Polygamy and Me
Evening falls on the Concho Valley. Along the highway, which is dotted with rusty oil derricks and gnarled mesquite, spring grasses peek out from the rocky soil. It's April 3, 2008, and few here know what is about to happen.
Up on Rudd Road, a man steps from his bullet-riddled shell of a trailer. He watches his goats graze in the rocky pasture and then sees them coming: cars with blacked-out windows he does not recognize, carrying Texas Rangers and sheriff's deputies he does not know. He can guess where they are headed. Like everyone else in Eldorado, Texas, he knows what lies up the road.
The cars continue up the two-lane blacktop until they arrive at the gates of the Yearning for Zion Ranch. They sit outside and wait.
A mile up a dirt road another world exists. It's a world the U.S. government has been trying to eradicate for more than 150 years. Mobs and armies and judges have pushed the Mormon polygamists from the badlands of Missouri to the barren deserts of Utah to this place—a scab of scrubland in West Texas.
The men at the gate are prepared for the worst: a Waco-style standoff, a Jonestown-style mass suicide. They've heard stories about the fundamentalist Mormons who live here—about child brides and stockpiled weapons and mysterious accidents that befall those who try to leave the fold. The men can see the gleaming white temple, built from limestone quarried from the hills surrounding the YFZ Ranch, where, rumor has it, plural marriages are consummated in an upstairs room outfitted with a bed. And they have heard about the group's prophet, the jailed pedophile Warren Jeffs, and his doctrine of ritual sacrifice known as blood atonement.
The men at the gate wait for word. The sheriff has instructed his dispatcher to shut down all but one channel. The last thing they want is for the media to get wind of this, at least for the time being. They know this could turn bad, and fast.
The next morning, 350 miles to the north, I rise from my bed to wake my oldest son. Today is a special day on the Mormon calendar. Twice a year, in April and October, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gather for a two-day General Conference to hear the church's Salt Lake City-based leadership (mostly old men in dark suits and conservative ties) deliver sermons on topics like faith, tithing and the evils of pornography, alcohol and smoking—all of which Mormonism forbids. These talks, as Mormons call them, are about 15 minutes each, divided among two sessions on Saturday and two on Sunday. While some Mormons travel to Salt Lake City to attend, most watch on the Internet or at their nearest Mormon chapel via satellite.
That's why my parents are in town this morning. Together with my wife and two young sons, we will drive to a nearby church in Allen and watch the broadcast.
We live in Plano in a two-story townhouse, not far from shaded walking trails and a big park surrounded by North Texas woods. I watch my son sleep for a moment and think about the legacy of faith into which he has been born. For six generations, the Hyde family has practiced Mormonism. Of my dozens of cousins and aunts and uncles on both sides of my family, only one has left the church. For all of us, Mormonism is nothing we backslide into on Sunday mornings; it's a cradle-to-grave lifestyle that insists on 24-7 devotion.
I am putting on a white shirt and tie, the same sort of outfit I wore as a missionary in Brazil after my freshman year at Brigham Young University, when I hear my cell phone beep. It's a text message from a friend in Salt Lake City, a fellow journalist who has left the faith.
"You better get down to Eldorado," it reads. I have no idea what he is talking about.
"The polygamists," he writes. "They've got the polygamists."
I call him, and he says that the police have raided a fundamentalist Mormon compound where a sect of renegade polygamists live. There's some sort of standoff, he says, and a violent confrontation is possible.
As we drive to church, I mention to my parents the situation unfolding in Eldorado, but they seem only mildly interested. Like most mainstream Mormons, they see no connection between themselves and the breakaway sects of fundamentalist Mormons. The mainstream Mormon church banned polygamy nearly 120 years ago.
"I didn't even know there were polygamists in Texas," my mom says, and before long the subject shifts.
At the chapel, we take our place in the cushioned pews before the broadcast begins. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings a hymn, a prayer is said and a report is given on the status of the church. It has been a good year. There are now more than 13 million members, with more living outside North America than within it. Mormon temples dot the globe, from Manhattan to Hong Kong.
As I listen to a sermon on the life of Jesus Christ, I wonder how many Mormons in the audience, especially in places like the Philippines and Brazil, understand how far we have come as a people. Once, the governor of Missouri issued an extermination order to rid his state of its Mormon population. Recently a former governor of Massachusetts, a Mormon named Mitt Romney, had been a leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.
