For decades, allegations of child abuse, forced marriage, incest and misuse of public money fell on deaf ears
COLORADO CITY – For most of the past seven decades, authorities refused to listen to the cries of women who claimed their children were being raped in this remote religious community astride the Arizona-Utah line.
They ignored allegations of incest, wife-beating, White slavery and forced marriages.
More often than not, they simply shrugged when insiders whispered about tax dodges, welfare fraud, educational neglect and misspent public funds.
But all that is changing.
For the first time in generations, authorities in Arizona and Utah are coming together to investigate members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, a sect that broke from the Mormon Church 70 years ago in bitter disagreement about the practice of plural marriage.
1913 Village of Short Creek founded.
1935 Polygamists start moving to Short Creek in large numbers under the leadership of John Barlow. Mohave County convicts two polygamists who are sentenced to 18-24 months at the state prison in Florence.
1944 FBI and Utah police raid Short Creek and arrest 46 people on various charges, including conspiracy to cohabitate.
1945 Fifteen of the defendants, including five of the seven members of the Priesthood Council in Short Creek, are sentenced to one to five years in Utah state prison on the conspiracy charges. Eleven of the 15, including Barlow, are released seven months later when they sign a pledge to stop teaching, practicing and advocating plural marriage. They continue the practice anyway.
1953 Arizona raids Short Creek and arrests the heads of 36 polygamous households and nine women after a long undercover operation dubbed Operation Seagull. Twenty-three men are convicted of conspiracy and sentenced to probation.
1963 Short Creek renamed Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
1986 Polygamist church leader Leroy Johnson dies, setting off a struggle between those who want a single leader and those who want a seven-man council to run the church. Wealthy Utah businessman Rulon Jeffs and his “single leader” concept prevails. Secessionist group forms the Second Ward.
1991 The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints formally incorporates under Jeffs’ name after a period in which dissidents in the towns were evicted from their homes on land owned by the church’s United Effort Plan.
1998 Son Warren Jeffs takes on much of the leadership role in the church.
2000 The fundamentalist church implores members to remove their children from Colorado City public schools, and 650 children are not enrolled for the fall semester. Lenore Holm refuses an order from Warren Jeffs to give up her 16-year-old daughter to become the second wife of a 37-year-old man with 10 children.
2001 Ruth Stubbs, the third wife of Colorado City/Hildale policeman Rodney Holm, flees Colorado City and files a child custody case in Maricopa County.
2002 Rulon Jeffs dies at age 92. Warren formally takes control of the FLDS. Rodney Holm is charged in Utah with three counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a 16- or 17-year-old and one count of bigamy, stemming from his marriage to Ruth Stubbs Holm, his third wife.
2003 Orson William Black is charged with five felonies related to sexual misconduct with two underage sisters, Roberta and Beth Stubbs. Both sisters flee with Black and other members of their family to Mexico. Warren Jeffs announces that God has revealed to him that all church services should be suspended and dramatic changes should be made in the community, including the end of plural marriages. Rodney Holm is convicted of two felony counts of sexual misconduct with a minor and one count of bigamy.
“We have seen compelling evidence that crimes are being committed, children are being hurt and taxpayers are footing the bill for those who are causing pain,” said Mark Shurtleff, Utah’s attorney general. “We respect sincere religious belief, but we cannot tolerate crimes committed under the guise of religion.”
Shurtleff, a mainstream Mormon, is working cooperatively with Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard to crack down on polygamy-related crimes.
Goddard confirmed last week that he has a lawyer and an investigator looking full time into the church, which has more than 6,000 followers clustered 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon in the isolated communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Pamela Black, 51, knows about crimes committed in the name of religion.
A long-devoted FLDS wife who bore 14 children in 35 years, Black weeps openly when she says she was raped by her husband the night she became a 17-year-old bride.
Her blue eyes burn with rage when she tells how church leaders gave her mother 72 hours to get out of her house for daring to question them. Her shoulders slump in resignation at the memory of the physical abuse she and many of her friends experienced in their marriages.
“What goes on up here is soul murder,” said Black, who still lives in Hildale.
“They murdered my soul. They murder everyone’s souls. And no one seems to be willing to do anything about it.”
