PHOENIX (AP) – Attorney General Terry Goddard is defending his office’s handling of allegations of child abuse and other wrongdoing in the northern Arizona polygamist enclave of Colorado City.
”We’re doing everything we can. It’s a No. 1 priority for this office,” Goddard said Wednesday during a news conference.
The state’s top prosecutor declined to discuss any criminal investigations and child-dependency cases now underway, but he said it remains difficult to get people to testify about ”extremely disturbing” allegations. ”We need facts.”
Goddard said state authorities nonetheless are moving quietly and diligently on many fronts to protect children from abuse.
”It’s probably not going to result in a big explosion today or tomorrow but I believe the truth is coming out and in fact the inquiry is at a much higher and much (more) diligent level than it’s ever been,” said Goddard, a Democrat who took office 13 months ago.
He said he simultaneously is trying to build bridges with community members who remain deeply suspicious after a controversial state raid five decades ago.
Twenty-seven Arizona state legislators – 26 Republicans and one Democrat – on Tuesday released a letter calling on Goddard to ensure the safety of young people in Colorado City and to prosecute cases of criminal activity such as bigamy, rape and incest.
The lawmakers also asked Goddard to help the Legislature draft stronger laws to prohibit polygamist practices, and he said he already was proposing a bill to make it a felony to enter a bigamous marriage with a minor.
Polygamy is outlawed by the Arizona Constitution, but there is no state criminal statute against the practice.
”This issue should unite all Arizonans,” Goddard said.
Goddard also cited coordination and information sharing with his Utah counterpart, Mark Shurtleff, and work with Mohave County authorities on construction of a government facility in Colorado City to provide a law enforcement presence and a refuge for people seeking to flee abusive situations.
”They have to know there are people they can trust,” he said.
The legislators’ letter cited recent excommunications by the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and the flight of several teenage girls from Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah. It also raised the possibility of a confrontation between rival groups within the sect or a mass exodus of sect members.
”For too long, Arizona has allowed this grave problem to deteriorate. Too many young women have lost their virtue without their consent. Too many young lives have been shattered. Too many witnesses have been ignored. The time has come for Arizona to act,” the legislators wrote.
Anti-polygamy activist Flora Jessop, a former Colorado City resident, said she was pleased by many steps being taken by Goddard and other authorities but said they could be doing ”much, much more.
”We can’t get law enforcement to do anything about the crimes occurring,” Jessop said.
Jessop called for a citizens boycott of Arizona and Utah until the states take steps necessary to protect children in Colorado City and Hildale.
Shurtleff on Jan. 25 told KSL-TV in Salt Lake City that criminal charges were imminent against sect leader Warren Jeffs, but his office backpedaled two days later and cautioned that prosecutors still await concrete evidence of criminal activity in the enclave.