COLORADO CITY, Ariz., Oct. 19 – One year ago, Arizona authorities set up shop in a double-wide trailer here at the edge of the nation’s largest polygamous community, trying to bring at least a semblance of secular law to an American small town like no other.
Theirs was the first independent government presence in half a century at this settlement straddling the Arizona-Utah border, a place frozen in a 19th-century frontier theocracy inspired by the early Mormon Church.
But the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, continue to defy the law, the authorities and dissidents say: under the direction of leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, women are still being removed from their husbands and assigned to other men, and girls under 18 are ordered to become brides of older men on a day’s notice, all despite the presence of full-time outside law enforcement.
DeLoy Bateman, a high school science teacher here who left the church several years ago, says his daughter’s marriage was recently broken up by church leaders. She was ordered to become the bride of her father-in-law, a man twice her age, Mr. Bateman says.
“This just makes me want to cry,” said Mr. Bateman, a lifelong resident of Colorado City. “They tore up this marriage and ordered her to have sex with this older man. I’ve lost my daughter and her children to this church. I have to stand outside on the sidewalk and beg if I want to see my grandchildren.”
Other residents and investigators tell similar stories about the church, which continues operating under the direction of its absolute leader, Warren Jeffs, in spite of his being one of the country’s most-wanted fugitives, indicted on sexual abuse charges along with eight of his chief followers.
“It’s just like the mob,” said Gary Engels, a former police detective who has been retained by county officials to investigate child abuse accusations here. “The church is able to keep iron-fisted control even though the top leaders are fugitives.”
Church leaders – and officials of the mayor’s office, the Police Department and the school board, all of whom are followers – declined to be interviewed. The police, as well as church body guards in white pickup trucks, followed a visiting reporter and a photographer around town for several days.
Members of the sect say they are the true followers of Joseph Smith, who founded Mormonism 175 years ago. About a third of the residents are on food stamps, and the welfare rate is one of the highest in the West. The followers, who account for most of the twin towns’ 8,000 people, justify taking public money with a term used by Smith’s own followers: “bleeding the beast” – that is, taking from a government under which the early Mormons were often persecuted.
Until a few months ago, the church leaders also controlled this community’s biggest asset: a trust owning all the land in the two towns and the surrounding area, worth upward of $150 million. But in response to a state lawsuit, a court froze the trust in June, and all trustees linked to Mr. Jeffs were removed. The court has yet to decide who will control the trust.
Mr. Jeffs, whose whereabouts is unknown, no longer defends himself in any legal proceeding and has ordered his followers to do the same, state officials say. The sexual abuse charges on which he was indicted in June maintain that he forced a 16-year-old girl to marry a 28-year-old married man.
Mr. Jeffs, age 45, has as many as 70 wives, people who have left the church say. He teaches that a man cannot get to heaven unless he has at least three wives. And because there are not enough women to meet the demands of men who want eternal life, brides are constantly being reassigned.
“Just yesterday I got word of one of my students who had stopped attending classes: she has been pulled away from her husband and assigned to another man,” said Carolyn Hamblin, a counselor and assistant dean at the Colorado City branch of Mohave Community College.
“It just breaks my heart,” said Ms. Hamblin, a follower of the mainstream Mormon faith, which renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah’s statehood.
The community that Mr. Jeffs continues to rule though absent lies in one of the country’s most remote areas, about 100 miles north of the Grand Canyon. The settlement has become more desolate-looking in recent years. Most of the handful of church-run businesses have closed, the residents seeking work elsewhere. Some houses are boarded up. The streets are deep in red mud. As many as 500 people have left the community, townspeople say, to live at a new church compound in the town of Eldorado in West Texas. Like so many other decisions, the selection of those who can join that compound is up to Mr. Jeffs.
“He has a cellphone, he has a couple of key cronies, and he uses all the government positions in town to enforce his will,” said Ross Chatwin, who sued the church after it tried to reassign his wife and children and ordered him to leave town.
Although the church still owns all the towns’ property, Mr. Chatwin won the right to stay in the house where he and his family lived. He and his wife, Lori, are among a small group of active dissidents who remain here, and want to see the community stay together in some form.
The Arizona attorney general, Terry Goddard, whose own office is already active here, has asked the Justice Department to investigate the local police, saying they “seem to be aiding and abetting” criminal behavior by discouraging witnesses in sexual abuse cases from testifying; a third of the force has been decertified by Utah and Arizona for criminal conduct.
In a recent letter to the United States attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, Mr. Goddard wrote, “I believe that the officers of the Colorado City Police Department have engaged in a pattern of conduct that deprives individuals of their constitutional and civil rights.”
The Justice Department has not decided whether to intervene.
Mr. Goddard has also moved to put the school district in receivership. Five years ago, church leaders ordered all families to withdraw their children from the one big public school here, kindergarten through high school, in favor of home schooling or church schools. The public school instantly lost about 1,000 students, more than two-thirds of enrollment. Yet the church, whose followers account for a majority of the voters, continues to control the school board and – until recent legal action by Mr. Goddard – the school purse strings, which are now frozen.
Mr. Goddard said that while teachers had gone weeks without pay, church officials in control of the district had used public education money to buy a $200,000 airplane and had funneled school funds and property to the church. They also have an administrative staff of 23 people, compared with 6 at other school districts of the same size, he wrote in a report to the Arizona Education Department.
Mr. Jeffs continues to raise money for his church by ordering his leading followers to donate $1,000 a month and everyone else to give 10 percent of income, Mr. Chatwin said. Some of the sect’s top leaders have gone to the Texas compound, where a huge stone temple is under construction and new homes are being built, even as this community appears to be withering away.
“If you can visualize a 90-year-old frail woman who has given everything she owns to the cause and has been left penniless – that is the condition of the town right now,” said Jim Hill, an investigator with the office of the Utah attorney general. “It’s been sucked dry by these people.”