With polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs now in custody, Utah and Arizona officials say they won’t let up on fighting crime within polygamous communities.
Other states, though, are just getting going.
Last week, Nevada Attorney General George Chanos appointed an investigator to look into his state’s growing polygamous population – in Las Vegas, Henderson and Mesquite, primarily, where Jeffs’ followers in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have set up homes and businesses.
The unidentified investigator will follow the example set in Utah and Arizona by focusing on such crimes as underage marriages and child labor violations, said Nicole Moon, Chanos’ spokeswoman.
The attorney general himself seemed to go beyond that in a statement to KLAS-TV on Wednesday, telling the Las Vegas station that “we need to be proactive and send a very clear signal that Nevada is not a hospitable environment to polygamy and/or to child labor. . . . And I am sending that signal right now.”
Chanos did not return a telephone call from The Salt Lake Tribune. His comments came two days after the arrest of Jeffs, wanted on sex-crime charges in Utah and Arizona over arranged underage marriages.
In Utah and Arizona, authorities seemed to send two messages Friday: Investigations into criminal activity will continue, but they have no plans to target consenting adults engaged in the religious practice of polygamy or dictate the shape of religious belief.
“I have always been afraid that there would be a tendency for people to think that once Warren Jeffs was caught and brought to trial it was the end of the story,” said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. “It was really just one part of making sure Hildale and Colorado City are law-abiding communities.”
And from Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff: “At no time have I ever suggested that I am trying to dictate what people’s religious beliefs are. This is about criminal enterprises that are wrapped up in a religious ribbon.”
In the three years since Jeffs, 50, has been in hiding, his followers have fanned out across the United States, setting up notable FLDS presences in Nevada; South Dakota; Idaho; Colorado; Texas; and Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico.
Jeffs is believed to have had safe houses in many more locales as well, some documented on a list found in the Cadillac Escalade he was in when captured Monday just outside of Las Vegas. That list has not been made public.
The sect historically has been based in Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and British Columbia.
Shurtleff and Goddard said they have shared information about their approach with counterparts in all those other places, as well as North Dakota and Montana, where a community affiliated with the Salt Lake Valley-based Apostolic United Brethren is located.
Sarah Elliot, a spokeswoman for Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, pointed out polygamy is illegal in Montana and said, “We think it’s wrong.”
Goddard said the discussions between the attorneys general is informal.
“There isn’t a polygamy caucus among the attorneys general where we talk about this,” he said. “Nobody has a population center like Utah and Arizona do, so I think our job primarily is to make sure people who have any connection at all have an awareness of what we’ve found.”
Arizona authorities have concentrated on underage marriages, mismanagement of a public school district once overseen by FLDS members and dereliction of duty by deputies with the Colorado City Town Marshal’s force.
Utah also has taken on errant police officers, underage marriages and malfeasance by former trustees who oversaw a communal property trust set up in the adjoining towns of Hildale and Colorado City.
Items found with Jeffs may lead to new investigations, Shurtleff said, such as tax fraud by FLDS-affiliated businesses.
“We’ve been told there were two sets of books kept for every corporation. There may be things on his computers that might lead us to see where that information is,” he said.
Meanwhile, current actions aimed at breaking Jeffs’ hold over his people continue – most notably, the reformation of the United Effort Plan Trust, a communal property trust set up by sect members more than four decades ago.
The final version of a document reforming the trust, which holds virtually all land and buildings in the twin towns, was forwarded to 3rd District Judge Denise Lindberg last week for her approval.
The reformed trust provides a mechanism for residents to seek deeds to their properties or life estates for themselves and descendants through “spendthrift trusts” that allow oversight on use of the property, ending forever the FLDS church’s ability to control who occupies homes.
Jeffs, who has led the FLDS church since 2002, has continually shuffled followers from home to home and expelled hundreds of men from the faith, requiring them to leave homes, wives and children behind.
Goddard described efforts by special fiduciary Bruce Wisan, who has managed the trust since May 2005, as “revolutionary steps toward making this a community where everything isn’t subservient to whomever runs the FLDS.”
And it is exactly the end sought by plaintiffs who brought the civil action that led to the court takeover of the trust.”This is not about polygamy, this is not about sincerely held religious beliefs,” said Roger Hoole, a Salt Lake City attorney who is handling three lawsuits filed by teens who allege Jeffs abused them or drove them out of the community.
“Our clients hope after this is over they will have a better opportunity and a better life than they have had in the past and that is all our clients want – to be able to make choices if they desire.”