COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — But for the hugeness of the houses and the quaint hairstyles and ankle-length dresses of the women and girls, this isolated stop on the scenic Utah-Arizona border might not warrant a second glance. “Most of the people here hold to fundamentalist beliefs, old fashioned if you will. You might even call it Colonial America. Love and help your neighbor. Things you wouldn’t find everywhere,” he said.
But even with all the blond kids bouncing merrily on backyard trampolines or riding donkey carts in the streets, this is one version of small town America that Norman Rockwell never put to canvas.
For decades, Colorado City and the adjacent Hildale, Utah, have been the home base of the largest polygamist Mormon sect in North America, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which broke from the main church decades ago.
About 8,000 fundamentalists live here, including families with dozens of children. A church trust owns most of the land, and the church controls the municipal governments, Police Department and public school district.
The sect leader, Warren Jeffs, 48, is an intense and reclusive self-described prophet who rules with Old Testament severity from behind the 8-foot walls of his family compound.
And soon, the prophet may be coming to Texas.
This spring, the polygamists quietly bought 1,600 acres just north of the small town of Eldorado, three hours west of San Antonio.
They have constructed three large dormitory-style structures, with two more planned. Workers now are busy preparing ground for an orchard and large garden.
Their sudden appearance and unfamiliar creed spooked some residents.”They have a right to believe whatever they want to, but when it’s polygamy and child abuse and child brides, that’s wrong, and that’s where the Devil comes in. That’s evil, and the Devil is evilness,” she said.
Others have taken a wait and see approach.
“Our stance is innocent until proven guilty,” Sheriff David Doran said.
Jeffs, formerly the principal of a private academy near Salt Lake City, became the sect’s new prophet two years ago after his father’s death. One of his main duties is to arrange marriages according to divine revelation.
Like his father and other prophets before him, Jeffs regularly assigns teenage girls to marriage, often to much older men. He’s reported to have numerous “spiritual wives” of his own, some of whom were as young as 17 when they conceived his children.
For the fundamentalists, these plural “spiritual” marriages hold the keys to heaven.
“No man can become a god unless he has more wives than one. For a woman to become a goddess, she must be married to a man who has more than one wife,” is Jeffs’ teaching.
But what the prophet giveth, he can taketh away.
In recent months, Jeffs has excommunicated dozens of adult male followers who fell short of perfection.
In some cases, he has quickly reassigned their wives to new husbands, as well as their children and houses, feeding a bitter rift.
Over the past year, the fundamentalists have come under increasing scrutiny from anti-polygamy activists, journalists and criminal investigators looking into allegations of financial misconduct, forced marriages of teenage girls and sexual abuse.
“The level of pressure being put on this community is unprecedented. The government is acting like an occupying army,” complained church lawyer Rodney Parker, who confirmed his clients have recently acquired land in West Texas.
“They are being treated like black people were in the 1880s. I can’t blame them for seeking a place of refuge, and that’s what I think is happening in Texas. They crave an isolated place where they can just live their lives in peace,” Parker said.
Neither Jeffs nor his followers ever speak to reporters.
Fear of the unknown
Eldorado, the polygamist’s chosen sanctuary in Texas, is a more conventional slice of small town America.
The city of 2,000 residents and eight churches is the only incorporated municipality in Schleicher County.
The biggest social event of the year comes each summer with “The Running of the Bull,” in which liars, poets and storytellers compete on stage.
Sheep, goats and cattle, wheat and alfalfa, and a little oil and gas support the local economy, and about a half-dozen mainstream denominations worship here.
“It’s a pretty standard West Texas town. We’ve got Baptists, Catholics, Methodists, Presbyterians, you name it. There are no Mormons that I know of,” Mayor John Nikolauk said.
And nothing in Eldorado’s unremarkable past prepared it for this.
Eldorado became aware of the newcomers this spring after local pilots noticed the construction of large structures on a game ranch just 4 miles north of town. When a local reporter did some checking and came up with fundamentalist Mormon polygamists, shock and panic followed.
“That first week, it was like a UFO had fallen out of the sky,” said Randy Mankin of the Eldorado Success, which broke the story on March 24.
The next day, more than 150 people gathered anxiously in the parking lot outside the old limestone courthouse. The name of David Koresh, the late leader of Waco’s infamous Branch Davidian sect, was invoked repeatedly.
Bosman held up a sign that read, “The Devil is Here.” A man spoke of armed resistance. Others worried about losing their daughters or control of their local government to the polygamists.
After hearing assurances from an anti-polygamy activist that the newcomers were not dangerous to outsiders, most people have calmed down, even if they scoff at claims by the fundamentalists that they are only building a hunting camp.
