AG plans summit to address polygamy issues

Law enforcement, officials from Utah, Arizona, Canada to meet in St. George

ST. GEORGE — Boosted by the state’s successful prosecution of Hildale bigamist Rodney Holm, Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has called an unprecedented polygamy summit Friday in St. George that will involve various agencies from Utah, Arizona and British Columbia, Canada.

The first hour of the summit is open to the public, Shurtleff said, but the rest of the meeting will be a closed-door discussion searching for a “proactive strategy” toward polygamy-related issues.

“Obviously, not a lot has been done for the last 100 years,” Shurtleff said.

The summit, he added, will focus on how cross-border agencies cooperate on issues such as victimized girls, child abuses, education neglect, welfare fraud and tax evasion among polygamous communities in Hildale, Utah, Colorado City, Ariz., Bountiful, British Columbia.

Invited participants include Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, British Columbia Attorney General Geoff Plant, district attorneys from Washington County and Mohave County, as well as state representatives and officials from the FBI, Washington County Sheriff’s Office, St. George Police Department and women and children’s services.

Coming one week after a Washington County jury convicted Holm of bigamy and illegal sex with a 16- or 17-year-old, the summit is seen by many as an indicator that the state is now more willing to deal with long-neglected issues regarding polygamy.

“What I can see is the wind is changing,” said Bob Curran, an anti-polygamy activist with Help the Child Brides in St. George. “It just seems all of a sudden, we are being more politically correct. People start to be more aware.”

For 12 years as the Washington County attorney, Eric Ludlow, now a 5th District judge, didn’t prosecute any polygamists, Curran said, and “that was OK.” Now, he said, there was more interest shown when he approached Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith, the Washington County commissioners, the DOVE domestic violence center, school district officials and children and women’s services in St. George and Cedar City.

Patricia Sheffield, director of the Children’s Justice Center in St. George, said the public has learned more from recent media coverage of the polygamist communities and high-profile polygamy cases involving the Kingston clan, Tom Green and now, Rodney Holm.

“I think the population as a whole is being aware what is potentially occurring in the community,” she said. “I think it’s good for the women. I think it’s essential for the healthy development of children.”

Both Utah and Arizona prosecutors said they are investigating welfare fraud and abuses of women and children in the border towns of Hildale and Colorado City. With about 6,000 residents, the twin towns are dominated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which still teaches polygamy as a central tenet.

Investigations into the tight-knit, closed societies are hard enough, but the process is more complicated since the towns sit across the Utah-Arizona border. Arizona officials are pondering moving a courthouse to Colorado City, Shurtleff said, and he wants to talk with Mohave County prosecutors about working together in the Short Creek Valley where the towns are located.

Curran, who has suggested to various agencies that an office be opened in Hildale, said a state or county presence in Hildale would make it easier for abused women and children to seek help.

“The distance out there, the distance from Kingman, complicates things,” he said. “If they can walk or drive a short distance (to get help), that will eliminate a lot of fear.”

Sheriff Smith had said he was considering opening a substation in the Apple Valley-Hildale area, as the entire Hildale Police Department has been suspended until they can update their peace officer certificates.

Run-away women from Hildale and Colorado City should be helped with finding and holding jobs and children should be helped with a broader education, Sheffield said. But the problem doesn’t end there. Many women may suffer from post-traumatic disorder and need psychological assistance, she said. And more importantly, they are brought up to distrust people from outside the polygamous communities.

“Come forward (and) your life will be magically fine — that’s pretty unrealistic,” she said. “Getting them to trust, coming out of their society and get help from people from the outside — that is going to be a huge challenge.”

Many women in Hildale are told the law won’t protect them, Shurtleff said. He hopes the successful prosecution of Holm will make more women and children aware that there is help available.

“We hope that’ll send a message: We’ll protect them, too,” he said. “We want the leaders, the men who marry the young girls, to stop. We never want that to happen again.”

At the summit, Shurtleff said, officials will explore options for issues from education to tax evasion.

After Rulon Jeffs called for the withdrawl of FLDS children from public schools, the Washington County School District sold the Phelps Elementary school building to a group of Hildale businessmen. About 35 children from Hildale now attend a public school on the Arizona side. Shurtleff said the Washington County School District is not doing enough to monitor the education of those Utah children.

The Attorney General has never talked about the issue with district officials, said Rex W. Wilkey, assistant superintendent for elementary education in the Washington County School District. The district pays the 35 children’s tuition, he said, and district officials meet with their Colorado City counterparts regularly.

“If there’s anybody on that Utah side, if they want a public education, we’ll find a way to get them a public education,” said Wilkey, who will attend the summit.

Parents have rights to enroll their children either in a private school or a public school, he said. If they don’t want to stay in the Colorado City school, he said, the district can provide buses to transport them to Hurricane.

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