Now Mormons have led companies such as eBay and Black & Decker and Marriott. They sit on powerful senate committees and teach in Ivy League schools. As The New York Times recently noted, it's been a breathtaking journey from the radical fringes to the conservative center.
As the conference continues, a former Utah Supreme Court Justice rises to talk about the life of Joseph Smith, the founder of the faith, urging us to follow his example of sacrifice and obedience. Another speaker talks about our charge to help the poor and the needy.
During the two-hour session, no one mentions the polygamists in Eldorado. There is no call to urge the state of Texas to respect the religious beliefs of fundamentalist Mormons.
I'm not surprised. Since the Mormon church renounced polygamy it has done everything possible to distance itself from the practice. But like a scab that won't heal, the church's past keeps festering.
As the story in Eldorado becomes a national obsession, the Mormons with whom I attend church in Plano never talk about our shared history with the FLDS, or our shared beliefs. No one mentions polygamy. Rather, we worry that the media isn't distinguishing enough between the Mormons and the FLDS. "The other day on The View, Whoopi Goldberg asked how many wives Mitt Romney had," my wife tells me, incredulously. "And she was serious."
I understand the reaction, but as the story develops I begin to feel a kinship with these polygamists. I watch an anchor on CNN explain how law enforcement agents raided the compound with semi-automatic weapons drawn. I read news reports that detail how children wailed as they were ripped from the clutches of their parents. And I am moved when I learn that men of the community fell to their knees and wept as police stomped through their temple, desecrating what the polygamists considered a holy place.
I see parallels between their plight and the persecution early Mormons experienced. What's more, I begin to explore some of my own unresolved issues with the history of polygamy in my church and in my family. While most of my Mormon friends want to distance themselves from the FLDS, I feel drawn to its story.
Eldorado sits 45 miles south of San Angelo, in a remote and desolate corner of West Texas. Most of its 2,000 residents work in the oil fields or in agriculture. As I look at a Texas map on a hot night in May, I can see why the FLDS picked the town to build a new Zion. It's in the middle of nowhere.
As I drive through the night, I recall what I know about the FLDS. They arrived in Texas five years earlier, when a man came into Eldorado looking for lots of land. His name was David Allred, and he said he wanted to build a corporate hunting retreat on the old Isaacs Ranch north of town.
It didn't take long for the locals to realize that something about Allred's story wasn't right. Before long, big log cabins were going up, followed by a cement plant, a grain silo and a medical clinic. In March 2004, an anti-polygamy activist named Flora Jessop traveled to Eldorado to hold a press conference that attracted about 50 reporters, some coming from as far away as Salt Lake City. Raised in the sect, she said she had 28 brothers and sisters who still lived in the FLDS stronghold along the Utah-Arizona border. Since her escape, she had dedicated her life to exposing the evils of the sect, which had broken from the mainstream Mormon church in 1930.
The FLDS, Jessop maintained, practically owned the sister cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona. The mayor, the police chief—pretty much every official in town—practiced polygamy, and for more than 70 years the sect had successfully skirted bigamy laws, marrying second, third and fourth wives in secret spiritual marriages state officials could not prove.
Where once Utah and Arizona officials had looked the other way, media attention driven by Jessop and others was forcing officials to find new ways to go after the polygamists. The group's leader, a man named Warren Jeffs, was wanted on charges of child rape. When these states began seizing FLDS property and assets to pay for delinquent taxes, Jeffs sent some of his most loyal followers to Texas to build a new community.
The locals made no secret that they didn't want the polygamists in their town. In a May 2004 Dallas Observer article, town residents were openly hostile to the newcomers, suggesting that frontier justice wasn't out of the question.
The town sheriff, David Doran, pleaded with residents to remain calm. "I know there's a lot of hype and hysteria right now, but everyone needs to know that we are on top of things," he told the Eldorado Success. "...At this time we have no evidence of any wrongdoing associated with the ranch. If and when we have evidence that a law has been broken out there, we won't hesitate to act."
The if and when came last March when the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, the umbrella for Child Protective Services, received a call alleging that a 16-year-old girl named Sarah was being physically and sexually abused at the ranch.
