HILDALE, Utah — Its prophet is on the run, accused of uniting teenage girls with older, already-married men.
Its members are being evicted for tax evasion here and in adjoining Colorado City, Ariz., and police officers in both towns are being forced to choose between their jobs and plural marriage.
The real-life drama playing out in this isolated community mirrors the darker themes of the new HBO series Big Love. That show features a polygamous family living in suburban Salt Lake City, surrounded by mainstream Mormons.
Here, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is resisting what its members see as the secular world’s anti-polygamy stance.
As the law closes in — the group’s fugitive prophet, Warren Steed Jeffs, was charged last week with rape for allegedly forcing a teenage girl to marry an older man — members are leaving these twin towns and building compounds in West Texas, southwestern Colorado and South Dakota’s Black Hills.
‘Can’t get anyone to testify’
The child-rape charge against Jeffs is among only a handful of such cases prosecuted against a sect member.
Despite the small number of complaints, the practice of marrying off teenage girls is widespread, Washington County, Utah, Sheriff Kirk Smith said.
“The bottom line is, we’re not arresting them because we can’t get anyone to testify in court,” Smith said.
Even though polygamy is illegal in Utah and banned by Arizona’s Constitution, authorities haven’t prosecuted people simply on those grounds.
Instead, they are pursuing allegations of financial irregularities and using child-abuse charges to crack down on the young girls’ marriages.
Authorities are mindful of talk that sect members here, who number about 6,000, have vowed not to submit.
“They ought to be concerned, really,” said Ross Chatwin, a former member who disobeyed orders to give up his wife and six children. “I think there’s a good chance there would be a standoff. Warren has predicted he would be a martyr,” he said.
Jeffs has headed the sect since 2002. His pronouncements have been so outlandish that some in the famously closed sect, last year classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, began to speak publicly against him.
Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County, Ariz., Attorney’s Office, has a tape of one sermon in which Jeffs’ muted, singsong voice can be heard denouncing black people as “uncouth, or rude and filthy … low in their habits, wild.”
Wives, children reassigned
Chatwin, who refused to relinquish his wife, said he knows of men whose wives and children were reassigned to more-favored members. Women have said in court documents that when still teenagers, they were given as brides to much older men who were already married, and young men — the so-called Lost Boys — have stated in court documents that they were forced out of the community so as not to provide romantic distractions for girls their own age.
Engels said several people have told him Jeffs, 50, whose visage now graces FBI posters as well as outsize portraits in the sect’s private schools, marries one young woman a month and that he has as many as 50 wives. “Most people don’t realize things like this go on in this country,” he said.
It took Jeffs’ excesses as the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to get authorities’ attention.
Now they’re moving on many fronts:
The FBI and state officials are offering a $60,000 bounty on Jeffs.
In addition to the charge last week, Jeffs was charged in 2005 in Arizona with child sex abuse for arranging another teenager’s marriage to an older, already-married man. A federal arrest warrant was subsequently filed.
Peace Officer Standards and Training groups in Utah and Arizona are warning police in Hildale and Colorado City they could be decertified if they practice polygamy or refuse to enforce legal action against the group.
A Utah court last year appointed Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan to oversee the assets of the fundamentalist church’s trust, estimated at $110 million, to keep the money from being drained away by Jeffs and his inner circle.
Jeffs hasn’t been seen in public for more than a year. He is believed by law enforcement to be moving among safe houses in several states and Canada, and the new compounds being built by the sect outside Eldorado, Texas; Mancos, Colo., and Pringle, S.D.
Meanwhile, in Colorado City, Engels — a one-man outpost in the community — watches as residents and even whole buildings vanish, presumably carted off to the new compounds.
Jeffs’ followers are a constant presence in his life, Engels said, trailing him in SUVs with tinted windows and swerving toward him. “You’d be dumb not to worry” about safety in that situation, Engels said.
Someday, he said, Warren Jeffs — the man solely responsible for Engel’s lonely presence in Colorado City — will be apprehended.
“No matter where they catch him, I’m going to see him,” Engels said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him.”
Contributing: Florio reports daily for the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune; Passey reports daily for The Spectrum in St. George, Utah.
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