COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — For half a century, while members of this remote, polygamous enclave engaged in widespread sexual abuse and child exploitation, government authorities on all levels did little to intervene or protect generations of victims.
Here in the sparsely populated canyon lands straddling Arizona and Utah, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) — an offshoot of Mormonism — live by their own rules.
The religious sect of about 10,000 portrays itself as an industrious commune of the faithful, choosing to live apart from a hostile world. But their quaint lifestyle and self-imposed isolation have concealed troubling secrets that are only beginning to emerge.
Court records, undisclosed investigative reports and interviews by the Los Angeles Times over the last year show that church authorities flout state and federal laws and systematically deny rights and freedoms, especially to women and children.
“The fact that this has been going on all these years, and the fact that justice has not been there to protect women and children from amazing civil rights violations — it is an embarrassment,” said Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
“I don’t want to indict the states of Utah and Arizona, but mea culpa — we are responsible.”
Among sect members, girls as young as 13 are forced into marriage, sexual abuse is rampant, rape is covered up, and child molesters are shielded by religious authorities and law enforcement. Boys are thrown out of town, abandoned like unwanted pets by the side of the road and forcibly ostracized from their families to reduce competition among the men for multiple wives.
Children routinely leave school at age 11 or 12 to work hazardous construction jobs. Boys can be seen piloting dump trucks, backhoes, forklifts and other heavy equipment.
Girls work at home, trying to keep order in enormous families with multiple mothers and dozens of children who often eat in shifts around picnic tables.
Wives are threatened with mental institutions if they fail to “keep sweet” for their husbands.
Warren Jeffs, a wiry third-generation church member, is the sect leader — a post that carries the title “prophet” and gives him virtually absolute control over the most intimate conduct in the community.
As the prophet, Jeffs orders marriages, splits up families, evicts residents and exiles whomever he wants with no regard for legal processes of any kind. He even tells couples when they can and can’t have sex.
But Jeffs is now a fugitive, listed on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list and accused by state and federal authorities of rape, sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. Former members say he continues to exert influence nonetheless.
Some who fled the community in recent years are coming forward to tell investigators harrowing tales of repression and abuse inflicted behind a facade of devotion to faith and family:
Brent Jeffs reported being sodomized repeatedly at age 5 and 6 by the principal of his school — an uncle who would later become religious leader of the community — current fugitive Warren Jeffs.
Sara Hammon said her father, a prominent religious leader with 19 wives, routinely molested her, even sliding his hand up her dress while on his deathbed.
More than 400 boys, some as young as 13, have been thrown out of town for church infractions such as wearing short-sleeved shirts or talking to girls. Some, referred to locally as “Lost Boys,” were dumped along the road with only the clothes they were wearing, and banned from contact with their families.
Despite years of such stories and allegations, public agencies on both sides of the state line have failed to act or been slow to intervene.
The sect’s questionable ways were no secret. Law enforcement, social agencies and politicians long knew that polygamy was practiced and underage girls were married off to middle-aged and older men.
According to employees and eyewitnesses, many underage marriages were done in Room 15 of the Caliente Hot Springs Motel in Caliente, Nev., a few miles from the Utah border. The motel was once owned by FLDS leader Merril Jessop.
“We’ve heard about it, and were never able to substantiate it,” said Lincoln County, Nev., Sheriff Dahl Bradfield. “But we didn’t look very hard.”
Officials also knew local laws in Colorado City and adjacent Hildale, Utah, were enforced by polygamous police officers and administered by a polygamous judge — and that police routinely referred alleged sex crimes to church leaders.
In 1953, acting on similar reports, Arizona Gov. J. Howard Pyle launched a massive raid, with more than 100 police officers, on the FLDS. It backfired badly, however, and was regarded as a political disaster for Pyle, who lost his bid for re-election.
The political debacle coupled with a fear of violating the sect’s religious freedom ushered in 50 years of official passivity and government inaction, even in the face of continuing reports of illegal conduct in the FLDS enclave.
