HILDALE, Utah – No one in this secluded polygamous town along the Arizona border is necessarily sure what it’ll look like a month from now. They don’t know where they’ll live, who will live with them or whether they’ll be torn from their families and neighbors and uprooted two states away.
At least, if they do know, they’re not saying. And neither is the man who will make that decision for them – the reclusive prophet of the polygamous Fundamental Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter Day Saints, who is reportedly building a new, heavily fortified compound in Texas where he and his closest supporters will live.
“I’m not in a position where I would know much about it. So I don’t know that I could really comment one way or the other,” said church member David Zitting, who is also Hildale’s mayor. “I just can’t say what’s going to happen.”
Observers of the FLDS church, however, are convinced church prophet Warren Jeffs – who has a reported 50-70 wives – is culling his flock and preparing the most devout followers for the move to Texas to avoid prosecution in Utah on allegations of forced child marriages, sexual abuse, welfare fraud and tax evasion. Authorities say the claims haven’t produced criminal charges because they can’t get anyone to talk to them in this distrustful enclave.
“Warren’s going to pick out the most devout followers of him, and then move them (to Texas.) He’s got to keep (the cities) going, because they’re his slaves,” said Sam Brower, a detective hired by former church members who’s investigated the sect for two years.
Aside from a 1953 raid in which authorities swept in and arrested polygamists and took custody of children, this town, and its counterpart just down the road, Colorado City, Ariz., have mostly been able to live in seclusion, in full obedience to their prophet and with their belief that men cannot get into heaven unless they have at least three wives.
But as Utah and Arizona authorities intensify investigations, that may be about to change.
And Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says he’s going to keep pursuing Jeffs and the group, in-state or not.
“Some people say, yeah, be glad they’re moving. They’re no longer your problem. I don’t feel that way,” Shurtleff said. “I want to bring to justice anybody in that group, Warren Jeffs or others, who have committed crimes.”
But Rod Parker, an attorney who has represented Jeffs and other church members, said it’s that mentality that has forced the communities into seclusion and secrecy and instilled a broad fear of law enforcement.
“I would think that after all the talk of those kinds of allegations, you’d see a case filed. There’s no case,” he said. “God knows they’re looking for cases to prosecute. They’re crawling all over that community.”
The towns sit at the foot of the picturesque Vermillion Cliffs – big red rock towers that stretch like fingers into the sky with deep, weathered lines slicing their sides. It is a strange mix of apparent wealth and poverty – paved streets number almost evenly with those packed of clay, and enormous homes sit alongside modest two- and three-bedroom houses.
Since Jeffs took over the FLDS church after his father died, observers say he has guided the church with a ruthless hand and boundless ambition to dispatch anyone who threatens his leadership. As prophet and leader of a church in which women and children are considered property, Jeffs has the singular authority to reassign wives and children, and their belongings, and excommunicate anyone.
Even his siblings have not been spared banishment. Brother Blaine Jeffs now lives in a trailer next to the convenience store he used to own, Brower noted during a recent tour of the town.
“These people are never told what they’ve done wrong,” Brower said.
In the meantime, they’re required to write the prophet weekly letters confessing various sins in hope they’ll be reaccepted into the church and community they’ve been born into, and the only way of life they know.
Shurtleff has called Jeffs an “evil genius” who knows how to manipulate people and the welfare and legal systems to retain power.
“For three years now, he’s been doing everything he can to keep people from cooperating with us and to take steps to avoid our efforts,” he said.
Parker said Shurtleff and anti-polygamy advocates are buying too much into the stories of ex-church members, who can be biased and lack credibility.
“That’s the view of the dissidents. It’s not the view of the people who wish to continue to be involved in that church,” he said.
Jeffs has barred church members from public school; children are only allowed to attend private schools until the sixth, seventh or eighth grades, Brower said. Most residents are considered to be functionally illiterate, with the exception of Jeffs himself.
In audio copies of speeches heard by The Associated Press, the reclusive prophet sermonizes in calm, almost detached, but learned language.
His voice sounds almost like the speaker on a self-help tape, even when he’s explaining to followers that blacks exist so Satan can have a presence on earth, and that they are “uncouth, rude, filthy and seemingly deprived of nearly all the blessings that are generally bestowed upon mankind.”
The estimated 6,000 to 10,000 residents and church followers wear simple clothing and lead simple lives, without television, radio or the Internet. News in the polygamous communities is driven by speculation and whisper, which Brower calls a “highly refined rumor mill.”
Since all decisions are made through Jeffs’ declaration and revelation, and he hasn’t been seen publicly in more than a year, speculation is all they have, observers and investigators say.
Now, those close to the culture say fear permeates every aspect of life in this community – fear that Jeffs will leave them behind on the move to Texas and fear that the outside world will again raid the villages and upend their lives.
The church has purchased land near Eldorado, Texas, and set construction on a breakneck pace. Brower has flown over the compound there, and says it’s guarded by sentry 24 hours a day and monitored by cameras. On about 2,000 acres, he said, it now includes about eight “homes” roughly the sizes of motels, a big meeting hall, a towering temple and about four other buildings.
The church has also purchased a 60-acre plot near the southwestern Colorado town of Mancos, though it’s not clear what’s planned for that land.
Word filtered through investigators by excommunicated and disaffected church members is that the move to Texas may come around April 6, which the church believes is the 175th anniversary of the restoration of the Mormon Church.
In the meantime, Utah’s 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City is considering a motion by the plaintiffs Brower works for – a former member alleging sexual abuse and others who say they were unfairly kicked out of their homes by Jeffs and barred from speaking with the families – that would break up the church trust which owns all the land in Hildale and Colorado City.
Jeffs has stopped defending himself in the lawsuits, and his lawyers have left the case – further evidence, Shurtleff said, that Jeffs plans to leave soon.
The plaintiffs have asked that new church trustees be appointed, which, if approved, could shed light on just how much money Jeffs’ trust has and where it’s going – if he hasn’t already put it somewhere else, out of law enforcement’s reach.
Though outside law enforcement is more heavily scrutinizing the towns, they remain mostly lawless. Police officers on the Utah side have been decertified because they were also church members and polygamists.
For now, a trailer set up in Colorado City by the state of Arizona with offices for the Mohave County (Ariz.) Sheriff’s Department, victim’s assistants, child welfare workers, the state attorney general and assorted other officials is all that’s there.
Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County prosecutor, works in that office every day, not that the residents even want him. Engels has been in Colorado City for about 4› months, and says he’s just now finally gaining the trust of residents – not church members, but the excommunicated ones, who despite their claims against Jeffs are wary of speaking with authorities.
It’s tough for people outside the community to understand, Engels and Brower explain. Everyone here has grown up here, in this lifestyle, and they’ve never known anything else.
“Eventually, Warren will say he’s done with this place,” Engels said. “Until then, the people here will continue sending every dollar to him. And even every dollar after that.”