COLORADO CITY, ARIZ.–A power struggle has emerged in a small, tight-lipped community known for polygamy, with a number of men getting kicked out of the church-owned town and their wives and children being “reassigned” against their will to other men.
Now authorities in Arizona and Utah are stepping up their years-long investigation into the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, with the family “reassignments” sparking concerns of forced marriage of underage girls.
In a rare show of defiance in the typically secretive community, one man who was ordered to leave is refusing to do so and is sharing information with authorities about church leader Warren Jeffs.
Ross Chatwin, 35, held a news conference Friday at his home in Colorado City. He said he is one of tens of men recently excommunicated from the church, capping a nine-month power struggle with Jeffs.
In an apparent move to solidify his control, Jeffs on Jan. 14 ordered 20 men to leave the area but without their wives, children and personal property. Jeffs said a vision from God told him to force the men out. He later purged more men from the community, including Chatwin.
Chatwin said Jeffs “has to be stopped.”
Jeffs, 47, took over the church after the 2002 death of his father, Rulon, despite a push for two more popular church elders in the community. Both men, in their 90s, were excommunicated in the Jan. 14 purge.
Three 16-year-old girls are known to have run away from the enclave since the men’s excommunications. Two are in foster care in Phoenix, and the other is in state custody in Utah.
Chatwin said by talking he could put himself in danger in the community, which is notorious for retaliating against malcontents. But he said he did it to encourage others to stand up to Jeffs, especially those who have been ordered out.
“If a few stand up, it could make it better for all,” he said.
Chatwin advocates polygamy but has just one wife along with six children. Chatwin’s wife, Lori, 32, is standing by her husband. “I’m not going to leave him,” she said Friday.
Women and children are considered property and have no rights under church laws.
Colorado City and its adjacent counterpart, Hildale, Utah, form what many believe to be the center of the American polygamist movement. Together they have 10,000 members.
The attorneys general in Utah and Arizona have been investigating both communities for several years. Chatwin said he was cooperating with investigators from both states, but declined to be more specific.
Utah attorney general investigator Ron Barton also was in Colorado City Friday, saying the state is concerned about public safety.
Barton said the state is probing the towns because “families are being destroyed.” Barton refused to say whether criminal charges were being considered against Jeffs.
Last year, former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm was convicted of bigamy and unlawful sex with a girl he took as a third wife when she was 16. He was sentenced to a year in jail and his police certification was revoked.