HILDALE — A beloved church elder is missing, a former mayor is in hiding with three of his brothers and the town prophet is being protected by a “God Squad” while dispatching his rivals.
It might make a good movie plot if it wasn’t already being played out in the twin border communities of Hildale and Colorado City, Ariz., the epicenter of the polygamist movement in America.
The stakes are high if it turns out this is a power struggle for control of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a polygamist-practicing breakaway faction of the larger Mormon church.
The man who leads the church also controls its million-dollar-plus bank account.
Some fear blood could be spilled by the split between prophet Warren Jeffs and the Barlows, the sons of the towns’ founder.
Utah’s attorney general fears Jeffs is turning into a maniacal ruler over the estimated 10,000 members.
Polygamy was among the teachings of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, but the practice was abandoned by the church more than a century ago as the Utah territory sought statehood. But fundamentalist church members broke with the church instead of giving up the practice, and the Barlows’ father, John Barlow, founded the community straddling the Utah-Arizona border in 1935.
The men of the church are taught they must have at least three wives to ascend to heaven. Many go above and beyond the call. It was thought that one former prophet had anywhere between 35 and 75 wives. The women are there mostly to give birth, including one who alone gave her husband 14 children.
The Utah and Arizona constitutions ban polygamy, and a 113-year-old U.S. Supreme Court ruling holds that the First Amendment does not protect the practice.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicates those who advocate it, but it is believed that thousands of Utah’s 2.2 million residents continue the practice. Throughout the West, there are believed to be about 30,000 practitioners, and 100,000 nationwide.
In the last year, Warren Jeffs has methodically rid his towns of those who dare challenge his power, excommunicating an untold number of men including four of his own brothers, said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Shurtleff is leading a renewed effort to put heat on the polygamist communities and punish those who take and sexually abuse teenage girls allegedly given to them as plural wives by the prophet.
“Evil dictator,” Shurtleff said when describing the polygamist leader. “The moniker applies.”
The fracture within the church hierarchy came to a head Jan. 10 when Jeffs excommunicated about 20 men during a public meeting, stripping them of their wives, children, property and positions in the church.
Among them were Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow and three of his brothers — including 80-year-old Louis Barlow, thought to be in line for Jeffs’ position as church president and prophet two years ago.
Church attorney R. Scott Berry described the excommunications as normal adjustments within the church.
But a woman who escaped from the polygamist community and now advocates against it says getting rid of the Barlows could have only happened if Fred Jessop — the towns’ much beloved church bishop — was out of the picture.
If there is a power struggle, many of the town’s estimated 10,000 residents and church members — including about 4,000 Barlows — would not follow Warren Jeffs.
“The reality is … they would follow Uncle Fred,” Flora Jessop said of her 93-year-old uncle.
But Fred Jessop’s gone, and if anyone knows where he is, they’re not saying.
The much-beloved bishop was one of the town’s original residents and held considerable power, leading Flora Jessop to wonder if that wasn’t his undoing.
“He’s very respected, and because of that, he is a huge threat to Warren Jeffs,” she said. “By him siding with the Barlows, it takes a lot of control out of Warren Jeffs’ hands.”
She said it’s out of character for her uncle to leave and not contact the family, adding she wouldn’t be surprised to find out he has died. “Whether or not it’s by natural causes is the next question,” she said.
Says Shurtleff about Jessop: “We are concerned as anybody about where he might be and what condition he may be in.”
Berry said Jessop simply resigned as bishop, and if Shurtleff can’t find him, it’s probably Shurtleff’s fault.
“When the attorney general starts marching around, saying ‘I can’t find people in Colorado City,’ no one should be surprised by this because of the climate of fear the attorney general has created,” Berry said. “Today, polygamists should be in hiding, hiding in fear because the attorney general is out to get them.”
After the Barlow brothers were excommunicated, many thought they immediately huddled inside a hotel room in nearby St. George to plan a challenge to Jeffs.
Three days after their banishment — they were told to leave their wives and children and forfeit their property — an unsigned letter appeared in about 450 mailboxes in the two towns. The author told of his vision from God saying Louis Barlow is the true church prophet.
The letter prompted fears that tensions would escalate, possibly even with bloodshed, but apparently the Barlows were not the authors.
Shurtleff said his investigator has been in touch with the brothers, and they are trying to get back in Warren Jeffs’ good graces.
“Everyone is busily trying to write their letters of repentance to try to get back in, to get their wives and children and priesthoods back,” Shurtleff said, adding that the effort would be futile.
“When they realize that’s not going to happen, you’ll have more people who are very, very angry,” he said.
Whether violence follows depends on whether the men can restrain themselves.
Shurtleff said if there is any good news it’s that the church does not seem to have a stockpile of weapons hoarded in a cave outside town as once thought.
Jeffs remains holed up in his city-block-sized compound in Hildale, surrounded by an 8-foot-tall block fence dotted with “No Trespassing” signs. Shurtleff said Jeffs is surrounded by about a dozen armed bodyguards, which Shurtleff calls “The God Squad.”
Berry, the church’s attorney, denied the guards were armed. He also denied a request by The Associated Press to interview Jeffs, saying that talking to reporters is not in the job description of a spiritual leader.
Officials from local sheriff’s offices and Utah and Arizona continue to plan for any mass exodus of women and children from the towns if tensions escalate. Already three teenage girls have fled to shelters in Phoenix and St. George.
Besides the numerous excommunications, others actions by Jeffs over the last year have flummoxed church members and observers.
He has indiscriminately taken men’s wives and children — considered church property — and assigned them to other men in town.
The prophet decided townspeople no longer have to go to church. And he reportedly told elders — male church members above the age of 18 — to pay an additional $500 a month above their normal 10 percent tithing, said town historian and former church member Ben Bistine.