COLORADO CITY – One by one, police officers in Colorado City are being stripped of their law-enforcement certification because they cannot serve two masters: a polygamous church and their oath to uphold the law.
In a police department normally staffed with just six full-time officers, four have lost their badges in recent years. Two more, including town Marshal Fred Barlow, are awaiting decertification rulings from the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, or Arizona POST.
All the ousted officers belong to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that teaches salvation is attained through plural marriage. Authorities from Utah and Arizona have cracked down on FLDS child marriages and fraud in this isolated red-rock country.
Warren Jeffs, church president and prophet, garnered most of the news coverage as a federal fugitive charged with acting as an accomplice to child rape. Now in custody, he is awaiting trial in September.
By contrast, the policing woes in this community of 6,000 attracted little attention, even as the standards board began moving against some deputy marshals. Some officers were decertified after admitting bigamy. Others failed to assist in the nationwide manhunt for Jeffs or allowed looting by FLDS church crews.
“How many police departments, even large police departments, do you know that have had this many officers decertified for misconduct?” asked Gary Engels, a Mohave County investigator assigned to the town. “It’s gotta scream to the people in charge that there’s something wrong here.”
Engels said the town replaces decertified officers with other church members, so the police force remains fully staffed with certified officers.
The community operates as a “theocracy,” he added, and marshals abide by religious leaders rather than law.
“That’s the problem here. It’s totally controlled by the church, and anybody outside the church is going to have a hard time,” Engels said.
‘Everybody . . . is related’
Last names suggest the insular nature of life in Colorado City: Most of the lawmen who have faced Arizona decertification hearings are named Barlow.
During one deposition, when Fred Barlow was asked if Deputy Micah Barlow was related to a church official named Dowayne Barlow, the marshal said, “I suppose. Everybody around here is related.”
The other common denominator is a conflict between religion and the constitutional oath of sworn peace officers. Under questioning by state officials last year, Fred Barlow asserted that Colorado City is locked in “a religious battle” with government. He complained that investigators violated his First Amendment rights by asking questions about his faith. He agonized about being torn between constitutional and spiritual duties.
Investigator: “If you saw Warren Jeffs come in this town (as a fugitive) today, what would you do?”
Barlow: “I’m not gonna answer that question. . . . I don’t think I should answer any questions about my religion.”
Investigator: “What if Warren Jeffs gave you direction not to do something that you had to do by law?”
Barlow: “I don’t believe that, uh, you should put me in a position . . . where I have to choose between my church and my job.”
By appearances, Barlow made that choice last year in a letter written to Jeffs while the prophet was on the lam:
“Dear Uncle Warren: I would first like to acknowledge you as the one man that was and is called of God to stand at the head of his priesthood and the Kingdom of God on earth in this day and time. I rejoice in the peace that comes over me when I follow the directives that you have sent to me. . . .
“I love you and acknowledge you as my priesthood head. And I know that you have the right to rule in all aspects of my live (sic).”
It was signed, “Your servant, Fred J. Barlow Jeffs.”
Barlow told investigators he would alienate the residents of Colorado City if he helped track down Warren Jeffs.
“The community honors and respects him. And for us to go looking for him, particularly for him, would be very detrimental to my job,” Barlow explained. “The community would not accept me anymore.”
Authorities with the state Attorney General’s Office and Arizona POST answered that they were not attacking the FLDS church but ensuring the rule of law would not be compromised by religious influences.
In other interviews, Barlow went mum when asked about his faith. One such exchange occurred during a deposition by Zachary Shields, an attorney for the fiduciary overseeing properties in an FLDS trust.
Shields: Why do you answer some questions and refuse to answer others?
Barlow: Some questions I don’t feel like are relevant.
Shields: So you’re making a determination as to what is relevant and what is not?
Barlow: To me.
Shields: Did the subpoena say you only have to answer questions that you feel are relevant?
Barlow: (No response.)
Shields: Let the record show the deponent refuses to answer. . . . Do you understand that your silence is violating the oath you took (as a peace officer)?
Barlow: (No response.)
The dilemma is hardly new here. Sam Barlow, town marshal in the 1990s and one of Jeffs’ closest associates, overcame law-enforcement revocation hearings for polygamy 15 years ago. More recently, officers have been less successful.
Arizona POST is expected to rule on Fred Barlow’s police certification later this month.
Police did nothing
A light breeze flits through Colorado City as thunderheads form overhead. Girls in long dresses harvest vegetables from a garden, then run away at the sight of a camera. Children play on a rope swing in a hay barn. Men in a gray truck follow strangers through town. Otherwise, all is calm.
At City Hall, a clerk says Marshal Fred Barlow is away. So is the mayor. Nobody else is authorized to speak for the town.
Until 2005, most of the community was owned by a church trust known as the United Effort Plan. Then a Utah court removed FLDS trustees and appointed a public fiduciary, Bruce Wisan, to oversee the properties. The trust contains more than $100 million in assets, including many of the homes and businesses.
Isaac Wyler, a former FLDS member who was hired by Wisan to look after things, says police refused to do anything when crews of townspeople began taking buildings and equipment from trust properties. He points out an 83-foot-tall grain elevator that, according to testimony, was dismantled and removed with police looking on. An 18,000-square-foot log building was taken apart and hauled off. Modular classrooms vanished, as did irrigation pipes and coolers from a potato pantry.
Wyler drives to a cave built into the red rock by church members years ago as a fallout shelter. The property, with several grain silos, is owned by the trust. Wyler said he was inspecting the site two years ago, when church members accosted him, then called police. An officer arrived and threatened to put Wyler in jail for trespassing, even though he had legal authority to be there.
“He got right up in my face, so dang mad his lip was quivering,” Wyler recalled. “I held out my hands and said, ‘OK, cuff me.’ ” That confrontation ended quietly, and police are less aggressive now, Wyler said. But he is convinced Colorado City marshals remain loyal to their religion before the law.
“There’s not one officer who would be able to answer that question honestly,” he said.
In depositions about stolen property, Fred Barlow tried to dodge the issue repeatedly, claiming court rulings against his church were absurd and unenforceable. A typical exchange went like this:
Question: Isn’t it true that people who were not followers of Warren Jeffs, like Bruce Wisan, will not receive the same treatment from you as a police officer?
Answer: (No response.)