Break from the past
Goddard and Shurtleff were invited to the communities last Thursday to meet with several hundred church members eager to explain their beliefs and lifestyles to the prosecutors. Hard-core FLDS leaders refused to meet with the attorneys general, but the mere fact that such high-ranking government officials were invited into the community was a notable break from decades of carefully nurtured isolation.
“The visit was helpful in breaking down long-standing suspicions about dealing with the state,” Goddard said. “We need to find responsible voices in that community who are not afraid to stand up against child abuse.”
The Shurtleff-Goddard visit and stepped-up scrutiny from both attorneys general are the latest in a complex series of developments coming together recently to ratchet up pressure against the FLDS:
- The Arizona Republic has found that many young men have been encouraged to leave both towns, sometimes under pressure from a church-controlled police force, so older religious leaders can more easily woo teen brides.
- A Utah jury last month convicted former Colorado City police Officer Rodney Holm of bigamy and having unlawful sex with a minor he took as a “spiritual wife.” The 16-year-old was Holm’s third wife, though they were not legally married.
- A new bestseller, Under the Banner of Heaven, by Jonathan Krakauer and stories like the recent four-page spread in People magazine have drawn national attention to the church and its polygamous lifestyle.
- Officials in both states are looking into welfare fraud allegations, and the Arizona Auditor General’s Office is investigating possible misuse of public funds in a public school district run by FLDS members.
- Current and former church members are preparing class-action lawsuits that could cripple the financial trust that controls church assets estimated at several hundred million dollars.
- County and state officials on both sides of the Arizona-Utah line have announced their intention to establish a new presence in the community that could include independent law enforcement, welfare and tax support offices, a Children’s Justice Center and women’s protective services. State funds for the facility have not been allocated, however.
“We are under attack,” church leader Warren Jeffs railed from his pulpit last month. “We need the Lord’s protection.”
Jeffs, whose father, Rulon, dominated the church until his death in 2002, has become the focus of attention by authorities in recent months. The 46-year-old has been accused of fathering children with at least two teenage girls he took as “spiritual wives.”
Utah law considers sexual contact between an adult who is 10 years or older than a 16- or 17-year-old to be a felony unless the couples are legally married. And it is illegal to marry more than one spouse.
“I don’t mind telling Warren Jeffs that I’m coming after him,” Shurtleff said last month.
The FLDS teaches that the only way a man can reach the highest level of heaven is to take at least three wives in this life.
Mainstream Mormons practiced polygamy in the 19th century but abandoned the practice under pressure from the government in 1890. Even though polygamy is against the law in Utah and unconstitutional in Arizona, FLDS members never have made a secret of their lifestyle.
Arizona’s biggest move against the sect came on July 26, 1953, when Gov. Howard Pyle sent several hundred peace officers into Colorado City in a raid that has repercussions 50 years later.
Pyle declared the polygamous lifestyle of the town an “insurrection” against the state and ordered his forces in to “protect the lives and future of 263 children.”
The dramatic raid quickly devolved into a political and public relations nightmare when media, led by The Republic and the New York Times, published photographs of weeping children being pulled from frantic women.
Within months, most of those who were arrested, and nearly all the women and children taken into protective custody, were returned to their homes.
A year later, Pyle was soundly defeated for re-election.
The legacy of Pyle’s demise, coupled with the remoteness of the community and the always-troubling dangers of trying to separate religious rights from legal wrongs, led authorities to turn a blind eye toward the FLDS for decades.
Official policy began to shift in 1999 when Utah resident Tom Green boasted on several national news and talk shows about living with five wives and 25 children.
Utah authorities brought criminal charges against Green, who became the first Utah man to be convicted of bigamy in nearly 50 years.
Even though Green was part of a different polygamous sect, his conviction had a dramatic impact on the willingness of authorities to challenge the FLDS, not so much over the issue of plural marriages as the problems that stem from the church’s lifestyle.
“We are not trying to break up families, we are trying to end the incest, the abuse, the child rape,” said Bob Curran, director of Save the Child Brides, an advocacy group with headquarters in St. George, Utah, less than an hour’s drive west of the FLDS enclave.
“How can all these good Christians sit around and pretend they don’t hear the screams of anguish from 35 miles away?” he said. “There has to be some accountability.”
Religious and legal experts believe the stepped-up prosecution can be important.
“My own sense of this is that state civil authorities can make inroads in shaping religions,” said Linell Cady, professor of religious studies at Arizona State University.
We appreciate your support
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.