A lot has happened in the past 6 days. But let me back up to the beginning. The paper sent me and another photographer Keith Johnson out specifically for an exclusive on the ranch. Our reporter, Nancy Perkins, has been working with the polygamists for over 12 years and was able to use one of her contacts to get us on the ranch. No media had ever been invited on the ranch. Now, as I'm sitting on the bed in my hotel room in San Angelo, Texas, I'm watching Larry King interview three polygamist women at the ranch. We sure broke that door open.
I'll talk about our first day on the ranch, but these photos are from a couple days later when they allowed all media on the ranch. I only shot video on the first day...
Essentially, they felt like they needed to have these women tell their side of the story. Media had only been reporting on what the Child of Protective Services and other Texas authorities have told them. The FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) generally stay out of view of society. They have been receiving scrutiny from society for a long time and have tried to avoid it for a while. That's why they moved out here initially--to be alone.
So it was a big deal for them to allow us on the ranch. So, we pulled up to the gate at the ranch to be let in. A four-wheeler sped down the long dirt road to the ranch and opened the gate for us. There was so much mystery in everyone's mind as to what exactly it was like on there that I was jittery to even be on the soil. We drove up past the first "guard tower" to meet our contact. He led us to one of the large log homes, where our reporter discussed what we would be doing with some of the church leaders and their attorneys. As we were driving, we caught the first glimpse of the way of life on the ranch without children. We saw an old woman load two large boxes from a golf cart and carry them up the stairs to her home. As we drove, we passed another cart full of young women in their solid color dresses. We were kicking ourselves at the photos we couldn't shoot. Essentially, we were invited on their terms and didn't want our visit to be cut short because of our trigger happy fingers.
Once all was discussed and the parameters were laid out, we went into one of the spacious houses and sat in a meeting room with a couple of the sect leaders and the attorneys. We talked about genealogy with Merrill Jessop, the main religious leader of this particular sect since our reporters and photographer have Mormon backgrounds. As we waited, an elderly woman brought trays of tuna melts, potato salad, homemade chips and salsa and golden apple juice into the room and laid them on the table. After a traditional FLDS lunch with a Mexican twist, we got started.
The women came out of the house one by one we. We talked to each for about 15-20 minutes. The men were scattered around the porch and were enthralled at what these woman had to say, leaning against wooden posts concentrating on these women's words. As Keith said to me many times after we were done, we were kicking ourselves at the photos we couldn't take. I can only report what I saw, but the whole time I've been with these people they have been the most cordial, polite, soft-spoken and accommodating people. After the interviews, we went into one of the man's homes where he showed us around and talked with us further.
We wrapped up after about 6 hours on the ranch to get back to the hotel to file on deadline. No one knew we got access, so we knew we were breaking something big. I had 2 hours of video to sort through and stayed up till 4 am editing. I hadn't had anything to eat since that tuna melt but lost my appetite anyway in my frantic mindset. I slapped it together, cutting a version for our sister station and it's affiliates (NBC and CNN) and finally got some sleep. I was unable to watch TV and find out where the video actually ended up, but I did catch a short snip with our snail speed internet at La Quinta on cnn.com. My editors told me the phones were ringing all day at the office, with media outlets across the nation wanting to get a hold of it. Unfortunately we weren't able to release it to everyone until after a day or so, so our Web site would get the hits our editors drool over. They attempted to reach us directly and many stations were so desperate for something different they wanted to interview us. I know my mom might get excited, but I wasn't ready to talk to any broadcast reporter. I guess my 15 minutes of fame will have to wait.
A couple days later, after the CPS workers and Texas authorities took women with children 5 and over and sent them back to the ranch. At that point they felt like they needed the national stage to cover the story. They let all media who showed up onto the ranch to interview many of the women who were separated from their children. It's essentially a plea by the church to get attention and garner sympathy for the women and children. Both sides seem to be twisting it to their favor and it's fascinating to watch it unfold.
Tomorrow is the main court hearing for the 416 children taken from the compound. It should be a long day. But finally, Mike Terry came to relieve Keith and will help me shoot video. So, hopefully I'll be back to stills. More to come.