SALT LAKE CITY – A marker honoring polygamist families arrested and jailed during a raid on their homes 53 years ago was erected in a Colorado City, Ariz., park Wednesday — a gift from leader of a Canadian polygamist sect with ties to the community.
The monument is intended both as a symbol of the past and the future, Winston Blackmore said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. Blackmore, who runs an independent polygamist sect in Bountiful, British Columbia, dedicated the monument in a short ceremony in Colorado City's Cottonwood Park while about 100 people looked on.
"It's really important that the people in Colorado City remember what we stood for, what our old leaders stood for," Blackmore said. "If they could get that back, then maybe some of these families would take the initiative and gather together to get this community back to what it was."
The Short Creek raid of July 26, 1953 was meant to destroy the practice of plural marriage a central tenet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose members have lived along the Utah-Arizona border for more than 100 years.
The raid scattered families, sent children into foster care and jailed dozens of their polygamist parents, but it failed to alter the faiths belief that plural marriage is essential for exaltation in heaven. And after several years in hiding, families came back to Short Creek — now known as the twin towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah.
Blackmore's monument is inscribed with a quotation from Leroy Johnson, the FLDS church elder who was Short Creek's leader during the raid. "We must never forget how the Lord blessed us in restoring our families taken in the '53 raid," it reads.
The rock slab is also embedded with 40 stones gathered from the driveways of Colorado City homes, Blackmore said.
"One from the driveway of each family who survived the raid, and one to go on, just in case we missed anybody," he said.
The monument replaces a similar monument which current church leader Warren Jeffs ordered destroyed in 2003 just days after the 50th anniversary of the raid.
"My vision of reconstructing it is to create an awareness that there are still lots of people who hold onto our inherited values, for that is who we really are," Blackmore said in an e-mail to The Associated Press weeks ago.
Bistline said he clearly remembers the morning raid, when polygamists families gathered in the school yard to greet police. Eighteen-years-old at the time, he watched the arrests and later secreted polygamists wives back and forth across the state line to see their families.
Bistline, who left the FLDS church and abandoned the practice of plural marriage, said he's "thrilled" by Blackmore's gesture.
"It's important for two reasons. One the fact that we're commemorating history, the '53 raid, and the second thing it's a message to Warren Jeffs that 'hey, we don't need you,"' he said in a telephone interview from his home in Cane Beds, Ariz.
Jeffs took over as head of the church after the death of his father in 2002. On his watch, since 2002, the FLDS church is currently under pressure from authorities that some say is equal to that felt in 1953.
Jeffs is a fugitive on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list, wanted for evading felony sexual misconduct charges in Utah and Arizona related to arranging plural marriages between underage girls and older men.
Eight FLDS men have been charged — one of them convicted — for alleged sexual relations with young girls, and five men are currently in a federal prison in Arizona for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury as part an investigation into Jeffs and the church. Jeffs is also accused of draining a $100 million church trust of funds for his personal use.
Bistline and Blackmore share the belief the Jeffs has destroyed the community — decimating FLDS families by sending men and boys he deems unworthy away and reassigning their families to more worthy men.
Blackmore says Jeffs has done damage equal to that of the authorities in 1953.
"I call it the raid from within," he said.