Will throwing the book at polygamist Warren Jeffs bust up his sect or be a boon to it?
Nevada Highway Patrolman Eddie Dutchover wasn’t expecting much when he stopped the maroon 2007 Cadillac Escalade heading north out of Las Vegas. All the officer wanted to know was why the car had paper tags rather than license plates. But there was something strange about the tall, thin man in the back seat. The guy seemed nervous, so jittery you could see the main artery in his neck furiously pumping blood up into his face. Plus, he was obsessively eating a salad, refusing to make eye contact with the patrolman.
It was a hunch, but the cop was on the money. He had just pulled over Warren Jeffs, the spiritual leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted fugitives, and a man with a $100,000 bounty on his head.
If there is a pope of Mormon polygamy, a powerful prophet who controls the lives of thousands of Americans who still believe in the sanctity of plural marriage, that man is Warren Steed Jeffs. His 10,000-member fundamentalist Mormon sect is the largest of several splinter groups that refuse to accept the mainstream Mormon church’s decision more than a century ago to suspend the practice of polygamy.
Today, the vast majority of the world’s 12 million Mormons raise their children in monogamous marriage. But for those who live in a string of polygamist communities along the border of southern Utah and northern Arizona, God never changed his mind about the spiritual power that comes from having more than one wife.
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Those who know Jeffs say he continues to run his sect from a jail cell in Hurricane, Utah. They also warn that his arrest on Aug. 28, and his forthcoming trial for arranging marriages with underage girls, may strengthen his control over a flock that already believes the government is out to get them — and their way of life.
Traveling with the polygamist Mormon leader on the night of his arrest was one of Jeffs’ brothers, one of Jeffs’ wives and a mother lode of suspicious loot. Among items found in the car were clothes, pots and pans, eating utensils, a police radar detector, laptop computers, wigs, walkie-talkies, 15 cell phones and $67,000 cash.
There was also a ledger with a list of families offering money and shelter. Among the papers was a letter from Jeffs to his flock. “So I have to be in hiding in my travels,” he wrote. “And when I come to a land of refuge, you must not reveal where I am in your phone calls and your letters.”
Jeffs was born in San Francisco on Dec. 3, 1955. At the time, his mother was hiding out in the Bay Area following a 1953 government raid and roundup of Mormons living in Short Creek, a polygamous settlement at the foot of the vermilion cliffs on the Utah/Arizona state line. Mormon leaders had scattered all over the West — some took refuge in Canada and Mexico. San Francisco — just a long day’s drive from Salt Lake City — was a great place to get lost in the crowd but still be close to home.
Today, more than 50 years after the Short Creek raid, the state and federal governments have resurrected its campaign against the diehard polygamists living in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah — or at least against those polygamists who have sex with girls under 18.
Jeffs’ arrest came four months after the sect leader was put on the FBI’s “Ten Most Wanted” list — placing him in the select company of an even more notorious polygamist, Osama bin Laden. Jeffs was wanted in Utah and Arizona on charges of sexual conduct with a minor, conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor, rape as an accomplice and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Jeffs is scheduled to appear in court Tuesday for a key pretrial hearing on the Utah charges of arranging marriages with underage girls.
Utah and Arizona have different laws and penalties regarding sexual contact with minors, cohabitation and polygamy. Bigamy (attempting to legally marry more than one person) is against the law in both states, but Utah has stronger laws against polygamy. Today, in the United States at least, polygamy often involves a legal, civil marriage to one spouse, followed by quiet cohabitation with additional women — or girls.
Gary Engels, a special investigator with the Mohave County Attorney’s office, has charged nine men in the sect — including Jeffs — with offenses in Arizona involving sexual contact with girls younger than 18. “We are not going after them for polygamy,” he said. “We are going after them for underage sex.”