The abusive conduct went on for so long, said Buster Johnson, a Mohave County, Ariz., supervisor, “because those with the power to do something about it turned a blind eye. I don’t know how they sleep at night.”
Recent disclosures have prompted a belated round of state and federal action, including stepped up efforts by the FBI to arrest Jeffs.
Also, the attorneys general in Arizona and Utah have launched separate legal actions, and a Mohave County criminal investigator operating out of a trailer in Colorado City has provided evidence resulting in a series of grand jury indictments against eight FLDS members.
FLDS leaders, who seldom speak to the media, did not respond to requests for interviews.
However, Rodney Parker, an attorney who has represented the church and some of its leaders since 1990, said he had seen little evidence of questionable conduct. “They are idealistic, very religious, community-oriented people,” he said. “I never saw any evidence of what is being claimed. I’m not saying there are not underage marriages. I have found no evidence that people are forced into these relationships.”
Charged with protecting and serving their community, Colorado City police have long had a reputation for protecting and serving church interests instead. The force is reportedly handpicked by FLDS leaders. Call 911 here, say state investigators, and it is the same as calling the FLDS.
Although many police officers on the local force have multiple wives, state authorities rarely took action to remove practicing polygamists — a felony in Utah and a violation of the Arizona Constitution.
Former police employees and state investigators say officers either ignore or send molestation cases to the church rather than to outside prosecutors. As a result, state child welfare agencies were often unaware of molestation incidents and unable to help or intervene on behalf of victims.
“I never once considered going to the police,” said Sara Hammon, who endured years of sexual abuse at the hands of her father and brothers.
“Going to the police would have been going against the whole town. Everyone was (molesting). The church never said it was all right, but it was treated nonchalantly.”
The few cases that actually made it to county courtrooms received remarkable leniency.
In 2001, Dan Barlow Jr., son of the Colorado City mayor, was charged with 14 counts of sexual abuse for repeatedly molesting his five daughters, ages 12 to 19, over several years. According to the police report, Barlow confessed to the crimes.
Letters begging for mercy poured into Ekstrom’s office in Kingman, Ariz. The daughters expressed love for their father and asked that he not receive any prison time.
FLDS member LeRoy Fischer said Barlow shouldn’t be jailed because he was the only locksmith in town and “a prison sentence would only add an additional burden to society.”
Floyd Barlow, the defendant’s son, said his abused sisters “look happy” and could receive emotional help from their mother if necessary.
Barlow was allowed to plead guilty to a single, lesser charge of sexual abuse, and was sentenced to 120 days in jail — and most of that was suspended. He served 13 days.
Prosecutors said they had few options, and blamed shoddy police work — a one-page report — reluctant witnesses, and numerous pleas for leniency.
“You have to play the hand you are dealt. I could have put him on trial anyway and then lost everything,” said Matt Smith, the current Mohave County attorney who prosecuted the case. “I got at least probation, and he is a sex offender.”
Jim McGhee, attorney for Dan Barlow Jr., was stunned by his client’s 13-day sentence.
“I saw it as a victory, but the fact that he spent 13 days in jail for molesting five daughters is pretty amazing,” he said. “The fact that the judge went along with it is one of the most surprising things.”
Mohave County Superior Court Judge Richard Weiss, who presided over the case, said it was really just “a little bit of breast touching.”
In another case, Weiss sentenced Joshua Johnson of Colorado City to 120 days in jail for forcing oral sex on a 4-year-old girl. He did 30 days behind bars and the rest on electronic monitoring.
The case came to light only after the girl’s father beat Johnson with a club at a restaurant. He did it, he told Weiss, to keep the matter from “being swept under the rug.” Earlier, an FLDS-run clinic had claimed his daughter’s injuries came from a playground accident.
Weiss sentenced the vengeful father to 120 days as well.