Law enforcement never did find Sarah, but they did trace the phone calls to 33-year-old Rozita Swinton, a Colorado woman who had a history of making false reports. It seemed almost certain that the call, which resulted in the seizure of 468 children and the largest child custody case in U.S. history, was a hoax.
This only added to my mixed feelings about the case.
According to news reports, the group was violent (its doctrine of blood atonement reportedly called for the killing of enemies by slitting their throats and letting the blood soak the ground), and sect members had built their community on the Utah-Arizona border through child labor, a separatist racial indoctrination, forced teen marriages, and a policy of tax and welfare fraud they referred to as "bleeding the beast."
None of this sounded remotely like my religion, and I had trouble understanding how we had any beliefs in common. At the same time, I doubted some of these stories. They had, after all, come from a handful of dissenters with their own personal agenda of payback.
Part of my skepticism came from the persecution complex all Mormons carry, at least those living in the United States. While polygamy is a taboo subject in church, every Mormon boy knows that Joseph Smith was repeatedly tarred and feathered for his beliefs, and that he died at the hands of an angry mob in 1844. Many of us know the story of the Haun's Mill Massacre, in which 18 Mormons, including children, were killed in October of 1838 at close range by a Missouri militia (the Missouri legislature issued an apology only three years ago). Fewer are aware that thousands of Mormons were jailed after the Civil War in what The New York Times recently called "the most coordinated campaign of religious repression in U.S. history." Utah couldn't even become a state until it disavowed polygamy.
I thought times had changed, but if the campaign of Mitt Romney taught Mormons anything it's that a wide gulf remains between the way we think we're perceived and public opinion. Despite years of missionary work and millions of dollars spent on humanitarian aid, Mormonism remains for many a weird religion and, for others, something far worse: a sinister cult that brainwashes its followers. Last year, 29 percent of Republicans said they would never vote for a Mormon presidential candidate. The editor of the online magazine Slate, which targets sophisticated readers, declared Joseph Smith an "obvious con man" and Mitt Romney a fool for believing in him. Not long after, the comedian David Cross finished a riff on Mormons with the following punch line: "Mormons are fucking idiots." It's hard to imagine a comedian saying something similar about Jews or Muslims and getting away with it. Yet Mormons seem fair game.
Part of it I understand. The one-time practice of polygamy, the sacred undergarment we wear, the temples where we do baptisms for the dead, our belief that Jesus Christ visited the Americas after his resurrection—all of this might sound bizarre and maybe a little creepy. The truth is that for me, even as a child, some of it was hard to understand. But nothing has been harder to come to grips with than polygamy.
For most of my life, I knew little about the practice in my church's early years. I understood that Brigham Young, who succeeded Joseph Smith as prophet, had dozens of wives—this was an unavoidable part of early church history—but I considered it an oddity of another time. Polygamy never came up at home, and it certainly didn't come up at church.
It was only while living in New York, pursuing a master's degree in journalism, that I began to educate myself. My interest was piqued when I started reading Jon Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven, a best seller about the history of violence and polygamy in the Mormon church that everyone in school was talking about. I began reading books I had been told to stay away from, including a biography of Joseph Smith, and was surprised to learn that he had taken wives for years without telling his first wife. Some of these women, whom Smith married in secret ceremonies, were already married to other men. The book's author explained that Smith needed a theological framework to harmonize his philandering ways with his Puritanical sensibilities. I found this offensive, having grown up with the belief that Smith was a saint, a man as close to godliness as any, save Jesus Christ. But how could I square this belief with the facts of his life?
I searched for an answer, finally finding one in a revelation he wrote in 1843. Polygamy, he claimed, was a restoration of the ancient order of things. Abraham and Isaac had practiced polygamy, and so would the Mormons.
When Smith died in 1844, his followers accepted Brigham Young as their new prophet and followed him west to Salt Lake City, Utah, where they established a mini-theocracy of saints (adherents) who lived a communal lifestyle and practiced plural marriage openly.
