COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — In a rare act of public defiance, a resident of this insulated community on Friday said he would ignore an order by polygamist leader Warren Jeffs that he vacate his house and leave his wife and children behind.
Ross Chatwin also urged fellow residents and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to stand up to Jeffs, whom he described as a “Hitlerlike dictator.”
“With all my heart, I beg you to plan for the possibility that Jeffs’ next revelation might be about you,” Chatwin said. “Don’t be caught off guard.”
Chatwin held a news conference in front of his modest home on a dirt road called Willow Street nearly two weeks after Jeffs stripped 21 prominent church members of their priesthood and ordered them to leave their families behind. Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, a lifelong resident and prominent politician, stepped down from office and reportedly is in hiding.
The news conference attracted journalists from across the country to this town, framed by the Vermillion Cliffs, on the Utah-Arizona border.
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Taking a break?
More than a dozen law enforcement officers from both states were positioned nearby and on the cliffs behind Chatwin’s home. Local law enforcement officers, including Colorado City Police Chief Sam Roundy, watched from across the street. Roundy declined to comment.
Chatwin said he was asked to leave the FLDS fold Jan. 14, when a male church member knocked on his door and said he was representing Jeffs.
“I told them I knew what I needed to do. This is what I need to do,” said Chatwin, adding that he wants to shed light on the “secretive society” that dominates Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, where many of the 8,000 residents practice polygamy.
“As a member, I felt very uncomfortable discussing the inner workings of the society. I’ve come to realize, however, that this secrecy is not good for the society,” he said. “It creates a tense environment and a suspicious people. There are few systems of checks and balances to govern how Jeffs operates.”
For example, Chatwin said that on Jan. 17, Jeffs ordered faithful men to pay an additional $1,000 in tithes. He said he has been told Jeffs is building a compound in Mexico called “Zion” and might flee with FLDS church money and his wives.
Jeffs, who has not been seen publicly during months of rising unrest, lives in a gated compound the size of a city block in Hildale. Many residents live in near-squalor all around him.
The towns were settled in the 1930s by people who feared persecution for practicing plural marriage, which was abandoned in 1890 by the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The LDS Church excommunicates those who practice polygamy; the FLDS is one of many polygamous sects that have arisen since the ban.
Property in Hildale and Colorado City is held by the United Effort Plan (UEP), the communal property arm of the FLDS church. Residents are merely caretakers, not owners, of their homes.
Chatwin, 35, the father of six children, said he was 17 years old when he was told he could build a home on UEP-owned land. Shortly after that, the marriage to his wife, Lori, was arranged.
“That is what all young men live for,” he said.
But Chatwin now joins a group of residents discontented with community property rules. One group sued and won the right to live in their homes for the rest of their lives or be compensated for the equity. Chatwin did not rule out the possibility of filing his own lawsuit.
Ben Bistline was one of the original plaintiffs in the lawsuit. He has since left the community but attended Friday’s news conference.
“He’s brave. Really brave for doing this,” Bistline said through tears.
Lori Chatwin said her husband is “either brave or stupid” for speaking out. She was told to leave him, but refused.
“I love him, not Warren,” she said. While Lori is Chatwin’s only wife, both said they would welcome another given the chance.
Since wives are assigned as a sign of “worthiness,” chances of that are slim.
The last month has been difficult for the Chatwin family. The children were kicked out of a private school in the area and now attend the Colorado City public school.
“We’ve been ridiculed. My very good friends won’t invite me to their homes anymore,” Lori Chatwin said.
Such is the power of Jeffs, who has told his followers that he has had divine revelations about which members should be kicked out of the church. Chatwin said he was told to leave because he had allegedly deceived someone in a business deal. He said he tried to figure out whom he had wronged, but could not.
“There are good people in this town and I love them,” he said.
Those told to leave are instructed to make a list of their sins, Chatwin said, and if the list does not match the list of sins that Jeffs said God had given him, the eviction becomes permanent.
Chatwin has no job, his stucco contracting business has dried up and he worries about how to provide for his family, but still says he will stay in Colorado City even though he might not be welcome.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said.
Ron Barton, an investigator for the Utah Attorney General’s office, said he is conferring with Chatwin about the goings-on in the town.
“Even though there has not been bloodshed, families have been torn apart and that’s the worst kind of abuse,” said Barton, who attended the news conference.
Jay Beswick, a member of Help the Child Brides, an advocacy group based in St. George, said the news conference might prompt other church members to come forward. “We really hope this is the first of many,” he said.
Chatwin also claimed responsibility for distributing an anonymous letter to hundreds of homes last week. He said he found the letter, along with more than $100 in cash, on his back step. The letter contended that Dan Barlow’s brother Louis, not Warren Jeffs, should lead the church, and an attached note instructed him to mail the letter to residents and keep the money that was left over.
Not all residents are unhappy with Jeffs’ leadership. Alvin Barlow is superintendent of the Colorado City Unified School District and another of former mayor Dan Barlow’s brothers.
He said Thursday he has been in touch with Dan and “all is well.”
Of the ousted FLDS members, he said “there’s not a hint of bitterness or discontent from any of them.”
“I know [Dan] is well. His feelings are just to encourage people and his children to be good citizens in the community,” Alvin Barlow said. “It is not my privilege to say what might happen. We will just carry on. That’s what he would want.”