A feud that escalated this week between leading families of Colorado City and the escape of two 16-year-old girls might shed new light on allegations of child abuse and welfare fraud in the isolated, polygamous community, Gov. Janet Napolitano said Thursday.
But Napolitano admitted to the Tribune’s editorial board that years of investigation have failed to resolve frequent reports of underage girls being forced to marry older men at the behest of community and religious leader Warren Jeffs. Napolitano said a close-knit society, combined with the broad protections granted to parents under state law, has thwarted efforts to collect evidence of possible child rape and other crimes.
“Don’t just sit at the table and ask ‘What are you going to do,’ ” Napolitano said. “Give me a suggestion. We are at wits’ end unless you want to go in and declare martial law.”
Napolitano’s comments invoked images of 50 years ago, when Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle ordered law enforcement officials to raid the community then known as Short Creek. More than 200 men were arrested while women and children were taken into protective custody. Public outrage at what many said was religious bigotry destroyed Pyle’s political career, and most of the women and children returned to their homes after criminal charges against the men were dropped.
The polygamist community is controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which left the mainstream Mormon Church more than 100 years ago. Modern Mormons disavow polygamy.
Largely ignored for decades, Colorado City has been drawing national scrutiny again after the child marriage issue was raised during the governor’s race in 2002. Napolitano was criticized for not taking more action during her four years as attorney general.
“I don’t like what’s going on up there, but I am bound to follow the law, too, and I get very frustrated (with) people saying, ‘Do something,’ ” Napolitano said Thursday. “We have sent investigators up there. We are putting (a state welfare) office up there. It has received lots of attention from myself and the attorney general’s office in both Arizona and Utah.”
This week, Jeffs forced the resignation of longtime Mayor Dan Barlow, and he and 20 other men were ordered to leave town. Napolitano said Jeffs’ action could be the eruption of a long-standing power struggle between his family and the Barlows. Napolitano said she hopes the displaced men come forward to help law enforcement.
“I believe the attorney general’s office is on top of that situation and I believe that with the split, we finally might be able to generate some cases,” the governor said.
Meanwhile, teenagers Fawn Louise Broadbent and Fawn Holm told the Tribune they fled Colorado City to avoid being forced into polygamous marriages. But they have been reluctant to go to Child Protective Services, where officials could start gathering information about who was involved.
“The girls are absolutely terrified they will be forced to go back to their parents,” said Flora Jessop, who left Colorado City 18 years ago under similar circumstances and has been helping the two teens.
Sen. Linda Binder, R-Lake Havasu City, said Colorado City residents have invoked their parental rights in the past, using the legal system to deny state investigators access to their children.
Binder said she has urged Jessop to work with CPS and state Attorney General Terry Goddard.
“If we don’t start somewhere, and we don’t start moving these girls through the system, providing for them and building cases that we can prosecute” nothing will change, Binder said.
Jessop said Thursday night the girls are speaking with state officials, but they don’t intend to go into the child-welfare system.