For the first time, I began to question my parents about polygamy. My mother told me that if it weren't for polygamy I wouldn't exist. Our ancestor William Hyde, who led a wagon train from Nauvoo, Illinois, to Salt Lake City, had five wives. My family came from the fifth. I found William Hyde's journal and started reading it. He saw polygamy as an eternal principle that would never be taken from the earth, a belief that would have meshed perfectly with the orthodoxy of the modern-day fundamentalists.
In 1890, under pressure from the federal government, the Mormon church disavowed polygamy in a statement known today as The Manifesto. For years church members continued to practice plural marriage in secret, considering The Manifesto more of an accommodation to the government than the will of God. Those unwilling to accommodate gave birth to Fundamentalist Mormonism and the secret, polygamous colonies throughout Utah, Arizona and Mexico.
When I graduated from Columbia University in the summer of 2004, my parents and mother-in-law came to New York—my wife was also pregnant with our first child. My dad seemed proud of my degree but also worried about the influence on his son of a liberal, secular school. His fears were confirmed a few days later. We were headed to upstate New York to visit Joseph Smith's birthplace when I told him I didn't see how a just God could ever sanction the practice of polygamy. I felt that it devalued women and put them in a subservient role to men. He sat in silence, staring out the window at the lush greenery of upstate New York. He was a good man whose approval I had always sought, and I felt saddened that I had disappointed him. But I couldn't deny how I felt.
In the ensuing years, my questions about polygamy would morph into doubts about the existence of God, and I began to wonder if I could continue being a Mormon. To leave the church would fracture my relationships with my wife, my family and many of my closest friends, all of whom held an unquestioning faith.
I decided to tolerate my doubts and eventually made peace with them. Sure, there were things about my church's history I didn't understand, but when it came to polygamy, the only difference between Mormonism and other major faiths was time: Muslims, Jews and Christians all accepted as prophets men who had once practiced polygamy.
Besides, my doubts were few compared to the many things I loved about my faith. As a Mormon, I belonged to a tight-knit community that taught the importance of service, helping the poor and self-sacrifice. I loved the church's emphasis on strong families and living a highly ethical life. As a missionary in Brazil, I had seen how the acceptance and application of the gospel contained in the Book of Mormon could better people's lives. I believed in the kind of people the church produced, and I wanted my sons to be those people.
Even more so, I couldn't deny the spiritual witnesses of God's existence I had felt numerous times since reading the Book of Mormon. Or the spiritual confirmation I felt when I watched my wife's devotion as she prayed, when I lay next to my sons and watched them peacefully drift off to sleep, when I returned home to my family's farm in Nevada and gazed at the big endless sky.
Now, as I drive to Eldorado, I realize that my doubts about polygamy never really went away. I simply ignored them.
On the morning of May 19, I pull into San Angelo. More than a month has passed since District Judge Barbara Walther allowed the state to remove on an emergency basis 468 FLDS children from the Yearning for Zion Ranch and place them in foster care. This morning, at the Tom Green County Courthouse, dozens of lawyers from around the state—attorneys ad litem appointed by the court to represent the children—will argue in a temporary custody hearing that the judge acted outside the scope of law and that the children should be returned to their parents.
I drive by the courthouse, which was built in 1928 of stone quarried from the surrounding desert. The front lawn, still damp from the morning dew, is cordoned off with yellow police tape. News trucks from San Antonio, Houston and Dallas—representing ABC, CNN and Fox News—are parked in front against the curb. So far, there are no signs of the polygamists.
With an hour to kill before the first custody hearing, I drive to the old San Angelo Coliseum, where the FLDS women and children were bused after the April 3 raid. For 10 days, the children and some of their mothers lived in the building, sleeping on cots. Many of the children, separated from their parents, were unsure of what was happening. In one instance, a 3-year-old boy walked along a row of cots, asking for his mother. Two CPS workers trailed behind him, taking notes but offering no help, according to workers from Hill Country Community Mental Health-Mental Retardation Center, which the state had retained to provide services inside the coliseum. Eventually, the boy's 8-year-old brother heard his pleas and picked up the boy, rocking him to sleep.
"That little boy will always be in my mind," one mental health worker wrote in letters that were later given to the press. "How can a beautiful, healthy child be taken from a healthy, loving home and forced into a situation like that, right here in America, right here in Texas?"
