More than three years ago, Arizona authorities had a pile of birth certificates that showed underage girls from a polygamous sect were giving birth to children fathered by older men – but nothing else that might help them prosecute the cases.
And then, Warren S. Jeffs inadvertently helped them out.
Jeffs, leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, began a massive purging of men he considered unworthy of belonging to the polygamous sect that straddles the Utah/Arizona state line.
Some say more than 200 men have been exiled. Of those, only a handful have spoken out about the restrictive authority Jeffs wields over his followers.
Among them: Richard Holm and Isaac Wyler, whose testimony proved key last week in winning a conviction against Kelly Fischer on two sex-crimes charges related to his “spiritual” polygamous marriage to a 16-year-old girl.
“I certainly feel like the underage marriages have got to be stopped, and Warren has to be stopped with the nonsense he is up to, and I’m sure glad law enforcement is taking a look,” Holm said a day after a Mohave County jury found Fischer guilty.
Fischer was the first of eight men to stand trial over allegations of having sex with a minor, the largest group to be prosecuted for crimes related to their polygamous lifestyle since the 1950s. Arizona has taken the lead in pursuing criminal charges against members of the sect, while Utah has pursued civil action that might end up dismantling the faith’s communal property trust.
The successful prosecution might provide a blueprint for pursuing the same charges against the other men – as well as Jeffs, if he is ever apprehended. Jeffs also faces a rape-as-an-accomplice charge in Utah over the arrangement of an underage marriage.
The 50-year-old leader, whom his followers consider a prophet, has not been seen publicly in more than 18 months and is on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” list.
Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith said that, other than the seven additional men currently charged, he does not have any cases pending. But, “We have some other records we’re going to review,” he said.
And Smith suggested Utah authorities could do likewise.
“They have the same thing,” Smith said. “It is all one town. It just depends on which side of the street you are on.”
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office had made an initial run at attempting to charge Fischer and several other men but got nowhere. Back then, Holm and Wyler were faithful, practicing members of the FLDS church.
Their church status and faith had changed by the time Mohave County picked up the cases and investigator Gary Engels drew on both men to develop them.
Fischer’s trial served as a test of how a jury might view a case that lacks a victim or any firsthand knowledge of events.
For Smith, the outcome bolsters confidence in proceeding with the other cases, particularly the two in which he has people who are “somewhat willing” to testify.
For defense attorney Bruce Griffen and his seven remaining clients, it may be time to reassess – particularly once they see what kind of sentence Fischer receives from Mohave County Superior Court Judge Steven F. Conn. Options are up to two years in prison or probation.
That hearing is scheduled for Aug. 4. An appeal is possible, too, which would allow Griffen to focus on the technical jurisdiction question raised in the Fischer case.
Griffen had referred to the case as an “AG reject” – dropped, he said, because there was no victim, no eyewitnesses, no DNA, no meaningful investigation.
“We just don’t have the standard stuff,” Griffen told the jury, as he argued the state had not proved where the sex occurred or who conspired to authorize the relationship between Fischer and the girl.
But Holm and Wyler connected the dots, explaining FLDS courtship and marriage practices and why so few members protest. “They are taught obedience is the No. 1 law of heaven,” Holm testified.
Only time will tell, though, whether the prosecution will accomplish what Smith said is the ultimate objective: Send a message to the FLDS that it is unacceptable for older men to have sex with girls who are younger than 18 and that religious belief is no shield for that behavior.
The sect has steadfastly refused to yield to what it sees as government meddling in marriage practices they view as arranged and authorized by God, working through its prophet. Fischer, and any other men who may be convicted, are viewed as martyrs for the faith.
During his testimony, Engels said that in trying to round up witnesses in Fischer’s case, he had gone many times to Fischer’s home on Oak Street in Colorado City. Only once, in April 2005, did anyone answer the door.
It was a girl who looked to be 15 or 16. She was, Engels said, about six months pregnant.