“It’s gone from anxiety and fear to anxiety and joking. I heard a fellow today say he’s already qualified because he’s been married three times,” Mankin said.
The subject has been talked to death in the morning coffee klatches.
“I think that for someone to have more than one wife would be cruel and unusual punishment,” cracked Gene Jones, 65, a retired oil field worker who meets daily with the other old-timers at a local convenience store.
Sheriff Doran has spoken several times to the polygamists, and inspected their project.
Of elder Ernie Jessop, “He said, ‘We’re trying to get away from all the publicity and hype in Arizona and Utah,'” Doran said.
“He said, ‘We are hard-working, honest people. We are a closed society. We don’t want to expose our children to outside corruption. We want to raise our children by our own beliefs,'” Doran said.
Thus far, he said, only one minor incident has come to his attention. The polygamists have complained of someone putting super glue in their gate locks.
More recently, Doran met with Jessop and three other leaders for two hours at their request.
He said the fundamentalists quickly admitted that the project is really a religious retreat that will accommodate no more than 200 people, among them the closest followers of the prophet.
“I asked them if Warren Jeffs is coming. They did not say either way,” said the sheriff.
In addition to explaining Texas laws on homeschooling, welfare and environmental issues, such as ground water and septic systems, the sheriff broached the touchy subject of polygamy and underage brides.
The sheriff said he advised them that in Texas it is a felony for an adult male to have sexual relations outside of state-recognized marriage with a girl 16 years or younger.
“They said it won’t be their practice, although it might have happened in the past,” he said.
But some in Eldorado have not lowered their guard. Councilwoman Bosmans, 75, who carried the sign announcing the satanic arrival, remains on high alert.
“We’re afraid of them. This is a strange thing that is happening, and I don’t know what can be done,” she said.
Church attorney Parker said the Texans have nothing to fear.
“If they give the fundamentalists a chance and get to know them, they’ll find out they are peaceful and honest people, who are not very different from people in that country. These are rural western people. They’ll find they have a lot in common,” he said.
Danger in numbers
In Utah and Arizona, where the ranks of Jeffs’ enemies are growing and some regard him as a crazed, megalomaniacal dictator, the fears expressed in Eldorado do not seem so far-fetched.
“If I lived in Eldorado, I would be very concerned, but I don’t know what they can do to stop them,” said Ben Bistline, a former church member who recently wrote a critical history of Colorado City.
“I understand it’s a very small town. Jeffs could move 3,000 there overnight to become residents, and within six months he’ll have political control of that county. That’s a real danger. That’s what they’ve done here,” he said.
“I think Jeffs is trying to make himself scarce in Colorado City. The Utah attorney general wants to talk to him, and I think there is some federal interest. He’s awfully nervous,” Bistline said.
Elaine Tyler is director of a group called “Hope for the Child Brides,” based in St. George, Utah, which assists girls and women trying to leave the polygamist community.
She predicts that Texas will soon inherit Utah and Arizona’s “headaches,” which include heavy dependence by the polygamists on public assistance.
The state Department of Economic Security reports that 283 Colorado City families with 2,592 individuals receive a total of $172,310 a month in food stamp benefits. Slightly more than 77 percent of the town’s 3,334 people (according to the 2000 Census) receive food stamps.”
– Polygamy Puzzle
“They are told to go on welfare,” Jessop said. “It’s called, “bleeding the beast.” They find it amusing that Satan is supporting God’s work.”
– One Woman’s Crusade
“It will take about 20 years for the people to multiply enough to outnumber the current residents. In two decades it will be an absolute nightmare for Texas,” she said.
Holm was a longtime church member and heavy financial supporter until last year when he lost favor with Jeffs.
“He never gave me a reason. He said, if my wives stayed with me, they’d go down with the wicked,” Holm said.
After being exiled from the church, Holm in late December saw his two wives and seven children reassigned to a younger brother who remains within the sect. Another man was given his house.
Holm now denounces Jeffs variously as a dingbat, a false prophet and an evil man.
“When he takes the most sacred people to me, and puts them into absolute adultery, that brings out the reality of his deviousness and cunning,” Holm said over a bowl of soup in a restaurant in St. George, Utah.
Rumors now are flying here that Jeffs and selected followers will soon skip town.
“He said this community has a curse, that he’s going to Zion and that Zion is Texas,” said Holm of the recent scuttlebutt.
Holm doubts Jeffs and his followers are a threat to anyone in Eldorado.
And there’s no danger of violence, he said, as long as law enforcement officials do not resort to any strong-arm tactics, as they did with the Branch Davidians in Waco a decade ago, provoking an armed standoff that took 76 lives.