There was, as usual, another side of the story. In an affidavit, CPS officials asserted that FLDS leaders were "indoctrinating and grooming minor female children to accept spiritual marriage to adult male members," and that young boys were taught upon reaching adulthood they too should take teen brides, "resulting in them becoming sexual perpetrators." As CPS saw it, this put all children at the ranch at risk of "emotional, physical and/or sexual abuse."
On April 24, CPS supervisors showed up at the coliseum with police escort. All children older than 1 would be separated from their mothers and sent to shelters and foster homes scattered throughout the state. According to one mental health worker, "the floor was literally slick with tears."
Public opinion seemed split over what the state had done. Editorials in The Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle all expressed measured support for the state's actions, arguing that CPS officials had every right to protect children from a community that encouraged, and in some cases forced, teenage girls to enter into plural marriages. Anti-polygamy activists like Flora Jessop made the rounds on the morning TV talk shows, describing the world inside the Eldorado compound as a hellish place where young women were essentially chattel, forced to work and have babies until their insides fell out.
At the same time, hundreds of letters from across the country poured into Governor Rick Perry's office, imploring the state to return the children to their parents. The case had become a flash point in the culture wars. Some saw it as excessive governmental intrusion. Some called it a troubling example of religious persecution. Still others branded the FLDS as a strange and backward people, who hid behind the First Amendment to get away with sexually abusing children.
The way I see it, the events of the past two months will only strengthen the faith of the polygamists, adding to the persecution complex that is part of their narrative. In 1953, the governor of Arizona ordered a similar raid, resulting in 120 arrests and the placement of 260 children in foster care. Media coverage turned public opinion against the governor. The parents were released from jail, their children returned and the governor voted out of office. For the polygamists, the incident was just one more example of how the world persecutes God's people. The Egyptians enslaved the Jews, the Romans killed Christ, the mobs of Illinois killed Joseph Smith, and now the state of Texas found itself on the wrong side of history.
I go back and forth. On one hand, it seems unjust to take children away from their parents—unless the parents have abused them or engaged in polygamy with underage teens. And yet there were equities that favored the state.
Child Protective Services reported to the press that of the 53 teenage girls found at the ranch, 31 were pregnant or had children as teenagers, seemingly irrefutable proof that teens were marrying at a young age in a community that strictly forbids contact between opposite sexes before marriage. It was hard to argue that young girls weren't being groomed for a life of servitude and that young men weren't being indoctrinated to become sexual predators.
When I return to the courthouse, a long line has formed to get in. I find my place behind a pair of FLDS women. They are dressed in matching prairie dresses made of stiff cotton. Both have fashioned their hair in tight, elaborate braids, their faces unadorned by makeup. They whisper to each other, ignoring the photographers snapping pictures a few feet away.
I follow the women into the courthouse and take my seat in a large, aging courtroom—one of several that will house these hearings. In court, it becomes clear that the state's case is on shaky ground. One attorney after another hammers CPS for taking so many children into custody without any evidence of sexual or physical abuse. There may have been a few bad apples, but that didn't justify mass seizure, lawyers say. Instead, the state should have looked at each child on a case-by-case basis.
An attorney ad litem from Dallas, Susan Hays, later explains the state's theory of the case: "Because these people share the same faith and because they live in the same community, the state feels it can treat them as the same household," she says. "They think they can take these kids because all these folks think alike."
This argument troubles me: Treating separate family as one giant family seems an extension of the same religious bigotry that Mormons have suffered throughout our history.
I talk to attorney Charles Grimm, who represents a woman who was 18 when she got married. Her husband is 22, and while they are members of the FLDS, they live as a monogamous couple. Their 19-month-old child has been taken into state custody. "They're trying to protect the child from [a polygamous marriage] that may happen 20 years from now, or may never happen," Grimm says.
In another courtroom, Austin attorney Andrea Sloan begins to dismantle the state's strongest evidence—CPS' claim that 31 pregnant teenagers were found at the ranch. But Sloan points out that the majority of these girls are actually adults, who have never claimed to be minors, despite the state's assertion. "My client is 27 years old," she says. "And until last night [CPS] would not acknowledge that. They claimed that she was a minor, even though from the beginning she told them the truth."
Throughout the day's hearings, CPS caseworkers testify on the stand that they see no signs that the children have been abused. To the contrary, the children are well-behaved, polite and seem well-adjusted. I speak with lawyers who tell me how impressed they are with FLDS mothers.
