‘If I don’t do it, who will?’
COLORADO CITY, Ariz. – Gary Engels is trolling in his white Jeep Cherokee when the blue pickup with tinted windows slips in behind him.
By now, Engels is used to this game. This is the third vehicle that has tracked him today – one of dozens that have tailed him since he began investigating crimes in the polygamous sect in the Arizona Strip known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
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Engels makes a sudden U-turn and pulls up behind the truck, reversing the chase. It pulls into the parking lot of an old potato warehouse and Engels drives on.
“Usually, it’s the younger men,” he said later. “They’ll follow me, pass, cut in front of me, box me in, force me off the road, throw rocks. It’s intimidation, games they try to play.”
It doesn’t work with this guy.
During a 20-year career as a police officer, Engels honed a reputation for being tenacious – whether facing bad guys or police bureaucrats.
“He is relentless,” said Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith, who made him the first outside law enforcement officer to work in the polygamous community in October 2004. “It was a perfect match.”
He developed cases against eight other men who authorities say took minors as wives. His work in those cases paid off last week when Smith successfully prosecuted Kelly Fischer, the first to go to trial, on charges of sexual conduct with a minor.
The investigator was too nervous to be in the courtroom when the Mohave County jury delivered its verdict. When he heard, Engels smiled – about as much a celebration as he ever allows himself.
“I’m glad I won it because I worked so hard at everything I had in my cases,” he said Thursday.
Tackling the law
Engels, born and raised in Denver, got into law enforcement as a teen.
At 17, he was an expert in judo, a sport that requires precise moves, quick thinking and a willingness to go it alone. His skill caught the attention of a Colorado police department, which asked him to teach officers self-defense. Imagine the thrill: A kid being asked to humiliate grown men by taking them down.
“I was pretty good,” he said.
So began his interest in police work as a career.
He started as a sheriff’s deputy in Adams County, Colo., where he met his wife, Sheila. They married after dating eight months, a bond that has held for almost 30 years now.
They don’t have children – “I didn’t marry Gary solely to do that,” Sheila said – and neither has much of an extended family.
The couple moved to sunbaked Bullhead City, Ariz., in 1987, where Engels took a patrol beat. In November 1988, he answered a call to a family fight that proved life-altering.
A gunbattle ensued. Engels shot and killed a man; in the exchange, Engels took a bullet to the hip, which ended his work as a patrol officer and left him with an occasional limp.
Engels switched to a detective’s desk and began pairing up with Smith, then the deputy county attorney, on cases that included sexual assaults, bank robberies and murders.
“I was good at it because of my stubborn streak,” said Engels, who has a bulldog’s build and sandy blond hair that is fading to grey.
If there is one thing Engels can’t stand, according to his wife, it’s people being treated unfairly – a trait that has propelled him into treacherous situations.
Around 1991, Engels tired of favoritism within the police administration and set up a police officers association, which was instrumental in the police chief’s resignation.
“He stuck up for a lot of people that wouldn’t stick up for themselves or who would have gotten in trouble if they had stuck up for themselves,” said Sheila Engels, 55.
But he paid for it. During the year he led the association, Engels said he always had people following him, trying to catch him in a misstep. Between his injury and his activism, promotions stopped coming. In 1993, Engels, who was just shy of 41, retired from law enforcement.
‘What they’re doing . . . is wrong’
Engels took it easy for a few years and then, with a friend, started a welding business – which turns out to be a bit of a passion.
Muscle cars have been a passion, too. After retiring, he began restoring a ’68 California Special, a decade-long affair that turned it into a pearly white beauty with a black vinyl top.
“I got it done, but not without a lot of aggravation,” said Engels, 54.
There aren’t enough days in Arizona when it is a joy to drive a Mustang that lacks air conditioning. The car got sold.
Meanwhile, Engels had taken on a new job to fill the hours, this time as a security guard for a power company. It paid great, even if it was “extremely boring.”
Still, he kept the job five years. Then Smith called.
“We needed to have somebody up there [in Colorado City]. I knew Gary was an excellent investigator, knew it was an issue he had followed and had an interest in,” Smith said.
