Polygamists on Utah-Arizona Border Under Scrutiny For years, isolation kept the law away from the polygamous towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. But now, Arizona and Utah officials are investigation allegations of young girls being forced to marry old men, sexual crimes against minors, domestic violence, welfare fraud and tax evasion.

Polygamists on Utah-Arizona Border Under Scrutiny

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Last week in Arizona, police and prosecutors from three states met behind closed doors. They were trying to figure out how to deal with one of the nation's largest groups of polygamists. It's known as the FLDS. That stands for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. It has dominated twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border for a long time, and it now has a new settlement outside a rural town in Texas. Over the next two days, we're going to hear about the FLDS and the towns its members live in. Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

There's no need for metaphor; there really are clouds on the horizon outside Colorado City, Arizona, where the traffic on the two-lane blacktop heads right into a storm.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BERKES: Rain falls in wispy sheets, obscuring red rock cliffs which rise behind the adjacent town of Hildale, Utah. Six thousand people live and work here in what could be any small town in America. There's even homemade candy at the bakery.

Unidentified Woman #1: These are peanut clusters. That's caramel. That's toffee, almond toffee.

BERKES: But there's no place quite like this one. The people seem dressed for the 19th century, including the women and girls behind the counter with long braided hair, sleeves to the wrists and skirts to the ankles.

Unidentified Woman #1: Is that everything?

Unidentified Man: That'll do it.

Unidentified Woman #1: Thank you.

BERKES: There are also massive homes, some the size of apartment buildings, but the biggest difference is faith. Most people here believe salvation depends on at least three wives for each man and as many kids as possible, a dozen each for some wives. David Zitting is the mayor of Hildale.

Mayor DAVID ZITTING (Hildale, Utah): Now there's always exceptions in every community, but for the most part, I have never seen a community where there are families that have more love in them, more love for their children and more order and organization than there is in this community. There's no place in America, in any community that has that type of situation like this community has.

BERKES: The community's polygamists derive their theology from early Mormon teachings, but they are not Mormons, and they're not welcome in the Mormon faith, which abandoned polygamy long ago. There's also something sinister about their approach to polygamy, says Mark Shurtleff, the attorney general of Utah.

Mr. MARK SHURTLEFF (Attorney General, Utah): We receive substantial information that young girls were being forced to marry old men, for example, sexual crimes against minors. We believe there's domestic violence, welfare fraud, tax evasion. Those are what we've been focusing our attention on, not on the practice of polygamy or religious belief, but on crimes being committed, sometimes in the name of that religious belief.

BERKES: Shurtleff's concerned that a crackdown on polygamy will seem like state interference with religion, but that doesn't worry Buster Johnson, a county supervisor on the Arizona side of the border.

Mr. BUSTER JOHNSON (County Supervisor): Polygamy is illegal. If you fill the jails up, tough luck. That's the sheriff's job to hold them, and that's the court's job to handle it. They just let this go on so long that somebody has to step forward, and they can't keep sweeping it under the rug.

BERKES: Isolation kept the law at bay for a while. The county seat for Hildale is 40 miles away. The county seat for Colorado City is a 300-mile drive.

Mr. BEN BISTLINE (Former Member, FLDS): It wasn't until the 1960s that there was even a paved road into the area. And there was possibly one or two vehicles a day that even came through.

BERKES: Ben Bistline is a former group member. He breathes with the help of a noisy oxygen machine in a trailer on a dusty desert flat outside Colorado City. Bistline recalls an Arizona raid in 1953.

Mr. BISTLINE: Well, the state decided to come in and arrest the men and place the children in foster homes with the intent of adopting them out, taking them from their parents.

BERKES: Entire families were forced from their homes, torn apart and sent hundreds of miles away, Bistline's mother and siblings included. The raid backfired big-time for Arizona Governor Howard Pyle.

Mr. BISTLINE: That was the end of his political career. The public sentiment went with the polygamists, and it was become a real debacle. Because of that reason, the state has not attempted to do anything with the polygamists for 50 years.

BERKES: The raid showed that polygamy was difficult to prosecute, because wives wouldn't testify. Thirty more years of relative isolation followed until some of the faithful lost their faith, and the church staked claim to their homes. Some sued, so the church incorporated to protect its assets. It became the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS church. But that didn't block bad publicity as former members began to expose church practices.

Ms. PAMELA BLACK (Former Member, FLDS): One of my sisters is the first wife of a man that married a 12-year-old girl, and she started having children at about the age of 13, and they've sent their girls on to get married at that age.

BERKES: Pamela Black spent 40 years in the faith. She sits in a grove of junipers in a windswept canyon outside Hildale, recalling her teen-age marriage.

Ms. BLACK: I was in my junior year and hadn't--didn't want to get married, but I was called in by the prophet, and he said that he had found a husband for me, and so I said, `OK, I'll do anything you want.'

BERKES: Black doesn't call it a forced marriage. She considers it...

Ms. BLACK: A programming and abuse where a child doesn't know there's anything else, 'cause it's not like they hold a gun to you and say, `Here, marry this man.' It's, `Do it, or God will destroy you,' and so the fear of God is what keeps most people in line.