The state introduces evidence of a picture that showed Warren Jeffs kissing a 12-year-old girl on the mouth after their wedding ceremony. The state also releases church records seized from the ranch, which reveal that in various FLDS communities, girls as young as 16 were commonly taken as plural wives, sometimes to men 40 years their senior.
Although most FLDS members refuse to be interviewed, Dan Jessop speaks to me late in the afternoon outside one of the courtrooms. He is 24 and has one wife, age 22, and three children, one of whom is a newborn. The other two, ages 2 and 3, are housed at a shelter he isn't permitted to visit, he says.
As we talk I can't help but think of how easily I could be standing in his place. What if my ancestors had broken with the mainstream Mormon church over the issue of polygamy, as his did? Would I have left the faith, or would I struggle to believe in spite of my doubts?
"We're just trying to live the way God wants us to," he tells me.
Sitting in the courthouse, talking to their lawyers and to a few of the polygamists themselves, I find much to respect. Like my ancestors, they seem devoted to their families and to their religion. I admire their austere existence, their self-reliance, their denial of materialism. In many ways, they are more like my Mormon forefathers than I am, and I wonder if those ancestors were to return today who they would recognize as their progeny.
But I also hear much that troubles me: Warren Jeffs' practice of kicking dissenters out of the sect and reassigning their wives and children to other men. The dozens of boys Jeffs had booted out under the pretense of sinful behavior who continued to turn up on the streets of Las Vegas and Salt Lake City, sometimes as prostitutes.
That night I drive out to Eldorado. I arrive at the gates of the YFZ ranch and can see the top of the polygamists' temple. I think of all the work they have put into the place and wonder where they will go next. As I return to my car, I think of something FLDS spokesman Willie Jessop told me earlier that day. "It doesn't matter what the government does, we won't stop living the way God has commanded us to live. If they're going to kill us, kill us. But they won't drive us out."
I think about my own kids—how I would never jeopardize their personal safety for an antiquated and illicit religious belief that could only be practiced, if at all, by social isolates. And I realize that outside of our shared history, I have little in common with these people.
Although Judge Walther decides that the children should remain in the state's custody, two days after I leave Eldorado, the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin rules in favor of FLDS members, and a week later, the Texas Supreme Court affirms the ruling.
I call Susan Hays to get her take on the decision. "Essentially what the court has done is affirmed the court of appeals, which more or less said, you can't treat everyone with a broad brush, you have to treat them as individuals, you have to present evidence for each case," she says. Which is what the ad litem attorneys for the children have been advocating all along.
I think about the prejudices and assumptions made about Mormons from the time of Joseph Smith to Mitt Romney and figure that to treat each case without that collective bias is a wise decision.
As the story of the FLDS fades from the public's fascination, I continue to follow its legal twists and turns. In June, the state begins dismissing child custody cases, and by October they have dropped all but 72. Only one child, a 14-year-old girl, remains in foster care, and that is only because her mother has refused to answer questions from CPS investigators.
The FLDS has made its own concessions. Also in June, the church releases a statement, asserting that all marriages within the sect are consensual, and that from now on, the church will not "preside over the marriage of any woman under the age of legal consent in the jurisdiction in which the marriage takes place." The church will counsel families that it won't request or consent to any underage marriage.
Nevertheless, the state continues to pursue criminal charges against men at the YFZ Ranch. In late September, a grand jury in Eldorado indicted six men—five on one felony account each for sexual assault, four on bigamy charges and one for failing to report child abuse.
My life as a Mormon continues. I attend my congregation every Sunday; I sing the hymns and partake of the sacrament. At home, I read to my children from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. I still have my doubts and realize my beliefs might seem entirely foolish and a bit whimsical to my secular friends, but they are my beliefs, born of my history, experience and spirituality.
A few weeks ago, I took my family to another General Conference. I wore a white shirt and tie, the same sort I wore as a missionary, and found a place among the pews. I listened to talks on hope and endurance and the ministering of angels. I sang the hymns along with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and bowed my head when the prayers were said. I vowed to be a better Mormon, and as the conference ended, I looked at my little boys and said a silent prayer, asking God to help me keep the faith.
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