It’s not surprising that Mohave County prosecutors are having trouble rounding up witnesses to testify against men accused of sex crimes against underage girls.
The decades-old polygamous cult clinging to Arizona’s northern border has made secrecy a tenet of faith.
Getting cult members to testify against one another amounts to getting true believers to rat on the prophet, Warren Jeffs. This fugitive cult leader is on the FBI’s most-wanted list for coercing young girls to become the plural trophy wives of his chosen followers, but his followers remain faithful.
To accommodate polygamous relationships, young boys are driven out of the community. Like the child brides who have escaped, these “lost boys” tell of an abusive society built on fear of the outside world.
Those who attempt to rock that perverse society – Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith, for one, and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, for another – deserve thanks from a state that, regrettably, has been a longtime haven for the largest polygamous community in the country.
Actually, Arizona shares that dishonor with Utah. Arizona’s polygamous community of Colorado City is contiguous with the Utah polygamous town of Hildale. Together, the towns host the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, one of many sects that broke with the mainstream Mormon Church when it outlawed polygamy.
For decades, law enforcement ignored what was going on in Colorado City and Hildale.
That has changed in the past few years. But witnesses to wrongdoing are making themselves scarce.
“They are running, they are hiding, they are changing houses, they are not answering the door,” Smith told the Associated Press.
Smith has asked the court to accept the use of birth certificates and marriage records to establish that unlawful sexual relations occurred between the accused and underage girls. That would allow cases to go ahead without testimony from victims who may be impossible to find or too brainwashed to talk. It would serve justice.
In recent years, Mohave County has devoted considerable resources to undermining the power of the cult. The county’s Colorado City investigator, Gary Engels, has uncovered valuable evidence.
In addition, Goddard used legislation written expressly for the purpose to move against a school district that was being used as the cult’s piggy bank. Goddard has also worked closely with Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff on efforts that resulted in placing the cult’s assets in the hands of an outside administrator.
Efforts are under way to clean up the towns’ police departments, where polygamous cops enforced only the prophet’s rules. Goddard has asked the Justice Department to investigate possible civil rights violations.
The presence of county and state law enforcement and human service providers in the community is helping to break down some of the suspicion of outsiders and increase the chances that witnesses will be willing to step forward.
That doesn’t grab headlines like criminal convictions, though.
The prosecution of the men who use their power to sexually abuse children has visceral appeal. People are disgusted by what’s going on. They want these guys nailed.
They want to see justice on behalf of those child brides and lost boys.
So we have a message for Smith, Goddard, Shurtleff, Engels and others who are in this fight: Don’t be discouraged. It takes courage to bring criminal charges in these circumstances.
Arizona appreciates what you are doing.