No. 1 priority: ‘He has hurt hundreds, if not thousands, of people,’ Shurtleff says
After a 1953 raid to crack down on plural marriage turned into a public relations disaster, a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border went largely unnoticed for the next half-century.
Not anymore. In the past two years, authorities in both states have become ever more aggressive in investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes in the closed society of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
By design, it’s a cooperative effort. In the past several months, eight Colorado City men have been charged with marrying underage girls. A Utah judge has taken away the power of trustees of an FLDS trust fund for allegedly failing to protect the assets. And Arizona is investigating the Colorado City Unified School District’s finances.
Most prominently, FLDS President Warren Jeffs – already the subject of lawsuits by disaffected former followers – was charged in June with child sexual abuse for sanctifying a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a married 28-year-old man. A federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution came a few weeks later.
But what really racheted up the pressure was an unprecedented offer of a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Jeffs, who has not been seen in public for a year and a half and whose whereabouts are unknown.
To Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, finding Jeffs, considered a prophet possessed of absolute authority by thousands of followers in several Western states and Canada, is the No. 1 priority.
“His hold on this community continues to hurt its members, and it is time he answered to these charges in a court of law,” Goddard said in a written statement when the reward was posted last week.
To many in both states, the push is long overdue. Others, however, worry that adult believers will be persecuted for deeply held religious beliefs and that polygamous societies will retrench into even greater insularity.
To Linda Kelsch of Principle Voices of Polygamy, the fact that the Arizona and Utah attorneys general have put out a $10,000 reward for Jeffs is particularly shocking. Her organization is not affiliated with the FLDS, but supports plural marriage as a religious tenet, based on the early teachings of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left polygamy behind in 1890 as a condition of statehood, and excommunicates members who practice it.
Kelsch fears the crackdown will lead the public to believe that all those who live in polygamous cultures – as tens of thousands of people do – are criminals. And she repeated her contention that decriminalizing plural marriage would allow crime victims and witnesses to come forward without fear of polygamy-related charges being brought against family members.
“The more a community goes into hiding, the more it creates a problem,” Kelsch said.
Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney who has written extensively on polygamy and has gotten to know many fundamentalists, said there is a taunting tone directed at Jeffs in the poster and that such a “blunt instrument approach” won’t work.
“It makes it harder for people looking for a middle ground to operate,” he said. “It makes it hard for someone to come forward.”
Besides, Driggs said, just about every effort in the past to get rid of polygamy has failed.
“If they think these people are going away, they’re just wrong,” he said. “This kind of pressure brings more cohesion and increases the barrier to the outside world. Throwing people in prison has just not worked, not just for this religious community, but other communities.”
Goddard flatly rejects the argument that the poster itself will discourage people with knowledge of Jeffs’ whereabouts from speaking up.
“They’re not coming forward in droves already,” he said Friday. “All we can do is try to use every tool in the toolbox to get Mr. Jeffs to do what he’s legally required to do and that’s to turn himself in. He has flouted the law and obviously is doing his very best to elude discovery.”
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Jeffs disdains the law and has failed to protect the church trust and its assets, which includes the homes of many of his followers.
“He has hurt hundreds, if not thousands, of people, mostly women and children,” Shurtleff said.
His predecessor, former Attorney General Jan Graham, praised Shurtleff’s aggressive efforts to address concerns in the community.
When Graham was in office, she focused primarily on family violence and child sexual abuse issues in the FLDS community and said she received cooperation, for the most part, from the church’s leaders. However, she said, some young women and other victims in Short Creek, the historic name of the Hildale-Colorado City area, were too fearful to reach out for help.
“I will never forget the words of a 14-year-old third bride of a man in his 40s: ‘No one ever gets out of the crick,’ ” Graham said.
Actions directed at the FLDS community in the past two years
Indictment of Warren Steed Jeffs: The president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was indicted in June by a Mohave County, Ariz., grand jury with one count each of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to conduct sexual conduct with a minor. The felony charges allege that Jeffs arranged a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 28-year-old man who already was married. A federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution was added a few weeks later. The states of Utah and Arizona announced on Wednesday that they are offering a $10,000 reward for information leading to Jeffs’ arrest.
Indictments of eight Colorado City men: The defendants were indicted by a Mohave County grand jury in June on various charges of sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor and sexual assault. The charges stem from their alleged marriages to teenage girls.
United Effort Plan Trust: A Utah judge suspended the trustees of the fund, including Warren Jeffs, and appointed a receiver this spring to protect the assets, estimated at more than $150 million. Another jurist, 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg, will hold a hearing to consider appointing new trustees.
School Receivership Law: Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano signed a bill in May that allows the state school board to place districts in receivership if they are being financially mismanaged.
Colorado City Unified School District search warrant: The Arizona Attorney General’s Office served a criminal search warrant on the district in May and removed financial records. The office is preparing a petition asking that the district be placed in receivership.
Decertification of police officers: The Utah Police Officer Standards and Training Board decertified Hildale Town Marshal Sam Roundy and officer Vance Barlow in March. The action followed an investigation by the Utah Attorney General’s Office into an allegation that as many as half of the force’s officers were practicing polygamy, a felony under state law. The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board will hold a hearing in August to determine if they will keep their police certification in that state.
Prosecution of Rodney Holm: A jury in Utah’s 5th District court convicted polygamist Rodney Holm in August 2003 of bigamy and two sex counts for stemming from his “spiritual marriage” to a then-16-year-old girl. He served a year in jail but is appealing the conviction to the Utah Supreme Court.