Arizona’s Mohave County investigator Gary Engels is pointing out features of twin cities Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., from a hilltop, when seven cracks echo toward us from the houses below.
“Not very clever being up here, if they’re shooting at us,” he says.
The possibility of someone taking potshots on a Friday afternoon is not such a stretch. Cars constantly follow Engels as he investigates crime in Colorado City, a stronghold of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And that’s not counting those who veer their trucks toward him trying to force him off the road or simply glare as they drive by.
“I’m not the most popular,” he says dryly. Indeed, spend time with Engels, and teenagers in a red truck without a license plate are liable to tailgate you for several miles out of town. It’s the toughest beat this ex-cop has had. “How do you work with people who don’t realize they’re victims?” he asks.
Another volley of shots float up on a breeze bearing the scent of apple blossom, followed by the smell of manure.
Engels doesn’t move, his eyes squinting as he concentrates on identifying where the shots are coming from. Below, back yards stretch out with farm stock and a communal garden recently tilled over. Children on horseback ride up a street. It would look like a typical rural community were it not for the high fences around a number of enormous houses, young girls in ankle-length gray dresses lopping off tree branches or operating backhoes, and the 4-year-old, dirty-faced girl babysitting the toddler in her arms on a street corner in the afternoon.
Waiting for the whistle of a passing round can bring time to an abrupt halt. The ex-cop’s just irritated. “Firearms are off-limits in the city,” he says. As a Boston police officer, he was shot by a man trying to commit suicide. He’s in constant pain from the wound, with a burning sensation down his right leg.
The shots stop, and the silence that blankets this dust-shrouded town returns.
TAKING ON GOD
Engels isn’t the only one who knows what it’s like to be ostracized by members of the FLDS Church. Ask former Colorado City resident and ex-FLDS Church member Margaret Cook.
According to her eldest son Davis Holm, if she departed town, after living there for 18 years, “infamous,” she’s now “legendary,” thanks to the United Effort Plan trust. She’s one of six members of a temporary advisory board set up by the state to oversee the UEP. Until recently, the church-owned trust controlled most of the land in Colorado City and Hildale, on which FLDS members built, and currently build, their houses.
“(FLDS prophet) Warren Jeffs was breaking up the UEP and selling it down the river, piece by piece,” Cook says. Special fiduciary to the UEP trust Bruce Wisan says the trust is worth $110 million.
While Jeffs is on the lam from Utah and Arizona authorities, Cook, in an irony probably unappreciated by FLDS members, regularly attends meetings in Hildale and Salt Lake City to decide the fate of her former neighbors’ homes. Some impute vengeful motives to her actions. But she speaks with genuine affection about the “decent folk who live here” and says she simply wants to know how her daughters, still members of the FLDS Church, are faring. One daughter was kicked out by Jeffs. She lives in Nevada but hopes to return, Cook says. The other lives in a trailer in Colorado City. Both daughters, she says, have disowned her. “They think taking on the UEP is taking on Jeffs, which is taking on God.”
Wisan, who has had some recent success collecting property taxes from residents after church leaders instructed them not to pay, says no one in Colorado City talks to him. Cook, he adds, as a volunteer working for the state, former resident and apostate, faces even grimmer resistance.
For Cook, revisiting her old home one Saturday in March turned into something of a cat-and-mouse game. Wherever she went, hooded young men in cars followed, their stalking coordinated with walkie-talkies. This campaign of intimidation ended up on the highway marking the border between Utah and Arizona. A truck sped past her parked car, a young man at the window glared down at her, his face contorted with hate.
Her son Davis Holm was taught to drywall from the age of 10 while living in Hildale and now works in construction in Salt Lake City. In between sips of a martini, he says Colorado City is like a town surrounded by an invisible wall a thousand miles high and a thousand miles thick.
When that truck hurtled by, for a moment, those walls closed in.