ST. GEORGE – Accountant Bruce Wisan has a description for the police force in a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border.
“It’s gone from absolutely horrible to below standard,” Wisan told the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training Council on Monday, “but that’s an improvement.”
If the marshals in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale are below standard, then that will do for now. The council, in a meeting here Monday, opted against disciplining the marshals, despite concerns they take direction from polygamous leader Warren Jeffs.
Instead, the council, which has oversight over peace officers in Utah, voted to keep open an investigation into the marshals and review the matter again when a similar inquiry is finished in Arizona.
That inquiry could be finished by July, the director of the Arizona police board said Monday.
A lawyer representing the five marshals in Hildale and Colorado City referred to the Utah council’s decision as a victory for his clients and said it showed they had done nothing egregious.
“If there had been anything there, something would have happened,” said attorney Wayne Caldwell.
Hildale and Colorado City are home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a religious sect with members who practice polygamy. Jeffs is considered the president and prophet of the FLDS.
He was on the FBI’s list of 10 most wanted fugitives until his August capture near Las Vegas. He is being held without bail in the Washington County Jail awaiting trial on charges of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice. He has been charged in federal court with flight to evade prosecution.
The marshals are the police force in the twin cities. They are certified as peace officers in both states.
Authorities and critics of the FLDS long have expressed concern the marshals serve FLDS leaders and not the law and have ignored claims of sex abuse and have banished teenage boys from the town at the behest of those religious leaders. Wisan and his attorneys have said the marshals have at times been unhelpful in enforcing court orders and policies set by Wisan, who was appointed by a judge to be the fiduciary over the FLDS’s trust.
In 2005, federal law enforcement intercepted a letter from Chief Marshal Fred Barlow addressed to a then on-the-lam Jeffs. In the letter, Barlow affirmed his allegiance to Jeffs and sought his guidance on issues within the marshals office.
That letter is the subject of an administrative charge against Barlow in Arizona that he sought advice from a federal fugitive. Also, Barlow and another marshal, Preston Barlow, are accused of not cooperating with investigators from the Arizona attorney general’s office. An administrative law judge will weigh the case against them and issue findings.
Greg Hoole, an attorney representing the “lost boys,” teenagers and young men who claim they were thrown out of Hildale and Colorado City, mostly to reduce competition for taking wives, said if the letter to Jeffs “is not sufficient in and of itself to decertify an officer, I don’t know what is.” Hoole wants all the marshals decertified and for the Washington County Sheriff’s Office to assume policing in the twin towns.
Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith expressed concern Hildale residents would not report emergencies if they thought a sheriff’s deputy would respond.
The Utah council did not discuss en masse decertifications on Monday. There was discussion among council members of whether to send a letter cautioning the marshals to uphold the law and perform properly, but some members, including Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, worried the letter did not address specific marshals or could be seen as adjudicating instances of improper behavior.
Utah standards and training director Rich Townsend said even if both Barlows are exonerated in Arizona, that will not close the Utah case. Utah investigators could still find problems, he said.
But in an address to the council on Monday, Townsend said Utah investigators did not find deficiencies in the marshals office meriting suspension or revocation of anyone’s peace officer certification. In many instances, Townsend said, marshals made decisions out of ignorance rather than dereliction of duty.
“It is not in the best interest of [Hildale and Colorado City] to categorically suspect powers of all peace offices,” Townsend told the council. “Each individual should be dealt with independently while ensuring due process.” Townsend, Smith and Wisan all noted policing has improved in Hildale in recent months. Smith said marshals are lending more assistance when his deputies arrive in the town and the marshals are calling the sheriff’s office more often for assistance.
But concerns about the marshals remain. Townsend said all the marshals said they do not practice bigamy. When they were asked whether their allegiance belongs to the law or to Jeffs, said standards and training investigator Steve Winward, they responded by saying they took an oath to uphold the Constitution.
In one exchange during Monday’s meeting, Wisan told the council he doesn’t believe a teenage girl pressured into marriage could go to the marshals and receive fair treatment nor would the unfair treatment be reported to Utah regulators.
Townsend said that is the regulator’s dilemma.
“If there’s anyone within the sound of my voice who can help us bridge that gap,” Townsend said, “I am open to suggestions.”