SALT LAKE CITY (CP) – A prosecutor is considering postponing or dropping cases against eight residents of a polygamous community charged with sex offences involving marriage to underage girls because he is having trouble locating witnesses.
The cases involve members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, based in the neighbouring towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, whose followers believe plural marriage is necessary to earn heavenly exaltation.
The first trial – of Kelly Fischer, 39 – is scheduled to begin July 5 in Mohave County Superior Court in Kingman, Ariz., with one for Dale Evans Barlow, 48, to follow on July 11.
However, Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith said he’s not sure whether any witnesses are available.
“So far, we haven’t been able to serve the victims in either case,” Smith said Friday. “We’ve not had any luck serving people. They are running, they are hiding, they are changing houses, they are not answering the door.”
Deputies were able to serve only one of four subpoenas on potential witnesses during a search of homes in Colorado City on May 25, Smith said.
The eight men have pleaded not guilty to charges of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor.
Polygamy is prohibited in the Arizona constitution but is not a crime. It is, however, a felony to engage in sexual activity with anyone under age 18 unless that person is a legal spouse. Those felonies carry a maximum sentence of two years in prison or probation.
Polygamy is a crime in Utah.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon church, renounced polygamy in 1890, and the FDLS split from it. The Mormon church excommunicates members found to be practising polygamy.
Utah earlier launched an organized-crime investigation into the fundamentalist church and its fugitive leader Warren Jeffs, who is on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list.
Jeffs is wanted on Utah and Arizona charges alleging he arranged plural marriages of under-age girls. Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has said his office is also looking at Jeffs and his church for “double books, cooking (the) books, offshore accounts and fraud.”
The United Effort Plan trust, the $110-million US financial arm of the church, owns businesses and property in the Hildale, Utah, area and Colorado City, Ariz., where the church is based. The church also has a sizable branch in Bountiful, B.C., in the southeastern part of the province.