“I’ve studied the David Koresh thing and there are some striking parallels. David Koresh also purported to be a holy man, no different than Warren Jeffs. He’s got the same delusional state of mind,” Holm said.
“He personally would be no threat, but he’s got a group of armed bodyguards who will do their best to protect him, to see that he’s not hurt or arrested,” he said.
Back in the spotlight
The last time the polygamists were in the national spotlight was a half-century ago when the governor of Arizona led an ill-fated raid on Colorado City. Since then, they have had little to fear from outsiders.
But now, after more than a year of intense news coverage, officials in both Arizona and Utah are paying closer attention.
Of particular interest are reports of forced marriages of teenage girls to men far their senior. Church attorney Parker says that all marriages within the community are voluntary.
He also asserts that the fundamentalists’ plural marriage lifestyle is constitutionally protected from government interference, particularly in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down a Texas law criminalizing consensual gay sex.
“That case says the government can’t tell homosexuals how to conduct their intimate lives. We’re talking about the same thing here. I believe a plural family relationship is also protected from being made a crime,” he said.
“These people have a right to structure their family lives and intimate relations without interference from the government,” said Parker.
But that argument has not derailed efforts to police the polygamists.
Last year, Rodney Holms, a Colorado City policeman, was found guilty of bigamy and unlawful sexual relations with a 16-year-old girl he had taken for his third wife. He was given a year in jail and lost his police certification.
In Arizona, the Legislature is considering a bill, modeled after a Utah law and aimed at polygamist communities, that would make it a felony for a married adult to marry a minor.
And in Utah, where polygamy and sexual relations with underage girls are already illegal, an investigator for the attorney general’s office is charged specifically with policing closed communities.
Ron Barton regularly checks reports of illicit relationships between young girls and older men, but says cases are dauntingly difficult to make.
“Basically, in plain English, if a girl under 18 has sexual intercourse with a man who is more than 10 years older than her, and she is not married to him, then that is a felony,” he said.
He said birth records filed with a county health department indicate that Jeffs has fathered children by underage girls.
“There are birth certificates that list Warren Jeffs as the father. These are children who were conceived by girls that he is not (legally) married to, who were under the age of 18,” he said.
But, said Barton, his efforts to contact Jeffs and serve subpoenas have failed.
“The community is so closed and he is so well protected, we don’t know where he is, even now,” he said.
The alleged female victims, who are raised in a closed, religious society, are extremely reluctant to cooperate with outsiders, he said.
“The young girls are married to these men, and if they were to violate the trust or relationship, they will be totally ostracized by their family. These girls have been taught since childhood that this is how their lives will end,” he said.
“They will be assigned someone to marry. Life on earth might be hell, but they will be blessed in the hereafter. A person who leaves the faith is treated as if he is dead by remaining church members, including the family,” he said.
Former insider helpsAmong the apostates or “living dead” in Hildale is Pam Black, 52, who left the faith five years ago and now lives with her elderly parents and some of her younger children on a small plot of land just outside the city limits.
Black, who had 14 children in 22 years of an arranged marriage, said some churchwomen have borne far more. She said she could never accept the absolute obedience and subordination the faith demands of women.
“You obey your husband and do exactly what he wants, and he’ll take you to heaven. A woman has absolutely zero freedom. It’s like the Taliban,” she said.
“It was like soul murder. I didn’t care if I lived or died, but I was going to be free,” she said.
Black is now working with outside groups including “Hope for the Child Brides,” trying to help young girls and women trapped in abusive polygamous marriages.
“I’m not anti-polygamy. The only thing I’m against is the abuse of young kids and the indoctrination,” she said while sitting in the shade of a piñon pine near the rocky headwaters of Short Creek.
Black recalled her own marriage, arranged by an earlier prophet to a 26-year-old man she barely knew. “Leroy Johnson said, ‘We have a husband for you. Is that all right with you?'” she said. Black said she agreed because she was taught “if we chose different than what the prophet wanted, we would go to hell.” “I was barely 17. I might as well have been 12. I was raped on my wedding night. I didn’t even know about sex,” she said. Years later, she said, her husband, now dead, apologized. “He said, ‘I only did it to show you that I owned you,'” she said. And although most of her children left the church with her, one 34-year-old daughter, who is Kevin Barlow’s second wife, has remained in Colorado City among the faithful. “It’s so sad. People here loved me and I loved them,” she said. “I can’t see my own grandchildren. My daughter has nine kids and is pregnant with twins. She’s doing what I taught her to do. Have babies.”
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