HILDALE, Utah – The men who are husbands and fathers to the victims of a fatal flash flood in the twin communities of Hildale and Colorado City, Arizona spoke Thursday and expressed their gratitude for the support they've received in the wake of the tragedy, but they also said they and other members of the FLDS Church are facing unfair evictions.
Two vehicles carrying a total of 16 people were swept into Short Creek earlier this week during a flash flood. Three young boys survived, but the bodies of three mothers and 9 children have been recovered so far. Crews are still searching for 6-year-old Tyson Lucas Black.
Gov. Gary Herbert announced Thursday he was asking that all flags in Utah be lowered to half-staff through sunset Friday in honor of the victims of the flooding.
Search efforts continued Thursday evening, and earlier in the day the two men who are the fathers of all the children involved in this tragedy spoke to the media for the first time, with their surviving sons at their side.
“Our gratitude is beyond words for the kindness and support we've received in this great tragedy,” Sheldon Black said.
Sheldon Black's two surviving sons have bumps, scrapes and bruises from their ordeal, which left their mother, Della, among the dead.
Joseph Jessop's son also survived the incident.
“This is my son; the only survivor from my family,” Joseph Jessop said.
The family described by Joseph Jessop is polygamous, with him calling both Josephine and Naomi Jessop his wives.
The Jessop's extended family spoke about their loved ones Wednesday, click here for that interview.
Aside from thanking those who've offered help from within and from outside of their polygamous community, both men took the opportunity to express what they see as future threats to families who adhere to the teachings of the FLDS Church.
“As we look forward to the days ahead, our grief and sorrow is now met with extermination from our homes,” Black said. “Our family, with hundreds of other families, have been evicted from their homes because they will not forsake their religious beliefs.”
Jessop expressed a similar sentiment.
"Many have come to offer their condolences, have wondered what they can do to comfort us in our time of great need," he said. "We ask that this religious genocide stop."
The men say the state-run trust, which has overseen the distribution of property in Hildale and Colorado City since FLDS Church leader Warren Jeffs went to prison, is unfair, and they said it's causing many people to lose their homes. Under Jeffs' leadership, members of the FLDS Church gave ownership of their homes and land over to the FLDS Church, which managed the communal property.
Now that Jeffs is incarcerated, the state has taken over management of those assets, including the land and homes of many members of the community. With ownership of homes proving to be difficult to work out, some have been paying occupancy fees to the trust in order to stay in the homes they've lived in under the previous FLDS Church management.
Tonia Tewell, the Founder of Holding out HELP (a non-profit that helps people leaving a polygamous background) calls claims of religious persecution misguided.
“They are not being kicked out due to their religious beliefs," she told FOX 13 News Thursday. "You’re in a state that prides itself on religious freedom. They are being kicked out because they are not paying their occupancy fees.”
The occupancy fees are charged by the UEP Trust. After years of letting the fees slide, a judge ordered they be paid or that evictions begin.
"Our family was evicted from their home, recently," said Joseph Jessop.
Tewell said she has sympathy for the people facing eviction, as she said paying the fees comes at a cost that could run much higher than the actual dollar amount.
“If they would step up and pay that occupancy fee, they would be excommunicated [by FLDS Church officials] out of Colorado City and Hildale," Tewell said.
Tewell said another issue is that some members of the FLDS Church may not be aware of the background and legal proceedings surrounding the issues with their homes, as the restrictive religious community prevents some from learning about what is going on outside the community beyond what is communicated to them by FLDS Church leaders.
Crystal Barlow lives in Hildale, and she said the trust is there to help people in need.
"You go apply for your home, you will get it," she said.
Barlow and her sister, Samantha Quinton, have the same father but different mothers, and they said their family has been divided as some choose to follow FLDS Church leaders and others do not.
"There are still some that won't have any contact with us, but that's their choice, but we're gonna love them and reach out to them, as much as we can, until they're ready," Quinton, who grew up in Hildale but now lives in Canada, said.
See the video below for more of Tewell's response on the FLDS Church members' statements.
See below for the complete press conference from the families of the victims held Thursday: