COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Beaming from identical 5-by-7-inch green plastic frames, the faces on the wall voicelessly remind the Wyler family of their happy days.
Eighteen daughters and 16 sons, who, for the last family reunion 1 1/2 years ago, brought more than 70 upbeat souls, eating hamburgers, playing volleyball and engaging in games to Colorado City’s Maxwell Park.
Today, the pink draperies in the living room still seem eager to embrace the flecks of sun falling through the window wall. But family reunions are no more, and the picture wall is ripped by an invisible line, with 24 children on one side and 10 on the other.
The five daughters and five sons who loyally follow Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, have pitted themselves against their apostate siblings, distancing their 40 children from the rest of the family.
“This one just broke us clear wide open,” said Marvin Wyler, 59, the family patriarch who is still officially an FLDS member but doesn’t believe in Jeffs as the prophet for the polygamist church. “That’s pretty heart-breaking. My grandkids, I can’t even see. I can’t even give them a hug.”
The Wylers are only one of many families falling apart in the aftermath of a split within the increasingly secretive FLDS church, which controls most of the land and property in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The area’s 10,000 residents, most members of the FLDS church, frequently intermarry.
Jeffs, who became the prophet in 2002 against some members’ opposition, has tightened his control in the Short Creek Valley. He forbids members from associating with apostates and has canceled group gatherings, church activities, community dances, holiday celebrations and the hanging of American flags. Members talking to the media risk losing their families and houses to the church.
But Wyler, who has lived for 42 years in Colorado City, said he decided to speak out because he wanted residents in the Colorado City area to “wake up” from their blind loyalty to Jeffs.
“If we help one soul, it will help,” said Wyler, who said he will stay in his 12-bedroom home on Arizona Avenue even if the church tries to evict him. “I don’t want to look at my life and say, ‘Why were you a coward today when you had a chance?'” [See Wyler’s letter on A8.]
In the past month, Jeffs expelled at least 30 men, stripping them of their priesthood, their wives and children and their rights to live in town. Most of them — including Colorado City’s mayor of 19 years, Dan Barlow — moved away quietly, as women and children were “reassigned” to other men.
Two of Wyler’s sons, Isaac Wyler and Ross Chatwin, were also told to leave the church. Another man, Ronald Rohbock, has left his home, his six wives and 50 children. Two of Rohbock’s wives had pleaded to stay with him, Wyler said, but Rohbock told them to do what Jeffs said. The two women have since been married off to other men, he said.
“Today, only a few will dare to think for themselves,” Wyler said. “They’ve been indoctrinated with the idea that their salvation with this life and the life to come depends on this man, so with that, he has all power over everybody.”
But his son Steven Chatwin, who still believes in Jeffs, said it is his father and brothers who have left the right road.
“I believed just like father has taught me,” he said. “I don’t see why he should be sad — We all get our choice of belief.”
Born in 1944 to William Edward Chatwin and his third wife Dorothy Mae Wyler, Marvin Chatwin said he has always believed in plural marriage.
He spent his first two years in a mental hospital room in Genova, where his teenage mother was locked up by the state of Utah for entering a polygamist relationship with Chatwin, who was 54 years her senior.
Growing up in a foster home in Payson with his mother’s uncle, Henry Wyler, he took on his last name. But after high school, he joined the FLDS church’s work mission in Short Creek, now Colorado City.
In 1964, Wyler married his first wife, followed three years later by a second wife. He married two more wives, but one died at age 29 and another was recently taken away by Jeffs. He insisted that his wives’ names not be used for this article.
Under Prophet Leroy Johnson, Wyler said, the Colorado City area bustled with family and community activities, such as parades, dances and celebrations of July 4 and Johnson’s birthday, June 12.
A photo taken in 1972 showed a beaming Wyler family in yellow dresses. Next to the babies stood a gold paper float, made for the harvest feast.
“It was very beautiful under Uncle Roy’s direction,” Wyler recalled. “We felt like we were going on in our exaltation and our salvation.”
When asked a question, he said, the prophet frequently turned to the scriptures to encourage personal responsibility and human connections. When a 50-year-old woman wanted to marry then 36-year-old Wyler to have children, Johnson told him that the matter “depends on the individuals.”
“You are a man,” he said. “You are supposed to have feelings.”