Engels works out of the “Mohave County Multi-Use Facility,” a temporary building erected in Colorado City for investigators with the county sheriff, child protective services and the witness protection program. On the Saturday afternoon following the prophet’s arrest, Engels sat behind his desk. Pinned on a bulletin board behind him was the “FBI Ten Most Wanted Fugitive” poster emblazoned with three photos of Jeffs.
“Tremendous pressure is put on these victims by their family members and friends,” Engels said. “These girls are intimidated and indoctrinated. They don’t know better. You’re taught all your life that what you are put on earth for is to raise children. You do what the prophet tells you to do.”
Since his capture, Jeffs has been held under tight security inside the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Washington County, Utah. That’s right, the prophet is in Purgatory, and according to his critics, that’s where he belongs.
“Warren Jeffs is not a normal human being,” said Salt Lake City dentist Dan Fischer, a former polygamist who grew up in the sect and took three wives. “He comes across as sanctimonious, but inside, compassion and feeling are just not in there.”
Jeffs, the former head of the sect’s Alta Academy in Salt Lake City, solidified his control over the Fundamentalist Church — along with Hildale and Colorado City — when his father, the former prophet Rulon Jeffs, died in September 2002.
Hidden away in this spectacular desert landscape between Zion National Park and the northern rim of the Grand Canyon, this community of 6,500 souls doesn’t look like much from Highway 59. There’s the usual gas station, mini-mart and other roadside attractions found in towns across the Southwest.
Closer inspection, however, reveals one of the most unusual communities in the United States. The first clues are all the sprawling single-family homes — once-normal abodes that have morphed into mini-mansions as more wives and children were brought into the fold.
The commercial district of Hildale/Colorado City can’t be seen from the highway, but again, it doesn’t look all that different at first. There’s the Food Town Market, a florist, a Radio Shack, another gas station, a health food store and a couple of restaurants.
What make this place unique are the people — and the clothes they wear. All the women and girls are decked out in pioneer-era dresses that reach down to their ankles and out to their wrists. All the men and boys wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants — even in the stifling summer heat.
Random residents declined interview requests. A man standing guard at Warren Jeffs’ block-long Hildale compound, which is surrounded by an 8-foot-high brick wall, refused to take a reporter’s card or announce his presence to anyone inside. Jeffs has never given media interviews, and he continues that policy in Purgatory.
Defending the Practice
Most of the property in these two towns belongs to the Fundamentalist Church, through its communal United Effort Plan Trust. The trust, set up in 1942 by seven church leaders, including Rulon Jeffs, allows faithful followers to build homes on church property, but the legal arrangement has given sect leaders great power over dissident members.
Dissident Ross Chatwin’s battle with Warren Jeffs began in 2004 when Chatwin announced that he would fight the prophet’s efforts to evict him from his home and force him to leave his family. Chatwin said Jeffs told him his sins were threefold. One, he was full of pride. Two, there was too much junk in his yard. Three, there were complaints about his business dealings with other community members. Chatwin says he cleaned up his yard, tried to be more humble and sought a further explanation of his alleged business transgressions. He was the local car dealer in Colorado City.
Jeffs was not satisfied. He publicly denounced Chatwin as a “master deceiver” and ordered church members to stay away from him.
“Basically, I just fell out of the prophet’s good graces. I posed a threat to him,” Chatwin said. “I had told someone else that I thought we were putting too much faith and power in the prophet, and that got back to him.”
Chatwin, 37, sat in the house of his father, Marvin Wyler, in Colorado City. It’s Sunday evening and friends and family have gathered for dinner. After the meal, they move into the family room of this large, kid-friendly home just yards from the Utah state line. Covering the wall behind them are framed, individual photographs of each of Wyler’s 34 children.
Much of the conversation is a defense of polygamy — and the women in the home are its strongest defenders.
“Everyone thinks plural marriage is a sexual thing. But it’s a harder trial for the man than for the woman,” says Laura Johnson, a friend of the family. “What about a guy who has three or four wives and they all have PMS? I’m serious! Imagine it. If these men were just in it for sex, they’d do what the average American male does. They’d go out and get a barfly.”