During the father’s sentencing proceedings, Judge Weiss was told that Johnson may have molested the man’s daughter more times than he admitted in court.
“Ultimately the blame lies on the prosecution side,” Weiss said. “If the local prosecutor or local police don’t give you the whole story, you can only do what you can do.”
State oversight of schools and enforcement of child labor laws also failed to protect the young and vulnerable. The public school system in Colorado City is in receivership today, the victim of alleged mismanagement by the FLDS-dominated school board. The Arizona attorney general’s office is investigating.
Financial collapse came after FLDS leaders in 2001 ordered all of their children to abandon public education and attend private church schools. The curriculum teaches, among other things, that man never walked on the moon and that blacks are cursed by God.
Brent Jeffs, 23, attended a private FLDS school as a child, and said most of his education consisted of religious lectures by his uncle, then-Principal Warren Jeffs. Yet that was the least of Brent Jeffs’ problems. At age 5, he said, Jeffs routinely led him into a downstairs bathroom and raped him. He recently filed a lawsuit against his uncle and the FLDS church claiming they knew Jeffs was a pedophile but put him in charge of children anyway.
FLDS children routinely leave school at an early age — as young as 11 or 12. The boys are commonly employed in FLDS work gangs.
Throughout Utah and Arizona, FLDS boys illegally work heavy construction. Polygamist crews are notorious for undercutting rivals, working cheaper than even illegal immigrants. Injuries are common.
In one case, four underage boys employed by a Colorado City company suffered broken hips, knees and head injuries after falling off a church roof while working in Utah. However, the Occupational Safety and Health Division of the Utah Labor Commission has fined few companies for employing children.
Some view the FLDS, with its penchant for old-fashioned dress, hats, bonnets and braided hair, as merely a collection of eccentrics living a simple alternative lifestyle.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, once visited the FLDS church in Hildale and played the church organ. He later defended the group when asked about its alleged abuses.
“All I can say is I know people in Hildale who are polygamists who are very fine people. You come and show me the evidence of children being abused there, and I’ll get involved,” he told local reporters. “Bring the evidence to me.”
Through a spokesman, Hatch declined to be interviewed for this story. Staff aide Peter Carr said allegations of FLDS abuse were “a matter for local and federal prosecutors.”
In his successful 1991 bid for Arizona governor, Fife Symington wrote an open letter to the residents of Colorado City concerning their “family-oriented lifestyles,” vowing never to do anything to “upset or question” their religion.
“Our policy was one of noninterference,” he said recently. “The advice I got when running was this was an issue I wanted to stay away from.”
The mainstream Mormon Church — the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — banned polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates those who practice it, and has weighed in on gay marriage, the Equal Rights Amendment and the flat tax. But it has remained mostly silent on issues relating to the FLDS and real polygamy, except to say it is forbidden.
“This is a problem the Mormon Church created and should stop,” said Ron Barton, an investigator with the Utah attorney general’s office and an expert on abuse within polygamous communities.
Mainstream Mormon leaders do not see FLDS excesses as their responsibility to correct.
“The church cannot assume the role of government or law enforcement. It is not charged with doing the job of elected officials,” said Michael Otterson, spokesman for the Mormon Church. “We would not expect such an action from any other church in American society. The church can only raise its voice and explain its concerns, which it has done.”
On the dusty edge of Colorado City sits a triple-wide trailer grandly named the Arizona-Mohave County Justice Center. The metal building is Arizona’s first official presence in this town.
Inside, the handful of state employees includes social workers, a victim’s advocate and a gap-toothed ex-cop named Gary Engels.
Through quiet detective work, Engels has pieced together enough information for eight indictments of FLDS men who allegedly married underage women.
“He’s produced impressive results even given the fact that he has an almost impossible assignment,” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.
Nonetheless, the investigator said he sees only slow progress. Child abuse continues, he said, as do underage marriages and exiles of boys — though not so openly since Engels and the triple-wide came to town.
“I’m just getting started,” Engels said.
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