C O L O R A D O C I T Y, Ariz. , Jan. 27— A former member of the nation’s largest polygamist church is calling for the ouster of its cult-like leader, as authorities worry a violent standoff may be brewing.
Ross Chatwin, who says he was told to leave the polygamist sect, held a news conference Friday to discuss his feud with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The secretive sect of Mormon outcasts is based in Colorado City, a town that straddles the Utah-Arizona line. Members believe in plural marriages, a practice that the original Mormon church outlawed in 1890.
“Ultimately, I feel like he thought I was a threat to his power, regardless of what any kind of excuse he uses,” Chatwin, 35, said.
Jeffs has ordered 21 top members of the FLDS, including Chatwin, to leave their church-owned homes and their families in what appears to be a play for even more power. Jeffs, who has dozens of wives, is known as “the Prophet.” His church members say they believe Jeffs speaks directly to God.
Meanwhile, Chatwin said he would not follow the sect leader’s instructions to leave the town, his wife, Lori, and their six children. His defiant statements has led to what authorities fear is a dangerous standoff.
Fears of Another Waco
Authorities are worried violence may be brewing among the 6,000 residents of the secretive religious community, and there are fears that a standoff reminiscent of Waco could be building. Some former sect members echo that fear.
“It is that fanaticism that scares me,” said Deloyd Bateman, who left the sect five years ago. “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gets shot here.”
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says a task force of authorities from both states, plus federal and local agencies, are investigating Jeffs, 47, and the activities of his church. Shurtleff considers the group to be very similar to a cult, and says that Jeff is a dictator to the people. Though polygamy is against the law in both Arizona and Utah, prosecuting is difficult because there an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 adherents to the practice in Utah alone. However, Shurtleff said authorities continue to investigate the sect for a variety of possible crimes.
“We have been charging crimes like incest, child abuse, all kinds of welfare fraud, tax evasion, other types of white collar crimes,” he said.
Shurtleff said they are concerned about the possiblity of a violent confrontation between released members of the sect and Jeffs because being kicked out of this type of group equals having your entire life destroyed.
“It means you must leave your property, which is owned by the church, leave your business, owned by the church. You now have to leave your wife and children, who are reassigned and given to another man, possibly your brother,” Shurtleff said.
Shurtleff is calling on the ousted men to turn to him for help and not to turn to violence against Jeffs and the sect.
Chatwin is urging other men who’ve been released from the sect to join him in getting their lives back.
“We need your help and support to help stop Warren Jeffs from destroying families, kicking us out of our homes, and marrying our children in some kind of brownie-point system,” Chatwin said.
Meawhile, Rod Parker, an attorney who represents the FLDS, told The Associated Press that Chatwin was excommunicated for soliciting two underage girls to be his plural wives. Chatwin says the two girls, 15 and 17, sought out him and his wife for guidance.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints says all churches have the power to determine who may be a member.
Chatwin’s only wife, Lori, said Jeffs is tearing their family apart. “When you tell a family they can no longer love their father, you’ve got to create something cold inside of you to no longer love your husband or your father,” she said.
Jan. 27, 2004