COLORADO CITY, Ariz., Sept. 1 — Last week’s arrest of Warren Jeffs, the fundamentalist Mormon polygamist leader, is welcome news to a former sect member, DeLoy Bateman, who blames Mr. Jeffs for ripping his family apart.
Mr. Bateman, 52, was a faithful member of Mr. Jeffs’s Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and raised his children to obey without question the commands of church leaders. But when the church tried to remove four of his children borne by his second of two wives from his home six years ago, he rebelled.
Mr. Bateman said he had refused to turn over the children to the church for reassignment to another family, a common practice under Mr. Jeffs’s authoritarian leadership that dictates that women and children are the property of the church.
Mr. Bateman’s defiance created a schism in his large family. The three oldest of his 17 children sided with Mr. Jeffs, whom church members consider to be God’s only living prophet, and severed all communication with their father.
“They can never see me again,” Mr. Bateman said Friday outside the sprawling two-story home he built to house his large family. “What’s the difference between that and death?”
Everything worth listening to. All in one place. Pick a plan and start listening for free.
Even though his three estranged children still live nearby in this small, dusty community on the Arizona-Utah border, Mr. Bateman said he “doesn’t even have a clue” how many of his grandchildren might have been born in the last few years.
“I lost a good share of my family to that man,” Mr. Bateman said. “I’d like to see them sometime.”
Mr. Jeffs’s arrest last Monday in a routine traffic stop near Las Vegas provides Mr. Bateman a glimmer of hope that a more moderate leader will emerge to oversee the 10,000-member church and that someday he will see his grandchildren.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bateman says he wants revenge for what Mr. Jeffs has done to his family. Asked if he wanted Mr. Jeffs, 50, to spend the rest of his life in prison, Mr. Bateman said, “I hope he does.”
The church centers on unwavering devotion to Mr. Jeffs because members believe that he determines whether they will reach the highest level of the ‘celestial kingdom’ in the afterlife. Mr. Jeffs is the only person in the church with the authority to conduct polygamous marriages.
While the church practices many of the same tenets of the mainstream Mormon Church, there is no direct affiliation between the two. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, banned polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates anyone who practices it.
Mr. Jeffs is being held in Las Vegas and is expected to be taken to Washington County, Utah, to stand trial on two counts of rape as an accomplice that were filed in April. The charges stem from his conducting a spiritual marriage of an under-age girl to a polygamous man and commanding the couple to produce children. If convicted, Mr. Jeffs could face life in prison.
He also faces eight felony counts filed in June 2005 in Mohave County, Ariz., in connection with his conducting three marriages of under-age girls to polygamous men.
While former church members like Mr. Bateman are willing to talk to reporters about Mr. Jeffs’s arrest, current members are following Mr. Jeffs’s orders to tell the news media nothing. Many members have not seen Mr. Jeffs since August 2003, when he abruptly canceled all church services and disappeared from the community.
Mr. Jeffs left Colorado City shortly after the first church polygamist in more than 50 years was convicted of bigamy and unlawful sex with a minor in a Utah state court in nearby St. George. He was put on the F.B.I.’s most wanted list in August 2005.
In his last sermon, Mr. Jeffs directed the congregation to hold religious services in their homes.
Daily life continued as usual on Friday in Colorado City and in the adjacent town of Hildale, where Mr. Jeffs’s compound houses his wives, whose number is unknown but is believed to be more than 50. Women in frontier-style dresses tended their gardens and went shopping as children played in yards.
“From what I have observed in the city, people are carrying on their lives in a peaceful way,” said Hildale’s mayor, David Zitting.
A lifelong member of the church, Mr. Zitting declined to comment on Mr. Jeffs’s arrest or religious activities. He said he and his fellow townspeople “wish the media would leave them alone and let them live their lives as they wish.”
The church has survived previous attempts by law enforcement to root out polygamy, mainly in the 1930’s and 50’s. Church members remained steadfastly loyal to their leaders and continued to quietly practice plural marriage in the face of arrests and imprisonment.
Former church members say they expect the community to react in much the same way this time.
“They will continue to be loyal to Warren Jeffs,” said Benjamin Bistline, a former resident of Colorado City who has written an exhaustive history of the church. “They will never stop practicing polygamy.”
Ruth Stubbs, a former polygamous wife, fled Hildale six years ago with her two young children when she was pregnant with her third. She was the third wife of Rodney Holm, a former Colorado City police officer, and was 16 when she was married by Mr. Jeffs to Mr. Holm, then 32.
Ms. Stubbs testified against Mr. Holm in the August 2003 trial in St. George. He was convicted and sentenced to one year in the Washington County jail.
Ms. Stubbs said on Friday that Mr. Holm had told her that church members had received instructions on how to conduct their lives if Mr. Jeffs was arrested. “Rodney told me, ‘We all know what to do,'” Ms. Stubbs said.
We appreciate your support
One way in which you can support us — at no additional cost to you — is by shopping at Amazon.com.
Our website includes affiliate links, which means we get a small commission — at no additional cost to you — for each qualifying purpose. For instance, as an Amazon Associate Religion News Blog earns from qualifying purchases. That is one reason why we can provide this service free of charge.