Charlotte Chatwin, 55, the biological mother of 16 of the family’s children, and of Ross Chatwin, agrees. She was just a teenager when she married Marvin Wyler in 1966.
Ross Chatwin, the oldest of the 34 children in the Chatwin/Wyler family, only has one wife and six children, but he hopes to find one or two more women to marry.
“Polygamy isn’t the problem here,” Chatwin insists. “Warren uses polygamy, but this is really about power and control.”
In 1994, the same year Jeffs tried to kick Chatwin out of town, the Colorado City prophet excommunicated 21 other men from the church, ordering them to leave the town and their families in order to “repent from afar.” Most of them obeyed.
Chatwin won his legal battle to live in his own home. But then Jeffs’ control over the town’s real estate suffered a more serious blow when a federal court suspended the United Effort Plan trustees and appointed an outside administrator to run the organization.
Today, Jeffs sits in the Purgatory Jail, but those who know the man and his church warn that while the prophet may be down, the last thing anyone should do is count him out.
Warren Jeffs’ battle to practice polygamy and lead his earthly domain as he sees fit is just the latest chapter in the 150-year-old saga of Mormon polygamy in the West.
His sect — which also has members in Canada, Mexico, Texas and elsewhere in the United States — sees itself as the true continuation of a religious tradition dating back to the spiritual revelations and sexual lifestyle of Joseph Smith, the 19th century founder of the Mormon faith. In 1890, the mainline Mormon Church officially suspended the practice of polygamy in a deal that allowed the Utah Territory to join the United States. Today, the 12.3-million strong Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints excommunicates members who openly practice plural marriage.
But that does not stop an estimated 37,000 Latter-day Saints who see the taking of multiple wives as one of the central tenets of the Mormon religion.
One of them is Marvin Wyler, who cites Mormon scripture to back up his belief that Latter-day Saints must practice polygamy to rise into the upper reaches of heaven, where Mormons believe man can “be like God.”
“In order to obtain the highest level in the celestial kingdom you have to live in plural marriage,” Wyler said. “They (the mainline Mormon Church) gave that up. It was too hard for them.”
According to historians, Joseph Smith had taken 33 wives by the time he was murdered by an angry mob in Carthage, Ill., in 1844. Among those women taken as wives by the founding prophet were the already-married wives of his top male lieutenants, a practice anthropologists say can actually breed loyalty among the tribe.
That’s not unlike what’s going down in Colorado City. According to Chatwin and other dissident members, Jeffs reassigns ousted men’s wives and children to his most loyal male followers.
Most of the church’s longstanding male leaders have agreed to be banished, but their numbers pale in comparison to the exodus of teenage boys from Colorado City. Some of these young men are seen as unwanted sexual competition for the hearts of young women betrothed to older men. They’re called the Lost Boys.
“A lot of boys have been kicked out, but more have left on their own,” Chatwin said. “They don’t see a future here. They know something is wrong here. They see a dictatorship. Warren demands absolute control. If someone is on the edge, Warren pushes them over.”
Sam Icke was barely 18 when he was kicked out of Colorado City for his romantic involvement with a female church member.
“I think the decision came from the fact that I knew too much,” he said. “I have a good sense for reading people, and they don’t like that out there. You can’t keep those kinds of people in control. I realized how much of a phony [Jeffs] was, and he saw me as a huge threat.”
Icke, now 20, recalled the day Jeffs called him into his office for disciplinary action.
“It was very eerie. He has this drawl. His speech is very dry and collected. It’s hard to describe. It’s almost like he’s speaking in a daze. Almost like he was speaking through a daydream. I looked in his eyes for a minute to see if I could see any truth or conviction that the church was right. All I saw in his eyes were a lot of fear and distrust — no faith at all. I completely lost faith in the system that day — completely.”
While he was itching for freedom, Icke said getting kicked out of town “really freaked me out.”
