<1>Editors Note: This is part one of a two-part series on polygamy in the Southwestern U.S.
In a remote enclave on the Utah-Arizona border, a Mormon sect has openly practiced polygamy for years, but now upheaval from within has authorities stepping up an investigation they’ve been conducting for some time.
A number of men have been kicked out of the church-owned town, and their wives and children are being “reassigned” against their will to other men.
For years authorities have investigated the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but with the family “reassignments” sparking concerns of forced marriage of underage girls, their case is growing stronger.
“I remember my husband telling me, if you don’t submit you’re going to be my servant after this life. And you will be waiting on me and my other wives,” said Pam Black, a former child bride, who shared a husband with two other women until she left the church.
“They taught me that God’s laws are more important than the laws of the land,” said Black. “That’s what I was told in Church over and over again.”
“This is the history of Hitler and what he did,” Ross Chatwin, 35, who was kicked out of the church. “This here is going in the same direction and I’m scared.”
In an apparent move to solidify his control, Jeffs, on Jan. 14 ordered 20 men to leave the area, but without their wives, children and personal property. Jeffs said a vision from God told him to force the men out. He later purged more men from the community, including Chatwin.
Jeffs “stood up at a meeting and said these men are no longer respected and sent them away,” said Angie Parkinson, an editor at the Spectrum newspaper covering the case.
Chatwin said Jeffs “has to be stopped.”
Jeffs, 47, took over the church after the 2002 death of his father, Rulon, despite a push for two more popular church elders in the community. Both men, who are in their 90s, were excommunicated in the Jan. 14 purge.
Three 16-year-old girls are known to have run away from the enclave since the men’s excommunications. Two are in foster care in Phoenix and the other is in state custody in Utah.
As for the laws against polygamy, enforcement depends on the men wearing the badge, like town marshal and practicing polygamist Sam Roundy.
“What happens behind closed doors between consenting adults is their business,” Roundy said.
Roundy’s not alone — the mayor, members of the town council, the school board, police department and even the local judge have multiple wives.
“I’ve heard it referred to as the Taliban among us,” Parkinson said.
Chatwin said by talking he could put himself in danger in the community, which is notorious for retaliating against malcontents. But he said he did it to encourage others to stand up to Jeffs, especially those who have been ordered out.
“If a few stand up, it could make it better for all,” he said.
Chatwin advocates polygamy but has just one wife along with six children. Chatwin’s wife, Lori, 32, is standing by her husband. “I’m not going to leave him,” she said Friday.
Women and children are considered property and have no rights under church laws.
Colorado City and its adjacent counterpart, Hildale, Utah, form what many believe to be the center of the American polygamist movement. Together they have 10,000 members.
The attorneys general in Utah and Arizona have been investigating both communities for several years. Chatwin said he was cooperating with investigators from both states, but declined to be more specific.
Utah attorney general investigator Ron Barton also was in Colorado City Friday, saying the state is concerned about public safety.
Barton said the state is probing the towns because “families are being destroyed.” Barton refused to say whether criminal charges were being considered against Jeffs.
Last year, former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm was convicted of bigamy and unlawful sex with a girl he took as a third wife when she was 16. He was sentenced to a year in jail and his police certification was revoked.
The mainstream Mormon church abandoned polygamy a century ago as the Utah territory sought statehood, but the fundamentalists refused to give up the practice. It was estimated that Rulon Jeffs had 35 to 75 wives.
Fox News’ William La Jeunesse and The Associated Press contributed to this report.