COLORADO CITY, Ariz. (AP) — A man who openly challenged an order from the fundamentalist church leader to leave this border town has paved the way for other dissidents to come forward, an anti-polygamy advocate says.
There are “five or six” people who have been ousted by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints who now want to follow Ross Chatwin in telling their stories, Jay Beswick said Saturday.
“They want to bring it down,” said Beswick, of the group Help the Child Brides.
Discord within the church has grown since early January after church president and self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs excommunicated about 20 men, many considered to be his rivals.
The untold number of excommunications have continued with other men like Chatwin being ordered to leave town, in an apparent effort by Jeffs to further consolidate power.
Jeffs, 47, assumed leadership of the church 16 months ago at the death of his father, former prophet Rulon Jeffs. Many at the time thought one of two church elders, Louis Barlow or Fred Jessop, would have been named president.
Both have now been excommunicated, and Jessop’s family has not seen him in a month.
The church, through its communal United Effort Plan, owns most of the homes in town. People are allowed to live in the homes, but can be evicted at any time. Chatwin said he believes that Jeffs is now the sole owner of the UEP, which Chatwin estimated to be worth about $100 million.
Despite that alleged wealth, Chatwin claimed Jeffs recently told the men of the church to increase their donations to $1,000 a month above the normal 10 percent tithing.
R. Scott Berry, Jeffs’ Salt Lake City-based lawyer, did not return phone messages left at his office Friday and Saturday by The Associated Press.
But Rod Parker, an attorney who represents the FLDS church, said Chatwin was excommunicated for soliciting two underage girls to be his plural wives. Parker, who said Jeffs asked him a few weeks ago to prepare documents to evict Chatwin from his residence, said Chatwin had been writing the girls anonymous letters before their father got a restraining order against him.
Attempts to contact Chatwin for comment were unsuccessful.
But Chatwin denied the allegation to the Deseret Morning News, saying the teenagers came to him and his wife, scared of being married to older men.
“They (the girls) came to us and wanted to marry us,” Chatwin told the newspaper. “They wanted it to happen and I said they would have to wait until they were 18. It’s all a misunderstanding.”
In a rare show of defiance in the typically secretive community, Chatwin held a news conference Friday, just days after being ordered to leave town without his wife and six children.
“My family and I do not plan on leaving our home anytime soon,” Chatwin, 35, told about three dozen reporters gathered on the front lawn of his home, under the watchful eyes of both Mojave County Sheriff’s deputies and church leaders.
He also encouraged others who have been evicted to ignore the directives.
“They don’t have to leave if they don’t want to,” he said. “If a few stand up, it could make it better for all.”
It was an audacious move in the twin border towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, both controlled by the polygamy-practicing church, which has an estimated 10,000 members.
Chatwin said he knew that drawing attention to himself could put his life in danger in a community notorious for retaliating against malcontents.
But there were no immediate acts of retribution.
“I just talked to Ross,” Beswick said Saturday morning. “Everything’s cool.”
If something were to happen, however, Beswick’s group already has safe houses ready for Chatwin and his family, who is standing by his side.
“I’m not going to leave him,” said his 32-year-old wife, Lori.
Chatwin’s family could have been reassigned to another man in town, as women and children are considered church property. Although not a polygamist himself, Chatwin advocates the practice but said he apparently never was worthy enough in the church’s eyes to be assigned a second or third wife.
The church, which believes men must have three wives to ascend to heaven, arranges all marriages for sect members.
It was estimated that Rulon Jeffs had 35 to 75 wives.