Lost to the Only Life They Knew
Abandoned by his family, faith and community, Gideon Barlow arrived here an orphan from another world.
At first, he played the tough guy, aloof and hard. But when no one was watching, he would cry.
The freckle-faced 17-year-old said he was left to fend for himself last year after being forced out of Colorado City, Ariz., a town about 40 miles east of here, just over the state line.
“I couldn’t see how my mom would let them do what they did to me,” he said.
When he tried to visit her on Mother’s Day, he said, she told him to stay away. When he begged to give her a present, she said she wanted nothing.
“I am dead to her now,” he said.
Gideon is one of the “Lost Boys,” a group of more than 400 teenagers -- some as young as 13 -- who authorities in Utah and Arizona say have fled or been driven out of the polygamous enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City over the last four years.
His stated offenses: wearing short-sleeved shirts, listening to CDs and having a girlfriend. Other boys say they were booted out for going to movies, watching television and staying out past curfew.
Some say they were sometimes given as little as two hours’ notice before being driven to St. George or nearby Hurricane, Utah, and left like unwanted pets along the road.
Authorities say the teens aren’t really being expelled for what they watch or wear, but rather to reduce competition for women in places where men can have dozens of wives.
“It’s a mathematical thing. If you are marrying all these girls to one man, what do you do with all the boys?” said Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff, who has had boys in his office crying to see their mothers. “People have said to me: ‘Why don’t you prosecute the parents?’ But the kids don’t want their parents prosecuted; they want us to get the No. 1 bad guy -- Warren Jeffs. He is chiefly responsible for kicking out these boys.”
The 49-year-old Jeffs is the prophet, or leader, of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS, as it is known, controls Hildale and Colorado City.
The sect, which broke from the Mormon Church more than a century ago, has between 10,000 and 15,000 members. It believes in “plural marriage,” that a man must have at least three wives to reach the highest levels of heaven. The Mormon Church forbids polygamy and excommunicates those who practice it.
Polygamy is also illegal, and in recent weeks law enforcement has turned up the heat on the FLDS.
On Friday, Jeffs was indicted in Arizona on charges that he had arranged a marriage between a 28-year-old man, who was already married, and a 16-year-old girl.
He faces two years in prison if convicted, though he hasn’t been arrested and is thought to be in Texas.
A few days earlier, a Utah judge froze the assets of the United Effort Plan, an FLDS trust that owns most of the homes and land in the polygamous towns. And on May 24, the records of the financially troubled Colorado City Unified School District were seized to prevent any evidence of potential wrongdoing from being spirited away, according to the Arizona attorney general’s office.
At the same time, Jeffs is being sued by five of the Lost Boys, who claim he conspired to banish them so church elders would have less competition for wives.
Jeffs has not responded to the lawsuit, filed in Utah’s 3rd District Court, leaving him open to a default judgment from the bench.
“There is a virtual Taliban down there. You tell people this stuff happens and they don’t believe it,” said Dan Fischer, a former FLDS member and dentist living outside Salt Lake City who helps educate and house the exiled teens. The exodus “has been far more dramatic in the last year.”
FLDS officials rarely speak to the media. But church lawyer Rodney Parker, who isn’t a member of the faith, said some of the ousted boys were delinquents or proved unable to live up to the community’s strict moral code.
“I think many are minimizing their own behavior,” he said. “These places are very different and very strange. But broad-stroke claims about what goes on down there are exaggerations -- and often fiction.”
About half a dozen boys who spoke recently say it’s all too real.
Tom Sam Steed said he was put on “religious probation” at 15 for sneaking off to see the film “Charlie’s Angels.” Shortly after, he said he was ejected from the FLDS, living temporarily in a tool shed. When he begged to return to the church, he said he was refused.
“I was really into the religion. I would have been the first to drink the poison Kool-Aid,” said Steed, now 19. “I felt [the faith] was the only way to go to heaven.”