Engels was intrigued by the challenge posed by the closed, fundamentalist community.
“What they’re doing to these young women is wrong,” he said. “The law thinks it is wrong. The majority of America thinks it’s wrong.”
So he accepted the offer, though it requires him to live away from Sheila, an office supervisor in the Bullhead Justice Court, for weeks at a time.
“I wish he was here,” said Sheila, “but this is something important to him and I don’t have any problem with that. Gary is good at what he does.
“He will go out of his way to help, which probably makes him good for that job he’s doing. He’s not there to hurt anybody; he’s just there to help.”
Engels works out of a small office in the Mohave County Multi-use Center, a gunmetal gray, triple-wide trailer parked on the edge of Colorado City. In the beginning, he was the only one there most days.
“At first I didn’t know anybody,” he said. “I had to try to find these people, get introduced to people, let them get to know me. I had to get them to trust me.”
That is a telling comment because Engels is not talking about faithful FLDS; he is talking about apostates who, despite their estrangement from family and the faith, were initially wary about working with the law.
Now, Engels meets a group of one-time insiders most days for breakfast at Ted & Allen’s in Hurricane, where information and banter are passed back and forth.
“He’s a man who has shown he can be trusted, and he’s not out with any personal vendetta,” said Richard Holm, an ex-FLDS member who has become a close friend. “He’s just trying to get to the bottom of what he perceives as criminal activity. He’s pretty good at making quick assessments and sorting out evil intent or intent to hurt someone else.”
These days, a lot more information pours in, but “proving it is true is another story,” Engels said. People will come forward and then disappear; most times, no one answers when he knocks at the door. People run from him – or chase after him, equal signals that Engels is an unwelcome presence in Arizona City or its Utah twin, Hildale.
“The games we have to play with these people,” he said. “I have never had to deal with this in my life. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It is hard to help people who don’t know they need help, who don’t know they’re victims.”
Observes Smith: “He personally cares about the people up there despite the fact most of them won’t give him the time of day. He is truly somebody I consider to be pure of heart. He really cares about what’s going on and wants to do something about it.”
But at least one person has said Engels sometimes goes too far. Flagstaff defense attorney Bruce Griffen, who represents the eight men facing sex-crime charges, asked in May to have the case against Randolph Barlow dismissed because of prosecutorial misconduct.
In the request, Griffen said he’d been contacted by Candi Shapley, whose grand jury testimony last summer was crucial in bringing indictments against Jeffs and Barlow. According to the court document, Shapley said Engels made “repeated direct and indirect threats” of jail and loss of her children if she refused to cooperate with the state.
“I don’t know where that is coming from,” said Smith, who described the motion as a defense move not backed up by an affidavit. “We don’t know for sure what she said.”
As for the alleged threats: “That stuff didn’t happen,” he said. “There would be no reason to make a threat like that. We don’t have anything to do with her kids.”
‘If I don’t do it, who will?’
Mohave County Superior Court Judge Steven Conn recently denied Griffen’s motion. The trial for Barlow, who had sex with Shapley when she was 16, is set to begin Aug. 8.
The frustration comes through in Engels’ voice as he declines to talk about the case. He burns out at times – though Sheila says he keeps his frustrations to himself – and retreats for four or five days.
“Then I think, ‘If I don’t do it, who will?’ ” he said. “I think we’re doing the right thing here. I’m not trying to change their belief system.”
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is among those crediting Engels with being able to accomplish something that had stumped authorities for years.
“All I have is praise, congratulations and thanks for Gary Engels,” Shurtleff said. “He has lived there in the community, gotten to know people, worked those associations and relationships, and the proof is in the indictments and successful prosecution the other day.”
More than anything else, Engels’ work has drawn the media to the FLDS story. Hardly a day passes without a call or visit from one media outlet or another – be it CNN, the London Times or the “Catherine Crier Live” cable TV show.
“The only reason I do it is to get the information out there and get other agencies involved in doing what needs to be done,” he said.
Several photos pinned to a corkboard above his desk keeps Engels focused on that task.
They hang nearly at eye level, which means most days Engels is locked in a staredown with Warren S. Jeffs.