clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Family hopes cemetery dispute will heal divides between FLDS and non-FLDS

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Melting snow and footprints formed in mud frame the small mound of freshly dug dirt on the east side of Isaac Carling Memorial Cemetery.

Atop the mound rests a multicolored plush rattle and a few dozen purple and white flowers. At its base, a temporary nameplate in the shape of an angel identifies the spot as the grave of AngelLee Heart Stubbs.

Her death was tragic. Just 10 months into her young life, AngelLee was killed when a van being driven by her mother collided with and was crushed by a loaded garbage truck.

Her burial was contentious. As a member of a non-FLDS family living in the traditionally FLDS border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, she was deemed by some to be not worthy of burial next to her grandfather.

Today, as tensions build between many faithful followers of Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs and those who've chosen to leave the religion but not the community, AngelLee's parents are hoping their daughter can become a symbol of peace and healing.

"She was an absolute angel. We totally picked a perfect name for her," AngelLee's mother, Violet Jessop, said from her hospital bed at Kolob Regional Care and Rehabilitation in Cedar City. "She was just a real special spirit."

A poster decorated with photos of AngelLee and handwritten messages to the girl hangs on one wall of the recovery room Jessop temporarily calls home while physically and emotionally healing from the Dec. 6 accident and the events that followed.

"She loved everybody, and she always had a smile for everybody," Jessop told the Deseret News.

Love, the girl's parents say, is what's missing from their community. Too often neighbors and family members are made to feel like outsiders in a town where many of them were raised.

The so-called "apostates" who no longer consider themselves members of the FLDS religion say they often are shunned by their FLDS neighbors despite church teachings to love one another.

Members of the community say it's a schism that has been around for decades but has gotten much wider since 2002, when Jeffs took over as church leader. And as that divide continues to grow, non-FLDS residents fear that what so far has been akin to schoolyard bullying could soon become violent.

"You literally have the Middle East waiting to happen on the Utah and Arizona borders," said Ezra Draper, who years ago left the FLDS religion but has chosen to reside in the community.

Leroy Stubbs, AngelLee's father, wants to prevent that from happening. Together, he and Draper are drafting a declaration of peace to present to FLDS Church leaders. The tricky part, Stubbs said, will be getting church leadership to meet with them.

"We don't have to believe the same, but we can be kind and considerate to one another," he said. "We can decide to live in harmony and agree to disagree on our beliefs."

Stubbs is among those who say division between FLDS and non-FLDS is destroying their community.

Last week, Stubbs watched as his own brother attempted to stop a graveside service for AngelLee. Colorado City police stepped in and physically blocked Donovan Stubbs and another FLDS representative from getting within a few hundred feet of the burial site.

Witnesses say that intervention likely prevented an emotionally charged situation from escalating into physical violence. Still, three members of the FLDS faith, including cemetery sexton Guy Jessop Jr., circulated among the mourners, disrupting the proceedings by taking pictures and shooting video of what took place and documenting who was in attendance.

"They chose to act very poorly and disrupt the services," said Draper, a family friend who offered a prayer at the Jan. 2 service. "They were very bold and in-your-face."

Earlier in the day, family and friends for a second time hurried to dig a grave for AngelLee. Mourners arrived for the noon service to find that the grave that had been dug the previous afternoon had been filled in during the night.

A new grave in the unpopulated southwest corner of the cemetery had been dug and prepared for the child's burial, allegedly under the direction of FLDS leaders. That spot, however, was roughly 1,200 feet from the Stubbs family plot where AngelLee's grandfather, Lawrence Stubbs, was buried in the mid-1970s.

Despite alleged threats from Donovan Stubbs and other FLDS members that the Stubbs family would be charged with trespassing and vandalism, Leroy and Violet Stubbs chose to bury their daughter where they say she deserves to be.

"When I found out (the FLDS) had put her clear over in the corner with nobody around, I was like, 'You know what? I want her buried by her grandpa, and I'm not going to compromise,'" Violet Jessop said. "She's just as important as they are."

The community cemetery has become something of a battleground in recent years. Non-FLDS residents say FLDS leaders want the cemetery split in two, with believers buried on one side and non-believers on the other. The problem with that, they say, is many families have parents or siblings who believe differently from them when it comes to loyalty to Jeffs.

Isaac Wyler, a lifelong Colorado City resident but no longer an FLDS member, said he was blocked from attending the graveside service of his father-in-law about two years ago.

"(The FLDS) had people out there at the parking lot," Wyler said. "They told me it was private property and that they would have me arrested if I tried to go to the funeral."

Wyler, who's also a friend of the Stubbs family, is hoping the latest incident involving an innocent child will "soften the hearts" of their FLDS neighbors.

"There's going to be a certain percentage of them who are so callous that they don't care," Wyler said. "But I think there's another percentage of them who are going to say, 'You know what? This is crossing a line. It's gone too far.'"

The religious differences between community members, Wyler says, are based on those who will swear complete obedience to Jeffs and those who won't. Other FLDS teachings, including the practice of polygamy, still are embraced by many of those who've left the religion but continue to reside in the community.

"It's not about polygamy," he said. "It's about absolute obedience to Warren Jeffs."

Jeffs currently is being held in San Angelo, Texas, where he faces charges of aggravated sexual assault, sexual assault and bigamy. The charges stem from the 2008 raid of the church's Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado. Prosecutors say Jeffs had sex with two children, one under age 14 and the other under age 17.

Jeffs' younger brother, Lyle Jeffs, now serves as the FLDS bishop for the Hildale-Colorado City community. Calls to Lyle Jeffs seeking comment for this story were not returned.

Thus far, Leroy Stubbs also has been unable to reach Lyle Jeffs. Despite early setbacks, Stubbs said he will continue to work toward bringing the sides together in hopes of healing a divided community.

Meanwhile, the healing process continues for Violet Jessop and the Stubbs family. A fractured pelvis and broken leg have confined her to a hospital bad or a wheelchair. If all goes well, the mother of nine expects to try walking again early next month.

The couple's 11-year-old son, SunderLee, faces a much longer road to recovery. The boy suffered head injuries that doctors say likely will result in some brain damage.

"I feel like he's going to be OK," she said. "It's just going to take a long time."

Jessop says she's also seen examples of emotional healing between her non-FLDS family and those who remain faithful to the religion as a result of the accident.

On Friday, she was visited in the hospital by her mother and brother, both members of the FLDS faith.

"I hadn't seen them for a long, long time, but they showed up," Jessop said with a smile. "It made me happy that they would come and see me, tell me how much they love me and that they cared."

AngelLee, she says, made that happen.

And it gives her hope that the loss of her daughter can help a community learn how to love again.

"We want to make this into a good experience instead of a bad one," Jessop said. "We need to work together to make it work for everybody."