BERKES: When they did get out of line, Black says, the local police stepped in, doing the bidding of the church. That and the practice of child brides attracted the attention of Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

Mr. SHURTLEFF: We have had a number of people over the last several years talk about the fact that it appeared these police officers were more concerned about protecting their religious leaders opposed to enforcing the laws of the state of Utah and the state of Arizona.

BERKES: So Shurtleff became the first public official in 50 years to aggressively scrutinize the FLDS church, its child marriages and its domination of local government, policing and schools. He rallied other officials, who were shocked at what they found. Attorney General Terry Goddard of Arizona is looking at the Colorado City School.

Mr. TERRY GODDARD (Attorney General, Arizona): Well, we've never had a situation of quite such severe financial mismanagement in the school district to the point where to any outsider, it would be obvious that you need a trustee. You need somebody to manage the affairs until they get back on their feet.

BERKES: School administrators allegedly pad the payroll with jobs for church members. The school superintendent declined to be interviewed, and no charges have been filed. A police officer was charged and convicted for his polygamous marriage to a 16-year-old girl, and Utah revoked police authority for the police chief. Arizona's considering the same move.

Unidentified Woman #2: And ...(unintelligible) 98-7459(ph).

BERKES: So now, the polygamist towns are watched more closely than ever, even from 300 miles away at the sheriff's dispatch center in Kingman, Arizona.

Unidentified Woman #2: And ...(unintelligible) 31, this is going to be a residential alarm at...

BERKES: Deputies newly assigned to the Colorado City area are now part of the radio traffic, and child and domestic abuse case workers now have offices in the polygamist town. Tom Sheahan is the sheriff of Mohave County, Arizona.

Sheriff TOM SHEAHAN (Mohave County, Arizona): It lets them know that we're there to mean business. We don't take any of the activities that are supposedly occurring lightly. And we want people to know that if they are not comfortable with their law enforcement agency in that community, they can come to the sheriff's office and make any reports, and we will work with them the best we can with all the social agencies also.

BERKES: Mohave County also has a full-time criminal investigator working in Colorado City, and church leaders may be targets.

Mr. GARY ENGELS (Criminal Investigator): Now this compound you see coming up to the left there, it takes in a full square block, that was Warren's compound.

BERKES: As investigator Gary Engels drives past the massive homes of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs, a white pickup truck pulls up behind us and stays with us.

Mr. ENGELS: They're concerned about what I'm up to. They view me as a threat to whatever it is they're worried about here.

BERKES: People here may be legitimately sick of nosy investigators and reporters, but Gary Engels believes something else is going on.

Mr. ENGELS: I would just love to see this whole community brought back into the United Sates, where everybody has equal rights. These people don't have the right to voice their opinion. They don't have a right to criticize. If they do, then they stand to lose their house, they stand to lose their family, and they stand to lose their job. And most important to most of these people, they stand to lose their salvation.

BERKES: That's a reference to complaints about FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs. He's accused of exiling hundreds of boys and men, including Richard Holm, a successful contractor who donated more than $10 million to the church before being declared unfaithful. Homes, wives and children were reassigned to his brother, Edson.

Mr. RICHARD HOLM (Exiled from FLDS community): This holy prophet had given him the responsibility of my family. I felt my family was kidnapped, just the most sickening thing that I could--I was just overwhelmed. That was a tsunami to me. It just--when he said that to me, I told him, `Edson, this is so wrong. You know that this can't be right.'

BERKES: We requested an interview with Warren Jeffs, but we were told he doesn't grant interviews. Other officials also declined. `No one here wants to talk to you,' we were told. But FLDS attorney Rod Parker spoke. He says some underage marriages have occurred, but they and other allegations of wrongdoing are exaggerated.

Mr. ROD PARKER (FLDS Attorney): Now we know that there are investigators crawling all over Colorado City, looking for cases, any cases. And yet, where are the cases? And that tells you that the incidence of this kind of conduct must not be as high as it's being portrayed, and that there really are a lot of innocent people out there just trying to live their lives.

BERKES: The prosecutors say the cases are coming. They're armed with new laws designed to make prosecution easier, and they're hoping that exiles like Richard Holm will come forward with incriminating information.

(Soundbite of piano)

BERKES: Former church member Ben Bistline plays a hymn for visitors in his trailer outside Colorado City, a Mormon hymn. Bistline's a Mormon convert now. He sees the pressure building, and he anticipates the downfall of Warren Jeffs and his polygamist FLDS faith.

Mr. BISTLINE: Well, I'll tell you what I see. The worse it gets, the better it is, because the worse it gets, the quicker it's going to fall of its own weight. And as soon as that happens, then the better it's going to get. So I'm just sitting here, watching and waiting for it to happen.

BERKES: There's also a new chapter unfolding. Warren Jeffs is building the first FLDS temple, the faith's most sacred structure, outside a small town in Texas. There also appears to be housing for hundreds of followers. Local authorities are scrambling to respond. More on that tomorrow. Howard Berkes, NPR News.

SIEGEL: And there's more about the FLDS church and polygamy at our Web site, npr.org.

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