He said he made a personal plea to Jeffs, meeting him in a Colorado City print shop.
“He told me I wasn’t welcome,” Steed said. “And on the way out he said: ‘Just to let you know, when the final devastation comes, you will be destroyed.’ I believed it completely. If you are told your whole life the Earth is flat, what else would you believe?”
Many of the exiled boys express affection for their hometowns, but seldom for the FLDS.
“It wasn’t so bad until I got some knowledge of the world and saw how they treated us,” said John Jessop, 16, who said he was thrown out two years ago. “I would definitely go live there again with my family. It’s a great place, but I want no part of the religion.”
Once children are expelled, the FLDS forbids parents from visiting them, and violating the rule can result in eviction from their church-owned homes, say state authorities and former town residents. Many parents sever all ties to their sons.
In some cases, families outside the communities have unofficially adopted the boys.
That’s what happened to Gideon. A Mormon couple, Stacha and Neil Glauser of St. George, took him in.
“Taking Gideon was an impulsive thing,” said Stacha Glauser, a 47-year-old hairdresser with two other teenagers. “I just couldn’t stand seeing a kid kicked out into the streets.”
As a child, she heard strange stories about the polygamous towns, stories of men with dozens of wives, hundreds of children and homes the size of barns.
According to Gideon, he is one of 71 children born to his father, 73-year-old Dan Barlow, and his father’s eight wives.
The Barlows were among Colorado City’s first settlers and have served as political leaders and lawmen. Gideon’s father was mayor.
But last year Jeffs called a meeting. He announced that Dan Barlow and 20 other men were being expelled. His reasons were never fully explained.
Then he “reassigned” their wives and children to other men, say local authorities and witnesses.
“Warren said, ‘All who agree with the decision stand up,’ and I stood up,” Gideon said. “I stood because I was scared. My dad left that day.”
Suddenly, Gideon had a new father -- one who he said didn’t like him listening to music, wearing short-sleeved shirts and mingling with girls. The pressure built. His mother made a pile of his CDs and shirts to toss out. Finally, he said, Jeffs gave the order for him to leave.
When Gideon called his exiled father in St. George for help, he was rebuffed.
“He told me we had two different goals,” Gideon said. “He wanted to get back into the community and said he couldn’t help me.”
Dan Barlow could not be reached for comment.
Gideon was staying with friends in St. George when the Glausers heard of his plight from a woman sympathetic to the Lost Boys.
“When Gideon came, he didn’t know how to act around people,” Stacha Glauser said. “This was like a foreign country for him.”
Like many kids from his hometown, Gideon’s poor education left his vocabulary wanting. When he was hungry, for instance, he asked Glauser to “build” him something to eat.
“I met his mother once; she was just a baby when she had him,” Glauser said. “I told her she had a really wonderful son. She said she did the best she could, and that was it.”
Last summer, five of the boys who left Colorado City and Hildale filed their lawsuit, claiming they were excommunicated unfairly. Gideon is not part of the suit.
Joanne Suder, a Baltimore lawyer and lead counsel in the case, said the expulsions had resulted in emotional and psychological damage to her clients.
“They are clearly trying to get rid of the competition. Warren Jeffs himself is reputed to have 70 wives,” Suder said. “These kids are kicked out and lose the only world they ever knew. They leave without an education and can have no further contact with their family. It’s horrible.”
Despite the open practice of polygamy in these towns, authorities have been careful how they pursue offenders.
In 1953, Arizona state police swarmed into Short Creek, now Colorado City. They arrested the men and transported crying women and children to detention camps. The result was a public outpouring of sympathy for the families -- and scorn for state political leaders. The governor, Howard Pyle, lost the next election.
Today, law enforcement officials are going after the FLDS by targeting child sexual abuse, welfare fraud and tax evasion rather than polygamy. The Arizona attorney general’s office has opened a branch in Colorado City, where an investigator looks into alleged illegalities.
