Unassuming trailer a sign of change in Colorado City
COLORADO CITY – Not far from the mountaintop where the prophet promised his people would be lifted into heaven, the state of Arizona has plopped down a triple-wide trailer.
It isn’t much to look at.
But its mere presence is stunning.
Critics long have claimed that the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints uses polygamy to justify a wide range of evils, from child rape and underage marriage to bilking public payrolls. And the isolation of Colorado City only helps perpetuate those suspicions.
That’s why some consider the new state and county “multiuse” facility could be significant if it ever becomes fully operational.
And it’s the latest in a series of signs that the nation’s largest polygamous community may be unraveling.
“There is a way and a means to create change if there is a desire,” said Mohave County Supervisor Pete Byers, whose district includes Colorado City, a five-hour drive from his office in Kingman.
“If you constantly pay lip service and never move forward, nothing is going to change. At least now we are moving forward.”
The trailer, painted primer gray and stuck in a brush-littered lot, was hauled in this fall to provide cramped office space for the attorney general, state Child Protective Services, the Mohave County sheriff, Mohave County Victim Witness Program and the county attorney.
The offices are the first semi-permanent, independent governmental presence in this remote area of the Arizona strip since National Guard troops and state police staged a highly criticized raid to rout out polygamy 51 years ago.
“The intent of the facility is really to bring the state and the county into Colorado City,” said Richard Travis, special assistant attorney general, who visited the new offices this week.
A slow start
So far, the office has been as slow to open for business as it was to become a reality.
State and county officials took nearly two years to approve funds, find land and make arrangements to set up the building. They had trouble getting utilities hooked up and finding a construction crew to set up the foundation.
Then, shortly after the triple-wide was trucked in, a storm ripped off most of the roof. Half the offices were damaged by water.
A former Utah policewoman who was hired to run the victim witness office resigned after just days on the job, and a replacement still hasn’t been hired.
“We haven’t really put the office to good use yet,” admits Gary Engels, a 21-year police veteran, who was hired in October as an investigator for the Mohave County Attorney’s Office.
Engels lives in Bullhead City and gets up at 3 a.m. on Mondays to make the 270-mile commute to Colorado City. He spends several nights a week in a motel across the state line in Utah until he can relocate.
So far, he is the most visible sign of the new government presence in Colorado City. But state and county officials promise reinforcements are on the way.
Child Protective Services has assigned an investigator to staff the new office two days a week.
A developmental disabilities case worker for the Department of Economic Security has been in Colorado City for years and now will be based out of the trailer full time.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office will start using space for its investigators once the water damage is repaired, Travis said.
And Mohave County Deputy Steve Bailey is making routine trips in and out of Colorado City while he waits for furniture in his office space.
“Frankly, I’m not sure we’ll ever really get a lot of traffic in here,” says Engels, the only employee in the trailer one day recently. “There’s a code of silence up here that basically says you don’t talk to any outsiders about anything that goes on up here.”
That code of silence is enforced by the FLDS, which has as many as 10,000 followers who make up virtually all of the population of Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah.
The FLDS is a breakaway sect, which, unlike the mainstream Mormon religion, still practices plural marriage. Members of the sect believe men must take at least three wives to reach the highest level of heaven, and teen brides are prized possessions.
That office’s opening, incremental as it may be, comes at a time of particular turmoil for the FLDS and Colorado City.
Unbeknownst to any but his closest confidantes at the time, Jeffs had purchased 1,691 acres of land in remote west Texas and an additional 120 acres in the Four Corners area of southwest Colorado.
Building at the Texas location has been particularly aggressive. Workers have completed three multistory houses, each with 21,600 square feet of living space, about 10 times the size of most single-family homes.
A massive meeting hall with more than a dozen industrial air-conditioning units was finished last summer. So was an enormous barn and several other smaller structures.
And just last month, work began on what Texas residents say will be a 150-foot limestone temple similar in size and scope to one originally built in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1840 by Mormon founder Joseph Smith.
“They are working straight through the night and in the pouring rain,” said Randy Mankin, city administrator and editor of the weekly newspaper in Eldorado, Texas. “They poured a concrete slab, and they are actually cutting the rock in long slabs and carrying it over into the temple site.”
The scale of construction in Texas has more than a few FLDS followers and critics convinced Jeffs plans to relocate – if he hasn’t done so already.
A block-square compound in Hildale, where Jeffs lived for years, appeared recently to have been turned over to another family. The gates no longer are sealed, and many of the surveillance cameras that lined the 8-foot walls have been removed. The few cameras that remain are now pointed toward the house instead of the street.
Process servers have been searching for Jeffs since August when he and his closest aides were named in a pair of lawsuits accusing them of sodomizing children, covering up sexual abuse and ruining the lives of boys who were perceived as threats to woo brides from older men in the sect.
“Nobody knows where he is,” said Sam Brower, a Utah private investigator, who has traveled to Arizona, Texas and Colorado searching for Jeffs. “But the betting is he’s down in Texas.”
Former sect members say Jeffs has a history of predicting the end of the world and promising his followers they will be lifted to heaven from atop 2,000-foot-high Mount Canaan, which overlooks Colorado City.
One of those unfulfilled prophecies came at the millennium. Rumors circulated last week he was predicting another apocalypse at the end of this year.
“He makes these predictions, and I don’t think any one of them has ever come true,” Engels said. “My fear is that one of these days he may just decide to make his own predictions come true.”
Fears of a Waco-style shootout, or a Jonestown-like mass poisoning, have swirled around Jeffs and Colorado City for years. Generally, those fears are dismissed as hysteria. But the prophet’s reclusive behavior and the ever-increasing pressure on him has some worried.
“If they keep pressing, then two things can happen,” said Byers, the Mohave County supervisor who maintains close relations with sect leaders in Colorado City.
“One, there can be an uprising, and it’s not out of the question Warren Jeffs could see that as his way to heaven. Or two, there could be vigilantes who try to move in and change things.”
But Engels, the Mohave County criminal investigator who comes to work with a handgun strapped to his belt, said he believed only good could happen if Jeffs left.
“Ideally, we’ll get Warren out of here,” he said. “I don’t know if it will be criminal charges or he will leave on his own, but that would help bring this city back to some kind of normalcy.”
Not necessarily. Wherever Jeffs lives, he remains the power behind the United Effort Plan, a multimillion-dollar trust that controls nearly all property in Colorado City and Hildale.
Authorities say the only way to break that stranglehold is to prove the trustee has been involved in criminal activity.
“The place is in turmoil because Warren’s been taking money out of here and just bleeding these people dry for money,” Engels said.
“Proving criminal wrongdoing is difficult, but I believe there are some things going on up here and we will eventually uncover them. You just keep chipping away, chipping away and pretty soon a piece falls off. That’s what this place is going to be.”