“All the [polygamist] groups are somewhat related in their beliefs and practices. There is this philosophy here in the Bitterroot: You leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.
On a sunny weekday afternoon, Pinesdale, an enclave just west of Corvallis, looks only slightly different than any other rural town in the Bitterroot Valley. The wind gently blows the long, dark hair of two women pushing strollers on a freshly paved walking path. The women stop by a creek near a country road. Both wear nearly identical denim dresses with pastel blouses.
Aside from their traditional clothes, the women could be mothers from any American community. But when a car drives by, they stiffen and watch, rapt, until it’s safely gone. Strangers, it’s clear, do not often venture here.
Religion—in the form of a Mormon sect that’s in nationwide headlines—is the reason why.
Most of the residents of Pinesdale, population 742, belong to the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), a Utah-based fundamentalist group that has long favored polygamy, or “plural marriage.” As news continues to unfold about a massive federal raid on a polygamist compound in West Texas—where alleged child sexual abuse led authorities to place more than 400 children in protective custody—Bitterroot locals have been left wondering if they should be concerned about the enclave in their own backyard.
Yes, they should, one Pinesdale resident says.
“Is Pinesdale this big incestuous place like in Texas? No,” says the woman, who asks to remain anonymous. “I do think there is more sexual abuse, though, because perpetrators have access to a lot more children. Incest and sexual abuse tend to stay within the family units. So it may be going on within the families, but without the community’s knowledge.”
“I do think the community is trying to address it,” the woman adds. “But it can be a much more difficult problem because of the community’s isolation and closed social structure.”
This week, the phone call that sparked the raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch (YZR) in Texas was under question. Authorities say a caller to a Texas crisis center—claiming to be a teenager who’d been beaten and forced into a polygamist marriage with an older man at the YZR—might actually have been a 33-year-old Colorado Springs resident, Rozita Swinton.
But whether or not the phone call was a hoax, social service officials say the YZR raid uncovered concrete evidence of abuse, including wives as young as 13, according to the Houston Chronicle. And in the wake of those allegations, Pinesdale residents are trying to distance themselves from their Texas counterparts, despite theological, and even biological ties.
“I’m related to a lot of those people down there,” says Dee Jessop, principal of Pines Academy, Pinedale’s middle school, referring to the group in Texas.
Jessop is a common name among many members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). Willie Jessop, thought to be a leader at the Texas compound, is the former bodyguard for FLDS “prophet” Warren Jeffs, who is now in prison as an accomplice to rape for forcing a teenage girl into marriage. The woman who took the raid-triggering call at the crisis center is Flora Jessop, a former FLDS member who now runs a group to help women and children seeking to escape polygamist households.
“I knew them [Jessops in Texas] when I was a boy, but that’s all that our paths have crossed,” Dee Jessop says. “Every community has skeletons in their closet,” he adds, “but we’re pretty open here.”
While asserting that Pinesdale residents believe in plural marriage, Jessop says groups like Warren Jeffs’ sect take polygamy too far. “We don’t buy into child marriage,” Jessop says. “Our kids are allowed to grow up and choose.”
But critics still fear that in a closed rural community, where outsiders have few chances to observe or intervene, abuse might go undetected. Pinesdale’s insularity stems from its Mormon-run school, government, law enforcement, and thriving construction firms: education, politics, police, and businesses, all under one religious roof.
“There are atrocities going on there right now,” claims Doris Hanson of Shield and Refuge Ministries, a Christian group that bills itself as an underground railroad for women and girls seeking to escape polygamist marriages. Through advertisements in local papers across the West and a toll-free hotline for those who want out, Hanson says she receives more than 40 phone calls and an untold number of e-mails each month. She says she has worked with individuals from Pinesdale before, but, citing confidentiality, would not go into specifics.
“Just like in Texas, law enforcement and the community may know [about problems] for years, but police won’t do anything until there’s a victim,” Hanson says.
Even when a victim is willing to come forward, abuse cases are difficult to prove. Last year from Ravalli County, Montana’s Child Protective Services agency received 28 allegations of sexual abuse, 98 allegations of psychological abuse, and 77 allegations of physical abuse. Fewer than 10 percent were substantiated.
The agency’s confidentiality laws prevent it from disclosing what portion of the reports emerged from Pinesdale, home to two registered sex offenders, state records show.
But Chris Hoffman, Ravalli County Sheriff, says he hasn’t noticed unusual patterns in Pinesdale, and hasn’t prosecuted any cases of child abuse in recent memory. He says his department has a “comfortable relationship” with Pinesdale police, and says he takes over investigative duties in circumstances where “local law enforcement feels too close to the case.”
Many nearby residents, meanwhile, defend the Pinesdale community and say it’s unfair and unwarranted to suggest that trouble exists. “Their kids come through the regular school system with all our kids. They do business here in the local community. They’re seen as part of our community,” says Corvallis School Board Member Wilbur Nisly.
Hoffman echoes this feeling. “They’ve been contributing members to this community. We’ve never had a Warren Jeffs situation up there.”
Another local education official, who asked to remain anonymous, put it this way: “All the [polygamist] groups are somewhat related in their beliefs and practices. There is this philosophy here in the Bitterroot: You leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.”