In 2003, Rodney Holm, a Colorado City police officer, was sentenced to a year in prison and three years’ probation on charges of bigamy and unlawful sex with two girls, 16 and 17. Another FLDS member, Orson William Black Jr., was charged with child sex crimes and is still at large.
Meanwhile, authorities believe Jeffs has left Colorado City and may be staying with family at a 1,600-acre compound the FLDS is building near Eldorado, Texas.
The spiritual heart of the church lies in Hildale and Colorado City, communities a mile apart with a combined population of about 10,000.
The towns sit at the foot of the remote and majestic Vermillion Cliffs, a place of red rock isolation. Women walk the streets in bonnets and trousers under long dresses. Their hair is pinned high on their heads, often with a braided ponytail hanging in back.
Many of the boys said children didn’t attend school past the eighth grade and that they were taught that blacks were inferior -- the offspring of Cain and doomed to slavery. Such views have earned the FLDS a hate-group designation by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The children are told that dinosaurs came from another planet, and man never walked on the moon. More important, they learn the outside world is wicked and salvation comes through obedience to the prophet, who channels God’s will.
According to those inside and outside the community, this way of life has become even stricter since Jeffs took over in 2002. Competitive sports -- said to promote pride -- have been curtailed or eliminated. Swimming is frowned upon, and talking to a girl can earn a boy a visit from the local police.
Ross Chatwin, who lives in Colorado City, said when Jeffs took charge, “rumors started going around that if you weren’t obedient, you would be kicked out.”
Chatwin, 36, was ordered out last year for trying to marry a second wife without the prophet’s permission. He refused to budge from his sparsely furnished home in the center of town, and now is in a legal battle with the city, which once moved another family into his house and briefly shut off his utilities.
“The kids here are giving up hope,” Chatwin said. “There is nothing for them anymore.”
Hildale Mayor David Zitting, an FLDS member, said the exiled boys were defiant.
“The people in this community have certain standards and values,” Zitting said. “If you have a son or daughter in your home, and their behavior got worse and worse and they defied you, wouldn’t you want them to leave?”
Girls are rarely banished for improper behavior; but there have been several high-profile cases of girls running away to avoid arranged marriages or escape sexual abuse.
The first stop for many boys is Hurricane or St. George, where a network for exiles exists. They often share apartments or sleep on couches while trying to find work. Some end up in Las Vegas or Salt Lake City.
Fischer, the former FLDS member who runs the Diversity Foundation in suburban Salt Lake City, wants to raise awareness about the boys as well as provide them with housing and further their education.
“The sole purpose of this foundation is to maintain a relationship with the Lost Boys,” said Dave Bills, managing director of the organization. “I keep tabs on them. I offer them programs to get educated. Education is the key to this whole thing.”
The boys working with the foundation are either in school or getting their GEDs. If they want to attend college, the Diversity Foundation will pay for it.
Bills said that many of the Lost Boys had emotional problems and turned to drugs or alcohol. “Imagine being 16 years old and asked, ‘If you had one wish, what would it be?’ These kids say, ‘I’d love to see my mom.’ ”
Gideon has pretty much given up on that.
He attends high school in St. George and is learning to navigate, even embrace, the world he was once warned against.
He still favors wearing short sleeves -- and flashy shell necklaces. His cellphone rings often. Regular sessions with a therapist have made it easier to talk about his past, and he doesn’t flinch anymore when classmates call him “the polygamist.”
He is coming to grips with being abandoned, and no longer cries when talking about his family.
“If you have 71 brothers and sisters in the house, how can you establish a relationship with your father?” he asked.
As for his mother, Gideon is moving on.
“This is my mom,” he said, nodding toward Glauser. “She treats me the way a mother should treat a son. She wakes me in the morning. She always talks to me. I don’t know if I could ever pay her back.”
As traumatic as the experience has been, Gideon said, it has taught him a crucial lesson about family and faith.
“No loving God would tear a family apart,” he said. “Because a family is meant to be together.”