Like many of the Lost Boys, Icke moved to Hurricane — the nearest real town to the Hildale/Colorado City enclave. He moved into a tiny trailer with a couple of other banished kids. Like many of his peers, Icke started drinking and drugging. He managed to steer clear of the speed that seriously messed up some of his friends, but he did get into marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms.
Icke’s story is no surprise to John Larsen, a social worker with the Utah Department of Human Services. He works out of an office in the same building in Hurricane that now houses Warren Jeffs.
“It breaks your heart,” Larsen said of the Lost Boys. “These are hardworking kids who are given little education. A lot of them were pulled out of school to work construction. Then, when they are kicked out, they’re not supposed to have contact with family until they repent. All some of them want to do is to be able to call and talk to their mom.”
Larsen estimates that about 400 young men have been pushed out of the sect in recent years. “Emotionally, they’re all over the place,” the social worker said. “Some of them don’t know what to think. They have been conditioned all their life to obey this man. Some of them are sure they’re going to hell.”
Icke and dozens of other Lost Boys found a savior of sorts in Dan Fischer, the Salt Lake City dentist, businessman and former polygamist. Since leaving the Fundamentalist Church in the mid-1990s, Fischer has made a small fortune with Ultradent, a dental product business that in the past 12 years grew from a home operation to a 220,000-square-foot facility employing more than 600 workers. He has also set up a foundation to assist young people trying to leave Colorado City.
Few have made that transition with as much aplomb as Fischer, born in 1949 to a family with deep roots in Utah polygamy.
Fischer’s grandfather, Charles Zitting, was one of the founders of the religious movement that would eventually be known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What are now Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., were then called Short Creek. The polygamists who lived along the border were known as “Crickers.”
Fischer is just old enough to remember the Short Creek raid the night of July 26, 1953 when Arizona Highway Patrol officers, Mohave County Sheriff’s Deputies and Arizona National Guardsmen swooped down. Descending upon the settlement were more than 100 law enforcement officers, 25 carloads of reporters and 12 agents from the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.
Scores of residents were questioned in a makeshift courtroom set up in the Short Creek schoolhouse. Thirty-one men and nine women without minor children were taken the next day to Kingman, Ariz. Later, Arizona state officials decided to take the Short Creek children to Phoenix and put them in protective custody. Their mothers insisted on coming with them, so another 43 women and 177 children were rounded up.
In a plea bargain later that year, 26 of the Short Creek polygamists pled guilty to misdemeanor charges of “conspiracy to commit open and notorious cohabitation.” They were given one-year suspended sentences. But it would take more than a year and a successful lawsuit filed by polygamist families until all the women and children were allowed to return home.
Back in 1953, many Short Creek residents, like Jeffs’ mother, who moved to San Francisco, escaped arrest by going underground. “Some of them lived in our home in Salt Lake when they were hiding,” Fischer recalled. “I remember a baby being born in our house back then. And from then on, we grew up in total hiding. My mother didn’t come out of doors for 11 years.”
While Fischer was allowed to attend a public school in suburban Salt Lake, he and his siblings always knew they were not like the normal children of the world.
“Our parents were to raise their kids as ‘calves in the stall.’ We were covenant children — preordained to be on the other side to help usher in the millennium and the beginning of the end and the Second Coming of the Savior.”
They were also taught to marry whomever the prophet told them to marry. “We were to do whatever the prophet asked. Most of us went on a work mission for two to three years to help build up the town. If you were submissive enough you were given a ‘blessing,’ meaning a wife.
“You never went to a dance or on a date or interacted with females,” said Fischer recalled. “It was pretty extreme.”
Fischer’s father had three wives and 36 children. His mom had nine of the kids, and Dan was the oldest of the brood.
One day, when he was 17, Fischer was summoned to the offices of Prophet Leroy Johnson, who preceded Rulon Jeffs as the leader of the church. Fischer had his tools ready and was set to go on his work mission to Short Creek.
