BOISE CITY — About 300 people crowded into the banquet hall at the county fairgrounds in this Panhandle town, anxious to talk about the small group of strangers who had moved into their midst.
Men in boots, baseball caps and cowboy hats milled about, while women fanned themselves against the early July heat.
A sign outside the entrance warned: “This is a civil meeting. Anyone disrupting the peace will be escorted out.”
“The whole town’s here,” Jennifer Adee, 33, said to a friend sitting in the folding metal chair next to her.
Adee glanced around the cavernous room. She spotted a news crew from a television station in Amarillo, Texas, 120 miles away.
“They’re going to portray this as a witch hunt,” Adee offered.
About 18 months ago, a small group of religious fundamentalists settled in Boise City. Others followed. Soon, the group, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, began buying property in town and competing for local construction jobs and other work. Today, about a dozen members, several of whom are brothers, live in Boise City.
The group’s arrival prompted fear among some townsfolk.
They’d heard the stories about how many of the church’s estimated 10,000 members had moved into towns in Arizona, Colorado and elsewhere, taking over local government and the public schools, building compounds, sanctioning child marriages and harassing and driving out nonmembers by vandalizing property and destroying crops.
They’d heard the stories about Warren Jeffs, the polygamist sect’s prophet. Once among the FBI’s 10 most-wanted fugitives, Jeffs now is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison, convicted of child sex and bigamy.
Many, like Adee, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, worried that the same could soon be in store for Boise City.
Now, she sat, waiting to hear from two men invited to town to share what they knew about the group.
As the meeting began, a local minister offered a prayer asking for “understanding and civility.”
For some on this summer night, it would be in short supply.
Just a few hours before and a few blocks away, George Barlow, and his wife, Virginia, sat in a room at the Cimarron Heritage Center Museum, where they volunteer, trying to understand the hatred directed toward them by some of their new neighbors.
George, 52, sported jeans and a dark blue button-up work shirt. Virginia, 48, her hair in a bun, wore a homemade long-sleeved, ankle-length blue dress.
George Barlow said he’d come to Oklahoma from North Dakota in 2013 for the same reason eight of his brothers had settled in the Boise City area in recent months: work.
Most of the men are tradesmen: electricians, drywallers, carpenters. George Barlow works as a mechanic.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see this place needed some help,” George Barlow said in a soft-spoken voice.
Boise City sits about 330 miles northwest of Oklahoma City in Cimmaron County, an area known in the late 1800s as “No Man’s Land.” The town was established in 1908 by three men later convicted of fraud, in part, for alleging the area had abundant natural resources and that rivers ran through the arid, treeless town.
The railroad came in 1925, but Boise City’s greatest notoriety may have come in 1943, when a B-17 bomber mistakenly dropped six practice bombs on the town square, damaging a garage, sidewalk, and a church.
By 1950, the town’s population had reached about 1,900. Today, ranching, farming and oil and gas production drive the local economy, but in recent years the community has seen a steady slide in population. Now, about 1,300 people call Boise City home. Around the town’s courthouse square, many storefronts sit empty.
From 2011 to 2013, George Barlow served as the mayor of Colorado City, Ariz., where nearly all the town’s residents are members of Jeffs’s sect. Barlow took over the post after Jeffs excommunicated the town’s previous mayor. Barlow served in the position remotely from North Dakota, flying to Arizona for city council meetings, his wife said. He resigned when the stress of holding that position and running his trucking company became too great. Since then, the Barlows say, they too have been excommunicated and are no longer members of the church.
The couple offered few details on why they were “sent away.”
“I actually had reported on something that someone else had done, and my true feelings are that is why I was told to go away.” Virginia said with a noticeable sadness in her voice. “But, I brought my children with me, because they are my priority and my concern and my responsibility before God.”
The couple said they don’t participate in polygamy, don’t believe in child marriage and say any sexual abuse of children that occurred was not in line with teachings of their faith. Both declined to discuss Jeffs, but one of George’s brothers was quoted in a Guymon newspaper this month saying he believed that Jeffs was innocent and wrongfully imprisoned.
