It sounded great, the plan mapped out two weeks ago by Utah and Arizona officials: Polygamists’ wives and their children looking for a way out would receive fliers and see a billboard displaying a domestic abuse hot-line number.
Officials even planned for an “exodus” of women and kids from the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., after Warren Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), excommunicated and banished 21 men earlier this month.
But there is no such billboard along the lonely highway between Hurricane and the twin towns. The hot line, 1-800-897-LINK, operates only during daylight hours. After that, callers are told to hang up and dial 911. But if women in Hildale and Colorado City do that, the call would ring straight to local law enforcement — part of the same religious group they would be trying to flee.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he has tried unsuccessfully to subpoena information about purported underage marriages within the FLDS, whose members constitute all of the twin communities’ 8,000 residents. Shurtleff said attempts to get information from Jeffs, who lives within a walled compound the size of a city block in Hildale, have failed.
“We are being told that underage marriages are being performed by Warren Jeffs,” Shurtleff said. “Then we hear it’s not happening and they have nothing to hide. Then we’re hearing from women and children who have been down there that it is happening.”
Jeffs rarely, if ever, speaks publicly, and the church’s attorney said he was not aware of Shurtleff’s requests.
“That’s the first I’ve heard of any subpoena,” said Rod Parker, who has represented the FLDS church in matters of law ranging from property rights to custody tussles. “What exactly did they do to try to serve Warren Jeffs with a piece of paper? If they are having problems, they sure as hell know who to call.”
Shurtleff said he asked local law enforcement to bring Jeffs to Hildale city offices to receive the paperwork.
“We know how nervous people are. We’re not going to show up in uniform down there. We’d go and do it everywhere else, but not there,” he said.
Although polygamy is a felony in Utah, and practiced by many members of the FLDS, Shurtleff said he has more interest in prosecuting other crimes against women and children.
“I don’t have the resources to go after 4,000 people,” he said. “If we arrest all the men, what happens to all the women and children in those polygamist families?”
Instead, Shurtleff said, one of his investigators is in southern Utah gathering evidence on abuse claims.
Paul Murphy, spokesman for the attorney general, said the office is aware of the hot-line problems.
“We’re still working on it,” he said. “We have applied for grant money that would allow them to staff the number day and night.”
State hot-line coordinator A.J. Hunt said, “We have met with people with families down in that area. They’re going to take our information back down there. Educating them that it’s a safe place to call is the first thing we have to do.”
As for the billboard and fliers, Murphy said they should be in place by mid-February.
And so far, there has been no exodus. Officials say three teenage girls have left the communities this month. Two went to Phoenix, the other went to a southern Utah shelter.
More resources could be available by spring. On Tuesday, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors in Arizona approved funding of up to $200,000 to lease land from Mohave Community College in Colorado City and put up a modular building for county and state agencies.
The building, which is slated to go up in about 90 days, will house sheriff’s deputies and representatives from the Mohave County Attorney’s Office, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the Arizona Division of Child Protective Services.
Tribune reporter Pamela Manson contributed to this story.