What Happened In Eldorado And Why We Care

(CBS/John Filo)
Hari Sreenivasan is a CBS News correspondent based in Dallas.
No country for young women?

SO country for old men.

That was my email exchange with a new colleague, Brandon Baur, as he came to assist my producer Mark Hooper and me on our coverage of this story. There isn't anything funny about polygamy, but I think the longer you are grinding through a story, especially one with as many emotional landmines that trigger immediate visceral responses in you, the more you try to insulate yourself from the bizarre nature of what you're looking at.

I got paged late Saturday night when I was at a movie theater in Dallas (don't tell me what happened when the kids get to Vegas in the movie 21, please) and with that all night drive and early morning update began the saga of covering an event that has shined the spotlight on communities and practices that even this great nation chooses to turn a blind eye toward.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
There are supposedly somewhere around 50 thousand polygamists in the United States. I guess the Census doesn't have a column for "spiritually married", does it? One nugget I found interesting was how few people predicted or imagined that the community within that 1,700 acre ranch had as many children within it. The first indication of the scale of this event was when we saw the number of buses rolling out of the small town of Eldorado toward San Angelo filled with women in their frocks, little girls in their pastel dresses and little boys in shirts and pants.

According to the original affidavit unsealed Wednesday, Frederick Merril Jessop, who identified himself as the point person for law enforcement, had previously told Texas Ranger Leslie Long that about one hundred men, women and children lived on the Yearning For Zion ranch. On April 4th of this year, he told the same Texas Ranger that about 250 men, women and children live there. Considering the number of children in custody and the women accompanying them, I wonder what the true population is.

I think the initial interest in the story for most people was whether there was going to be another confrontation the likes of what happened with the Branch Davidians at Waco, Texas, 15 years ago. As the tension eased and we heard that a relatively non-violent entrance had been made into the sacred temple and that the standoff was over, most of us thought the story would lose its national intrigue by mid-Monday. When we heard the bombshell announcement that this was now the largest child protection action in U.S. history and the sad circumstances that precipitated it, we knew the interest would only balloon.

The affidavit outlined a situation where a 16-year-old made multiple clandestine cell phone calls to the New Bridge Family Shelter, describing a situation where her husband, a 49-year-old man, beat and raped her. While she was married to him as his seventh "spiritual wife" and had already borne him an 8-month-old infant, he still unleashed his fury on her while other wives would hold onto her infant. She delivered that first child at 15, and was several weeks pregnant with another. According to documents, she was physically abused as recently as Easter of this year. She felt like she could not leave, that the guard tower could track her movements too easily and perhaps worst of all, she was dropped off by her parents years ago and knew that her 15-year-old sister was on her way into this society as well.

You might notice that I didn't use the word girl or woman in there because the definitions we all had for those words differed as we covered the story. Is a girl any female under 18 because she is technically considered a child? Is any female who has had her own child a woman? Isn't a teenager a young woman? Etc, etc… A 16-year-old woman connotes something different than a 16-year-old girl ever so subtly, doesn't it?

To judge or not to judge

I'm not gonna lie to ya, I can't really see myself agreeing with the idea of men in their 30s, 40s, 50s having sex with girls who have just crossed through puberty. I'm not gonna tell ya that it is easy to be objective on a story like this and not instinctively think that there is something wrong with the males in this closed-off society. I don't want ya to think that I'm the pot calling the kettle black either. I'm well aware of many of the atrocious practices that continue in India, including that of child brides and I don't agree with those either. It isn't about imposing the ideas of one culture onto another, to me it is just about people being educated enough and free enough to make a choice for themselves, and under no circumstances having to endure physical, emotional or sexual abuse at the hands of another.

Speaking of judging things, watching the Honorable Barbara Walther hold court really gives you a tremendous amount of respect for the vault of wisdom necessary to be a good judge. Whether she buried herself in research for the past few days on case law, or whether she has heard the arguments for reasonable search and seizure all before, her command of the topic was at times astounding. A number of times she prodded the defense attorney to look closer at statutes, codes, and cases which he clearly thought would aid his case, but thanks to her, didn't. She had a near encyclopedic mind balanced with a gracious and disarming country-judge charm as she tackled the beginnings of this monstrous case.

The devil is in the details, and perhaps so is God.

There is likely a small mountain of evidence sealed now at a storage facility somewhere in San Angelo, Texas. It will stay that way until defense attorneys, the prosecution and a trusted third party methodically deconstruct it. They'll decide first whether any of that evidence should be shielded by attorney client privilege and then pile it back into another mountain for the courts.

The inventory of property seized includes dozens of cell phones, videotapes, computers, cameras – all which all include likely thousands of images of this community. There are boxes and boxes of documents including birth records, what look like school records, essays children might have written, journals, diaries, hidden boxes of mail.

What will likely make a headline or two is a cyanide poisoning document, perhaps a home pregnancy test kit. From those finds and perhaps a few others, there will be no shortage of people pontificating on whether this was a doomsday cult or a baby mill, etc, etc.

Imagine if everything in our computers, cameras, cell phones, and videotapes were discovered by Martians. That is pretty much what this is: an enormous time capsule of a way of life. I think there will need to be an anthropologist and genealogist and perhaps a few former FLDS folks or religious studies experts called in to make sense of the evidence from this society and what it actually means.

Flying High

(AP Photo/Donna McWilliam, file)
There are probably a handful of press that have seen the compound since the raid, and I was fortunate enough to get an overhead view via helicopter. I saw the multiple law enforcement staging areas outside the compound of the temple, shot video of FBI on scene (a presence the agency initially denied to us earlier that morning), and was slightly taken back by how sprawling the complex actually was. There were large communal/dorm style structures, a dairy farm, a water treatment facility, a limestone rock quarry, a large school building, it was all amazing and completely invisible to anyone on the ground thanks to the roadblocks several miles from the ranch.

See a bird's eye view of the compound.
Stories like this also make the days and sometimes the careers of small local publishers and reporters. When the national media swarm in, each morning, they walk right by the USA Today at their hotel lobbies and reach for the local paper because it is situations like this when old-fashioned beat reporting, rolodexes and relationships trump crackberries, GPS and satellite trucks. Each morning we could count on reports by Paul Anthony of the San Angelo Standard or Randy Mankin of the Eldorado Success to have something for the rest of us to chase.

They were interviewed by national cable shows and evening news broadcasts (ahem). I think sometimes it is the collective guilt of chasing their leads and this perhaps is a small way to atone and credit them, but I also think there is a twinge of jealousy because they are getting to do a much purer form of the craft many of us came to practice. I'm sure the grass is always greener.

Here are a couple of tidbits for future reference if you are ever in San Angelo or Eldorado. First and foremost, Eldorado is pronounced with a RAY in it. The Chadbourne Street Deli in downtown San Angelo makes a decent and fairly priced cookie (especially by the dozen). The railroad tracks near Fort Concho are indeed active, which nearly every satellite truck driver found out in a close call. If you ever want access to some free candy, free wi-fi, and a clean restroom at the structure which is the Eldorado airport, know the squak code- I can't say anything more than that.

This story will be back in the news again. The fact that it continued to pique the interest of the nation even on days when we were first to bring you pictures of girl fights in Florida or cover the Olympic torch relay which at time resembled the aforementioned girl fights, means that people want to know what happened to these children on that ranch, and perhaps most important, what will happen to them next.
  • Hari Sreenivasan

Comments

Follow Us

Watch CBSN Live

Watch CBS News anytime, anywhere with the new 24/7 digital news network. Stream CBSN live or on demand for FREE on your TV, computer, tablet, or smartphone.

On Twitter