COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Mormon outcasts fled here nearly 70 years ago to practice “plural marriage” in Utah’s desert borderlands. But a church feud, outside investigations and prosecutions have brought the glare of 21st-century publicity to the largest band of polygamists in America.
Earlier this month, Warren Jeffs, the leader or “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, excommunicated nearly two dozen men from the priesthood, ordering them to leave their church-owned homes and their families.
The secretive sect, known as the FLDS, is an offshoot of the original Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which settled Utah in the mid-1800s and is now one of the fastest-growing religions in the world.
On Friday, one of the ousted men challenged the leader’s authority publicly. He held a news conference in the middle of this tight-lipped community of about 10,000 people. (The twin FLDS towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, are indistinguishable from each other along an invisible state line.) Ross Chatwin hosted reporters and photographers on the porch of the house where he and his family had been assigned to live.
Task force probe
Chatwin, 35, refuses to leave. Nor will he part with his wife, Lori, and six children, which the faith requires. (Church teaching holds that FLDS families cannot reach heaven unless the husband has priesthood status.) “This Hitler-like dictator has got to be stopped before he ruins us all and this beautiful town,” Chatwin said as a dozen sheriff’s deputies stood guard. He says he is speaking out “to get the ball rolling. … If a few stand up, it could make it better for all.”
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says both states and federal and local agencies have a task force probing the activities of the church and Jeffs, 47, its reclusive leader. Shurtleff calls the FLDS a cult and Jeffs a racist “evil dictator.”
Attempts to contact Jeffs were unsuccessful. Church attorneys say Jeffs does not grant interviews. But lawyer R. Scott Berry dismisses reports of turmoil and rumors of “blood atonement” — church-sanctioned killing of “apostates” such as Chatwin — as hysterical lies by outside agitators and ex-members. Berry says the excommunications were normal “adjustments” for unspecified religious reasons.
Shurtleff still sent Utah’s “polygamy czar,” investigator Ron Barton, to monitor the news conference. “Families are being destroyed,” says Barton, whose office has helped convict three polygamists.
Shurtleff says investigators are looking closely at crimes against women and children: domestic violence, sexual abuse, incest, child bride marriages and the like. He won’t discuss other particulars but adds that the task force is moving into organized crime subjects such as tax and accounting irregularities.
Polygamy is barred by the constitutions of both states. But with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 adherents in Utah and perhaps 100,000 nationwide, wide-scale prosecution is impractical, if not impossible.
The FLDS purge was a bizarre development in a tightly controlled culture where women must obey their husbands and TV and newspapers are banned. Marriages are arranged by church authorities, who teach that only men with at least three wives can reach the highest levels of heaven. Men take additional wives only when told by the church.
Women and girls dress in the old-fashioned garb of Mormon pioneers — floor-length dresses with long sleeves and high collars.
Several of the ousted men were major FLDS figures, including two popular elders in their 90s and Dan Barlow, the only mayor of Colorado City since its incorporation in 1985. Soon after excommunication, Barlow quit his city post.
Church spokesmen accuse Chatwin of trying to recruit two teenage brides. Chatwin insists the girls approached him and his wife for help in leaving town.
Church critics contend Jeffs is using religious expulsion as an excuse to consolidate wealth and power. Various estimates claim the church’s wealth exceeds $100 million.
Berry, not a church member, acknowledges the group has “an unusual belief structure.” But he denies claims that the ousted men’s wives and children are reassigned against their will to other husbands and families.
Polygamy was once practiced by the original Mormon church. But it was a barrier to Utah statehood. The church’s prophet outlawed the custom in 1890, six years before Utah became a state. Renegades, claiming the ban was a political move, have continued the practice ever since — and have been excommunicated from the larger church. Many retreated to the state’s rural fringes to escape social and legal harassment. The FDLS chose this high-desert valley in the “Arizona Strip” region northeast of the Grand Canyon and a six-hour drive from Salt Lake City.
Ex-member and local historian Ben Bistline, 68, who has lived outside town since he was evicted by the church, says Chatwin’s speak-out was “very brave, but I don’t think it’ll make a whole lot of difference here. There’s too much fear.”