But after Johnson died in 1986, the new prophet, Rulon Jeffs, told him that a man shouldn’t touch an infertile woman, otherwise he would be cursed by “the spirit of adultery.”
“She’s way past that age,” Wyler remembered Rulon Jeffs telling him. “Have nothing to do with her.”
For the next 18 years, Wyler did just that, even though she lived with him.
In his 16-year rein, Rulon Jeffs promoted “Journals of Discourses,” compiled writings of sermons given between 1846 and 1886. One of its principles was blood atonement, which demanded people shed their blood to atone for the sins they had committed.
Wyler, who still preferred “3+1,” or the Holy Bible, the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price, went to question Rulon Jeffs. But he was told to stop asking questions.
Today, Wyler believes Rulon Jeffs was a prophet who made mistakes. But he does not believe his son Warren Jeffs, who started taking control after Rulon Jeffs suffered a stroke in 1998, is a prophet. After Rulon died in September 2002, Warren Jeffs called his brother Nephi Jeffs and Rulon’s nurse at a meeting to testify how his father wanted him to be the new prophet.
Next to the picture wall in Wyler’s living room hangs Johnson’s portrait. Across the door on the other side of the wall hang pictures of Rulon Jeffs and Joseph Smith, founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While the FLDS church also traces its roots to Smith, the LDS church has officially abolished plural marriage since 1890.
Absent was the portrait of the current prophet, Warren Jeffs.
“He’s a wonderful, wonderful person,” Steven Chatwin said. “He does what Joseph Smith would do. He’s honorable. He’s just.”
Wyler said he followed Warren Jeffs’ preaching until about two years ago, when the prophet told the congregation to “fast and pray for the execution of Jason Williams.” Williams, who claims his ex-wife was brainwashed by Rulon Jeffs to divorce him and became another man’s plural wife, had filed lawsuits against the FLDS church. But a Utah court has dismissed his suit three times.
“I couldn’t go along with it,” said Wyler, who said he later prayed at home. “(But) they’ll do anything for him.”
As soon as Wyler stopped attending Jeffs’ meetings, he saw changes in people around him. He was at the Wal-Mart in Washington City another day, and a plural wife would not speak to him.
“People refuse to look at you,” he said. “They sit next to a car window. They don’t look like you exist.”
Jeffs has preached that the Wylers, Cookes and Blacks are low caste people anyway, said his son Ross Chatwin. The low-caste families shouldn’t marry the high-caste families, such as the Jeffs, the Steeds and the Barlows, Jeffs said. The Johnsons and Jessops are considered middle caste.
“I’m the lowest,” said Chatwin, laughing. Ever since he held a news conference in his Colorado City home decrying Jeffs as a “Hitler-like dictator,” some have called him on the phone, cursed him and abruptly hung up.
Steven Chatwin, who still believes in Jeffs as the prophet, has told Ross Chatwin to surrender his wife and six children to the church, so their destruction can be avoided, Wyler and Ross Chatwin said. But Steven Chatwin denied he ever said it.
Ross Chatwin will appear in Arizona State Court March 2 to fight against the FLDS church, which has sued him for not leaving the home on church property. Ross Chatwin lives in the basement, but Steven, who now lives in a friend’s trailer, has recently started construction upstairs.
The home was originally built by their brother, David Chatwin, who has left Colorado City to follow Winston Blackmore in Canada. With the lawsuit pending, Ross Chatwin has put up a “No Trespassing” sign. He even called the local police. But Steven continued the construction.
“I can move anywhere I want,” said Steven Chatwin, adding he wanted to move in six months ago. “(Ross) could be a very wonderful person if he just stops and be honorable.”
Steven Chatwin insisted that he acted on his free will but with the permission of the United Effort Plan, the church trust. But Ross Chatwin said Steven is only Jeffs’ pawn.
“It’s a game Warren plays — he uses your brothers to fight you,” he said. “I love Steven. I always will.”
For this Sunday’s traditional family dinner, Wyler said he expects 15 people to come. They will pass the picture wall, thinking how crowded the living room used to be. One of the grandchildren, Wyler learned Wednesday afternoon, has received a driver license.
“We always miss them and the way we used to be,” he said. “We always hope all these will go away and we’ll all be able to get together again.”
Feb. 13, 2004