Sides in FLDS dispute discuss their positions

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Ross Chatwin, an excommunicated member of a polygamous sect who is accused of trying to woo two under-aged girls to be his plural wives, said Saturday that the teenagers had sought his help to leave the community.

But the girls’ father, Eugene Johnson, countered that Chatwin and his wife had actively tried to win the girls over, and that he had responded by obtaining a protective order to keep the couple away from his daughters.

The two men explained their sides of the dispute the day after Chatwin held a highly publicized news conference to denounce Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The community has been in turmoil ever since Jeffs excommunicated 21 men and ordered them to leave behind their homes, families and property.

Johnson filed an “Injunction against Harassment” against Chatwin last November in Moccasin, Ariz., Justice Court in an effort to keep Chatwin away from his daughters, who were 15 and 17 at the time.

“They had been washing cars for him and I guess he got his ego up and started talking to them behind my back, coercing them into thinking I was just an awful guy,” Johnson said in a telephone interview.

Johnson, who has eight other children, said he had noticed Chatwin and his wife, Lori, driving past his home several times a day and visiting the older daughter at the cafe where she worked.

“I was mad. I wanted to go over and clout him,” Johnson said. “He won’t say it, but he told other people he wanted to marry them. He was overstepping his bounds.”

But Chatwin said the girls had approached him and his wife. “They wanted out of the community.

“We probably did some illegal things, we were trying to help them. We sent communication back and forth,” he said

Johnson’s petition for a protective order, dated May 28, 2003, says “[Ross] is a married man and is stalking and keeps trying to make contact with my 17 yr old daughter. Also tried to make contact with daughter who is 15 yrs old.”

Attached notes list several instances when Chatwin visited the older girl at her workplace, arranged for meetings at his home and told the girls “not to bring cell phones or tell their father.”

The girls did tell their father, however, and Johnson obtained the order to protect his entire family.

When the older girl turned 18 last November, Chatwin petitioned Arizona Magistrate McKay Heaton to lift the order. She, in turn, was awarded her own protective order on Nov. 24, 2003.

Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, are indistinguishable border towns settled in the 1930s by people practicing plural marriage. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints abandoned polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah statehood, but many splinter groups, including the FLDS, believe the practice has divine roots.

The Chatwins said Friday they still believe in the principle of plural marriage and had not ruled out the possibility of welcoming another woman into their home.

Their differences, Lori Chatwin said, are not with church doctrine on plural marriage but with Jeffs, considered by FLDS faithful to be their prophet. The church, through its communal United Effort Plan, owns most of the homes in town. People can live in the homes but are subject to eviction at any time.

Jeffs, 47, became the FLDS leader when his father died nearly two years ago.

Two weeks ago, he stripped 21 men of their priesthood, families and homes, among them Mayor Dan Barlow and his brother, Louis Barlow, who many believed should be the rightful leader of the church.

“Chatwin’s behavior was extremely inappropriate,” said Rod Parker, attorney for the FLDS church. “When these people want to get married, they go to church leadership and discuss their desire to be married. When you have a guy like this trying to get them on his own, it’s extremely inappropriate.”

Parker said Chatwin was asked to leave the church for many reasons, among them bad business dealings with several people in town.

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