Virginia Barlow said her husband and his brothers settled in Boise City for business opportunities, not to establish an FLDS community. The families live in different homes around town and have no plans to establish a compound, they said. At one point, George Barlow wrote a letter published in The Boise City News explaining his family’s decision to relocate.
“My brothers were so impressed with the good nature, kindness and integrity of those they met that they began talking to more people and found that Boise City is full of the most kind and loving people on earth, who needed help repairing, maintaining and remodeling their homes,” George Barlow wrote. “So they went to where they were living, finished up their business and moved to Boise City.”
“I don’t know if the investigators think we’re starting some sort of compound,” Virginia Barlow said. “It’s nothing like that.”
Keeping a watchful eye
In the lobby of his office in the Cimarron County Courthouse on the town square, Sheriff Leon Apple measured his words when talking briefly about Boise City’s newest residents. Apple said he’d “checked around a little,” on the newcomers.
“They’re not doing anything illegal,” Apple said. “And we’re not trying to push on their constitutional rights or anything like that.”
Asked why he thought the group might have selected to relocate to Boise City, Apple said, “I do know that they look for secluded areas that are … under financial stress. That seems to be where they go. The place they came out of before this, in Arizona, is identical to this place.”
“Right down to everything,” Apple responded.
Since the group’s members began arriving, Apple said he’d received numerous calls from concerned parents.
“It’s all new to me. I really don’t know what their purpose is, to be honest,” Apple said.
‘A low rumble’
A few blocks north of the town square at the Angel Cafe, waitress Joscette Eledezma, 35, shuffled between tables, the kitchen and the cash register.
Eledezma said she thought the new arrivals were nice people with a strong work ethic. She said they’d done nothing wrong to her or anybody she knew.
“They just came here and started working in the community,” she said. “What’s wrong with that?”
Jody Risley, director of the Heritage Center Museum, where George and Virginia Barlow volunteer, described the couple as kind, soft-spoken and always willing to help out. During the town’s Santa Fe Trail Days celebration, some of the brothers repaired several of the museum’s antique tractors and drove them in the parade. Risley, who grew up elsewhere, said she remembers what it felt like to be an outsider in Boise City.
“Like maybe I wasn’t really wanted here … But I’ve been here 38 years now,” she said.
She criticized longtime residents who are suspicious of the newcomers.
“Some of them are leery. Some of them say that they’re here to get our little girls. I think it’s a lynchin’ for the Barlows,” Risley said.
C.F. David, owner and publisher of The Boise City News, said he believes the opposition to the newcomers, which he described as “a low rumble around town,” is due to misplaced fear over the safety of children.
“There’s a lot of rumors around town that ... come from people doing a lot of research on the Internet,” David said. “That’s a problem right there, if you ask me.”
David has written two editorials urging acceptance of the newcomers and even hired two of the brothers to do work at his home.
David called the town hall meeting “a low point,” for Boise City and declined to attend, saying he didn’t think he could be objective. He asked a newspaper reporter from Guymon, about 60 miles away, to cover the town hall meeting in his place.
Back in the banquet hall, the two invited guests stood to address the crowd.
Gary Engels works as an investigator for the prosecutor’s office in Mohave County, Ariz., where Colorado City is located. Sam Brower, a Utah private investigator, spent seven years researching and writing a book published in 2011 about Jeffs and the FLDS.
Brower and Engels spent about an hour describing the FLDS movement and offering detailed accounts of the sexual crimes committed against children by Jeffs.
When an audience member asked whether the new residents had been excommunicated from Jeffs’s church, Brower said members usually keep their status secret and that Jeffs most likely had instructed his followers in Boise City to tell outsiders they were no longer believers, even if they were.
Both Brower and Engels said recent developments in Boise City are a pattern they’ve seen sect members follow before in other parts of the country. The newcomers settle in, start working and then send money to Jeffs.
