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Divided polygamous towns unite at memorial for Utah flood victims

Published September 27, 2015 9:13 pm

Fatal flood • Twelve people were killed and one boy still is missing after Sept. 14 rainstorm hit Hildale.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Hildale • Turn off of State Road 59, follow Utah Avenue east to Canyon Street and you can see where the Sept. 14 flash flood ripped through this town, piling debris and sediment on the street and surrounding wash banks.

Drive north on Canyon Street and you quickly pass the spot where the flood washed away two vehicles carrying three mothers and their 13 children. The bodies of the three women and nine of the children have been recovered. Searchers continue to search for the body of a 6-year-old boy. (Three children escaped the torrent.)

Drive a little farther and you reach Maxwell Park. That was the site Saturday where hundreds gathered to remember the flood victims.



"Anyone who's helped, I love you," Sheldon Black Jr. told the crowd. His wife Della Black died in the flood. So did his daughters Melanie and LaRue Black. His son Tyson Lucas Black is still missing.

Many of the people who have searched for his son were there Saturday.

There were people there from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints — dressed in the sect's traditional attire of prairie dresses for the women, jeans and mono-colored, long sleeve button-down shirts for the men. There were probably just as many former followers of the sect, too.

Traffic control and music were provided by the Davis County Cooperative, also known as the Kingstons. It's a sect that, like the FLDS, believes in polygamy as a tenet.

Polygamist Tom Green, who was convicted of bigamy, also attended with some of his family, though a belief in polygamy appears to be his only connection to the Hildale residents killed.

The Utah National Guard's 2-222 Field Artillery provided a color guard. Some 2-222 soldiers earlier participated in the search for Tyson.

The crowd probably could have filled the 800-plus folding chairs lined up on the park's huge lawn, though about half the attendees stood on the perimeter. They faced risers where town officials, dignitaries and the fathers and husbands of the dead offered condolences and expressed sorrow.

Sheldon Black Jr. sat on the riser with his two sons who survived the flood — Seth and Shem. He recalled each of the three children he lost, and he recalled his wife.

"I know she wanted to be with the children," Sheldon Black Jr. said. "I know she is now."

Joseph N. Jessop lost two wives in the flood — biological sisters Josephine and Naomi Jessop, who were also Della Black's biological sisters. Josephine was Joseph Jessop's legal wife. He also lost seven children: Rebekah, Melissa, Naomi, Ruth, Valiant, Velvet and Caress.

"I wouldn't want to complain against God and his purposes," Joseph Jessop told the crowd. "I know he has all things in his hands, and he always does right."

His lone surviving child, Joseph Jessop Jr., about age 10, followed his father to the microphone. He recalled seeing the flood as it overtook the family vehicle.

"My heart was pounding a thousand beats per minute — just whacking like a sledgehammer," the boy said. "But I know that Heavenly Father wanted this to happen and I'm grateful for this experience."

After a pause, Joseph finished with: "It's good to see you all. Amen."

Of the children caught in the flood, authorities have released only the name and age of Tyson Black. But the names of the deceased children were printed on the program for the memorial service, and the Jessop family members were buried earlier in the week with grave placards listing their years of birth. The people killed in the Hildale flood were members of the FLDS and the sect has a history of being protective of information about their children.

Searchers from the Utah National Guard and rescue crews from across Utah and northern Arizona have taken turns trying to find Tyson's remains since the flood and looked again Saturday without success. The search was expected to pause Sunday.

FLDS President Warren Jeffs and his family have expelled hundreds of people from the sect in the past 12 years and told his remaining followers not to associate with those banished, which he has dubbed apostates. Perhaps just as many have left on their own.

Those former Jeffs followers have said the hours and days after the flood presented an opportunity for the two factions to cooperate and speak to one another.

But William E. Jessop, who ministers at Sunday services to a few hundred former Jeffs followers, said Saturday that many in his congregation went to Hildale's offices to volunteer during the search for the flood victims and were turned away.

William E. Jessop said before the floodwaters arrived Sept. 14, Short Creek had already been suffering from a "flood of deception" in which Jeffs separates families and exerts control over the towns.

"It would be wonderful," he said, "if we had this kind of help searching for children and wives lost in the flood of deception."

Speaking to a reporter a few minutes before the memorial service began, William E. Jessop said he has counseled his congregation that the flood is an example of how "everything is in Heavenly Father's hands."

There was no talk of division during the memorial service — only unity.

During the service, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert told the crowd he was appearing on behalf of 3 million Utahns who wanted to offer their condolences. Herbert, who has a shared ancestor with Hildale Mayor Philip Barlow and the many other Barlows in Hildale, cited two passages from the Book of Mormon that discussed how service for others provides comfort and, in turn, provides service for God.

"I see that happening here in Hildale," Herbert said, "as we support one another and give service."

Sam Johnson, one of the marshals from the police force in Hildale and adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., gave the closing prayer.

"Father, help us to find little Tyson and bring him home," Johnson said, just before leading the crowd in saying "Amen."

The Sept. 14 floods have been called the deadliest weather disaster in Utah history. Besides the 12 dead and one missing in Hildale, the same rain caused a flash flood that killed seven people in a slot canyon in Zion National Park and a flood that killed a Hurricane man.

ncarlisle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @natecarlisle —

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