. Teachers bowed to Betty. She had the world by the tail. When she left and went to a public school, she felt alone. She missed her half brother. All the kids had a hard time without their siblings.
I think you are seeing some of the people that Betty felt alone without in these photos.
The mind control is really strong, Carolyn said. We sent her to twelve therapists; it was impossible to break through the mind control.
Carolyn said she calls and texts Betty all the time, though she wasn’t sure if it was really Betty’s number or if Betty even had access to a phone. “Once in a while I get a call,” Carolyn said.
I remembered that Betty had a phone and a camera, which you see in most of these photos.
Carolyn said that if Betty wanted to get out, she would. “I would make sure,” said Carolyn.
Wow. A long, draining day. We sat outside the courthouse waiting for something to happen for about ten hours. It was hot and miserable, even with shade and the blowing wind. Now that my molten Twix bar has been reconstituted in the hotel room fridge, I’ll attempt to recount the day. Mostly in photos. Stephanie says that I must have gotten good stuff, even if I’m too drained to consider the possibility.
Eldorado, TX – FLDS member Janet Jeffs arrives with an unidentified attorney at the Schleicher County Courthouse, where a grand jury reconvened to consider charges stemming from the raid on the YFZ Ranch.
I just realized something funny. A real switch in how this story is covered. We’ve gotten to the point where we know the names of the FLDS members but not the names of the attorneys. That’s a reversal from days past, when I knew who the attorneys were but not the people.
Here is the news from this morning. We pulled up to see the yellow tape around the courthouse pushed further back from before, and the sprinklers spraying the grassy area we wanted to set up. But it wasn’t all that bad, they have moved the grand jury into an adjacent building, apparently because it has air conditioning and we found a better angle for the new situation.
No air conditioning out on the grass, however. We’re sitting at a picnic table in the shade.
At one point Willie Jessop came over to talk to Brooke and all of the other reporters and photographers ran over and started asking him questions like, “Where is Merril Jessop?” It’s the kind of question that journalists ask, but it’s not like Willie would answer. He wasn’t out to make a statement, but promised one later. He just cocked his head and kind of laughed the probing questions off. It seems obvious that he’s been subpoenaed to testify. Why else would he be allowed beyond the yellow tape?
One other thing from this morning. While we were all distracted with Willie, the Texas Attorney General pulled up and entered the building. By the time we saw him and sprinted over to get the pic, it was too late. Only the guy from the Eldorado Success got the photo.