The prophet was just a short, old bald guy, but to Fischer he embodied the Mormon pioneer spirit. Johnson was born and raised on Colorado River at Lees Ferry, the only place you could cross the Colorado for a couple hundred miles. His family ran the boat that took people across the river.
“Leroy Johnson had a lot of fine virtues,” Fischer said. “I won’t say I agree with all his teachings today or that everything he did was right, but he was a true grit pioneer. And he had family values.”
Fischer found him sitting at his desk on an old roller-wheel chair. The prophet spun around and looked at the teenager for what seemed like an eternity. One of Johnson’s little fingers had been broken and never set back into place, so he had had this little L-shaped finger. It was his trademark — almost an icon — and there he was scratching his bald head with it.
Finally, the prophet spoke.
“Young man,” he proclaimed, “we need a dentist.” The rest was history — and good news for Dan Fischer. He was sent to the University of Utah, and then off to dental school.
He was also sent a wife. That was in 1968 and she was not the girl Fischer would have chosen. His new wife was 18 and had only an eighth-grade education. “My first wife and I were oil and water. It happens in many of these cases. You know nothing about the likes and dislikes of the person.”
Fischer’s first wife often took ill, so the prophet decided that his second wife should be his first wife’s older sister. Fischer married his second wife in 1973 and went onto to have 14 children with the two of them — seven with each sister.
In 1981, Fischer was blessed with a third wife. “Her father was a prominent guy and had influence with Leroy Johnson. I think the guy expected he’d get a lot of free dentistry out of me. It seems crazy, but that was probably the bottom line.”
Fischer would have two more children with wife No. 3. He was making good money by now with his dental business. He built a 14-bedroom house on a 5-acre spread on the edge of Salt Lake City.
In the early 1990s, Dan Fischer found himself living with 17 children and three wives. “I became determined to not go beyond that,” he said.
His third wife was not happy with that decision. She took her two kids to Colorado City, and refused to come back. Fischer never saw them again.
“I managed to talk to the kids once, but that was it,” Fischer said. “I tried to get access to them through Rulon Jeffs, but he told me she was a fornicator and more married to her father than to me. I was being played on a string. It’s one of the things that convinced me to separate from that organization.
“As soon as you go public on something like that, you know you are never going to see your family members again. But I decided to break the cycle and keep my other children from getting into plural marriage.”
Fischer had decided long ago that his real wife was his second wife, the older of the two sisters. So he divorced the younger one and legally married her older sister. Today, his oldest child is 36. His youngest is 12.
Over the past few years, Fischer has watched as countless men and boys have been banished from Colorado City. He has also watched as Jeffs reassigned the married exiled men’s wives and children to his most loyal subjects.
Fischer sighed. “With the wave of a hand he has reorganized hundreds of families. “Imagine all the scarring in all those children. We’ll be paying the price for decades to come — at least for a generation or two.”
There are several theories as to what effect Jeffs’ upcoming trial could have on the polygamists in Utah and the rest of the American West. If convicted of just the Utah charges, the leader of the Fundamentalist Mormon Church could be sentenced to life in prison.
And that might be the best thing that ever happened to him and his church.
Benjamin Bistline, a former Short Creek resident and author of “Colorado City Polygamists — An Inside Look for the Outsider,” points out that the legal morass and public reaction against the 1953 government raid only strengthened the polygamist community along the Utah-Arizona border.
“If they would have just let us alone we’d probably have died out by now,” said Bistline, who was 18 when the government agents moved on the settlement. “They were just kickin’ the mustard tree and scatterin’ the seeds.”
Perceived persecution often fans the flames of religious faith. That prompts many seasoned observers to predict that Jeffs’ arrest and upcoming trial may swell the roster of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
“If Warren plays this thing right, he could have a massive flow of converts,” Chatwin warned. “He is going to look like Christ reincarnated and crucified again.”
Don Lattin is writing a book on a 2005 murder-suicide involving a religious sect known as the Family/ Children of God. It will be published next year by HarperCollins. To contact the author, go to www.donlattin.com.
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