“My feeling is the money being made here is going to enrich the FLDS leadership, including Warren Jeffs’s commissary in Texas state prison,” Brower said.
Engels warned that Boise City is “strikingly similar” to Eldorado, Texas, the town where FLDS church members constructed a massive compound on a 1,700-acre ranch. In 2008, state law enforcement raided the ranch and temporarily removed hundreds of children over allegations of child sex abuse. The resulting investigation led to a dozen indictments and nine convictions of men living at the ranch, including Jeffs, for crimes involving child sex abuse and underage marriage.
Engels told the crowd that Boise City, where land is remote and cheap, would be an easy place for the group to establish a new stronghold.
But one of the half-dozen community members who spoke during the three-hour meeting questioned whether the newcomers weren’t being cast in the worst light with no proof of having done anything wrong.
Brower questioned why none of the FLDS members were in attendance.
“If it was me, I’d be here now, and if people wanted to know something about me, I would tell them,” Brower said. “You can’t defend your so-called religion when all of your leaders are in Texas state prison.”
Brower said he agreed “that it’s wise and prudent to not bunch everyone together, but that’s up to you.”
The audience member responded: “I think in a small community that values what they do in their own house ... basically privacy, that would be an extremely rude question for me to ask you, for me to come up and ask you exactly what your religion is, how many wives you have, how many kids you have, if I don’t know you personally, the man said. “That’s an invasion of privacy.”
Adee, the mother of the 3-year-old girl, made no secret of her distrust of the newcomers, especially one man whose name was mentioned several times during the meeting.
Adee said her daughter had participated in a local beauty pageant and that the man sat in the audience taking notes and writing down the names of Boise City girls and others who attended the event.
“He was writing down every single piece of information about underage children … and one of them was mine,” Adee said. “Have you ever heard of him doing that? And why would he do that unless he’s going to use it to go after our kids?”
“I’m not judging him on his religion … If he wants to practice the way he practices, that’s fine. But I’m not going to let my child be a victim, and I’m not going to let anybody else’s child be a victim.”
Adee’s comments drew loud applause.
Randy Mankin, owner and publisher of The Eldorado Success in Eldorado, Texas, said he’d come to the meeting planning only to listen, but ended up taking the microphone.
Mankin, who purchased the south-central Texas newspaper in the mid-1990s, said he watched as the FLDS moved into his small town and built a temple. He knows how they operate, he said. He told community members they needed to investigate for themselves, be watchful and draw their own conclusions.
“Knowledge is the answer,” Mankin told the audience. “Find out as much as you can. There’s a lot of information there.”
All God’s children
George and Virginia Barlow say most people they’ve met in Boise City have been “genuine and kind.”
“They’re just good people,” Virginia said. “And you know, you just feel good doing business with them and talking to them.”
“Good to the bone,” George called them.
On the day of the town hall meeting, they said several people stopped by their home to offer support. A neighbor dropped off some fruit.
“They say, ‘Hey, we just want you to know that we love you, and we think you’re good people. We don’t want you to go away,” George said.
Most of the animosity they’ve encountered has come from locals that the Barlow brothers compete with for work, the couple said.
“They won’t give us the time of day,” Virginia said. “They won’t say hi, goodbye, nothing. And, yet, we haven’t done anything.
“They were trying to dig up dirt ... to run us out of town,” she said. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I’m not a criminal. We’re good, honest people.”
The Barlows said they aren’t concerned about the town meeting. The man who attended the beauty pageant is related to one of George’s brothers, they said. The man attends as many community events as possible and takes notes, not for nefarious reasons, but simply to be informed.
The couple said they hope to use their time in Boise City to become better people. They hope to one day return to Colorado City and the church that sent them away.
In the meantime, they hope to live peacefully with their new neighbors.
“If we’re all the children of our father up in heaven and we believe in Jesus Christ, what’s the problem?” Virginia said.