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Religious fundamentalists settle in the Oklahoma Panhandle

Newcomers in Boise City are prompting fear among some residents while others condemn what they consider a modern-day witch hunt.
by Andrew Knittle and Graham Lee Brewer Modified: July 21, 2014 at 10:00 am •  Published: July 20, 2014

photo - Cimarron County Sheriff Leon Apple tells Boise City residents gathered for a July 1 town hall meeting to remain civil. The meeting was held to discuss concerns over a large family associated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Cimarron County Sheriff Leon Apple tells Boise City residents gathered for a July 1 town hall meeting to remain civil. The meeting was held to discuss concerns over a large family associated with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

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 business

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.”

How identical?

“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.

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by Andrew Knittle
Investigative Reporter
Andrew Knittle has covered state water issues, tribal concerns and major criminal proceedings during his career as an Oklahoma journalist. He has won reporting awards from the state's Associated Press bureau and prides himself on finding a real...
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by Graham Lee Brewer
General Assignment/Breaking News Reporter
Graham Lee Brewer began his career as a journalist covering Oklahoma's vibrant music scene in 2006. After working as a public radio reporter for KGOU and then Oklahoma Watch, where he covered areas such as immigration and drug addiction, he went...
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