But many in sect live in poverty, get by on welfare
COLORADO CITY, Ariz. – The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is worth tens of millions of dollars, but its polygamist adherents are some of the poorest people in Arizona and Utah.
Authorities in those two states recently froze the sect’s estimated $100 million trust fund to keep the group from selling off its assets, including the homes of the sect’s members.
On June 22, the 3rd District Court in Utah issued a permanent injunction against sect leader Warren Jeffs as a trustee, and investigators in Arizona and Utah are eager to question him about the assets of the church trust.
Jeffs also has been indicted on child sexual abuse charges for arranging the “celestial” marriage of a 16-year-old girl to an older married man and faces a federal warrant for unlawful flight.
Both Arizona and Utah are pursuing the cases against the sect because most of its adherents live in this town, and its twin community of Hildale, Utah, in a sparsely populated stretch along the Arizona-Utah border.
The 1,895 people who live in Hildale rank next to last in Utah in per-capita income, according to the U.S. Census. Colorado City residents rank ninth from last in Arizona.
Only people in towns on Indian reservations, the poorest communities in the country, fare worse.
Food stamps, but land rich
In Colorado City, nearly 70 percent of the residents are on food stamps, according to the state Department of Economic Security.
Nearly 40 percent receive welfare through the Women, Infants and Children nutritional program. In Ajo, Ariz., a town of similar size, fewer than 2 percent of the residents receive WIC benefits.
The disparity exists because Colorado City’s households are three times larger than most, said Vince Wood, assistant director for the Department of Economic Security. The average family receiving food stamps in Colorado City has nine people, he said; the statewide average is three.
Although allegations of welfare abuse have dogged the sect for years, Wood said his office reviewed each case and consulted with the attorney general’s offices in Arizona and Utah about the disproportionate numbers.
“They are all in compliance with federal and state regulations,” he said of those receiving food stamps. “Everything is by the book. The families are eligible.”
Many of those families live in outsized homes that have a ramshackle, thrown-together appearance. Most of the streets here are unpaved, scraped from the rutted red dirt that turns into a gluey mess when it rains.
Several businesses are boarded up, and it’s possible to walk into the small frame building that is Hildale’s City Hall in the middle of the day and find it echoingly empty. As a whole, the twin towns seem down on their luck.
Even though people here might be cash-poor, the sect is land-rich: Its trust owns an estimated $24 million in homes, businesses and properties in Hildale and roughly $55 million in land and buildings – including 15 properties valued at more than $1 million each – in Colorado City, according to tax records.
The trust paid more than $1 million in property taxes last year in Arizona, according to the Mohave County, Ariz., Assessor’s Office.
‘Broker than broke’
The sect is further enriched by tithes and donations from members that can amount to $1,000 a month, according to Ross Chatwin, Benjamin Bistline and Richard Holm, all former members of the sect.
Chatwin was excommunicated last year after pursuing teenage sisters as plural wives without permission from Jeffs, the sect’s leader.
Church leaders also tried to evict him from his home, which, like nearly all the property here, is owned by the sect’s trust. But Chatwin argued that he had substantially improved the house and has refused to leave without reimbursement for his work.
Chatwin said that when he was still in the sect, he supported six children on $15,000 a year as a car salesman and sometimes couldn’t afford the monthly tithe.
According to one lawsuit filed against the sect, business owners were expected to turn part of their proceeds over to the church or risk being blacklisted and subsequently losing their livelihoods.
“Warren run us broker than broke,” said Chatwin, referring to Jeffs, a man he describes as “dictatorial.”
Investigators from both states, as well as individuals who are suing the sect or its members, say they’re having a tough time determining just how much money it has.
The most commonly cited estimate is between $100 million and $150 million, said Andrea M. Esquer, of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. Indeed, the trust’s property holdings alone total nearly that amount.
The trust also has assets in addition to the land, but investigators still are trying to inventory what those are, she said.
“We don’t really know where the money is,” Esquer has said.
In addition to the property valued at $79 million in Colorado City and Hildale, sect representative David Allred spent nearly $1.5 million for 120 acres in Mancos in 2003 and 2004.
And, in Texas, Schleicher County Appraiser Scott Sutton said the group has poured $7.9 million in improvements into the 1,700 acres it bought for $700,000 in 2003.
Investigators also are looking at property in Nevada, Canada, Mexico and possibly Wyoming, Esquer said.
People can infer that mounting pressure from the various indictments and lawsuits is one reason the sect appears to be resettling in Colorado and Texas, said Esquer.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its members face a mountain of legal actions, in addition to a criminal indictment against the sect’s leader and a civil action over its financial assets:
• School district: The sect is the indirect focus of a probe into the Colorado City Unified School District, which recently became the first public school district in Arizona taken over by the state.
In late May, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office served a criminal search warrant on the district and seized 100 boxes of financial records and 40 computers, said Andrea Esquer of the attorney general’s office.
• Banished: A suit was filed last year in Utah against leader Warren Jeffs and the sect’s trust fund by six young men, the so-called Lost Boys. They allege that Jeffs kicked them out of the sect so they wouldn’t compete with older leaders for the affection of younger women.
• Sexual assault: Another Utah lawsuit was filed last year by a former sect member who alleges Jeffs and his two brothers sodomized him as a child.
• Child abuse: Sect member Orson William Black was indicted in 2003 in Arizona on suspicion of criminal child abuse. Black left the state before authorities could arrest him, according to the attorney general’s office.
• Appeal: Former Colorado City and Hildale police officer Rodney Holm lost his badge after being convicted in 2003 of bigamy and sex with a minor because he married his wife’s 16-year-old sister. Holm appealed and the Utah Supreme Court will rule later this year on whether to uphold that conviction.
• Decertification: The Arizona Peace Officers Standard and Training group has moved to decertify Colorado City Marshal Sam Roundy and officer Vance Barlow, based on their plural marriages, which violate the state constitution. Each man has one legal wife and two “celestial wives.” Roundy has approximately 21 children and Barlow about 18, according to the group. The two are appealing the action.
• Removal: Utah’s Judicial Conduct Commission has recommended that Justice Court Judge Walter Steed, who admits having three wives and 32 children, be removed from the bench in Hildale. The case is before the Utah Supreme Court.
By the numbers
1,895 The population of Hildale.
3,334 The population of Colorado City.
$4,782 The per capita income in Hildale, which is next to last among Utah towns.
$5,293 The per capita income in Colorado City, which ranks ninth to last in Arizona.
70 percent Approximate ratio of residents in Colorado City on food stamps.
40 percent Approximate ratio of residents who receive welfare through the Women, Infants and Children nutritional program. Fewer than 2 percent receive benefits from that program in a town of similar size.