Polygamists Probed

The Utah AG's office vows aggressive prosecution of fundamentalist Mormons who "marry" young girls

PhoenixNewTimes.com/May 1, 2003
By John Dougherty

The spiritual leader of a fundamentalist Mormon sect along the Arizona-Utah border apparently fathered a child with a second underage girl he considers one of his many wives, according to Utah birth records obtained by New Times.A Utah birth certificate shows that 47-year-old Warren Jeffs is the father of a baby girl delivered by Lori Steed, who was 17 years, 11 months, two days old at the time of conception, based on a full-term gestation. The baby, Elizabeth Jeffs, was born in Hildale, Utah, on May 9, 2001.

The revelation about Jeffs comes at the same time as details surface about how Arizona and Utah law enforcement officials botched the arrest of fugitive polygamist Orson William Black, and subsequently allowed his wives and children -- including his alleged sexual-abuse victims -- to flee to a hideout in Mexico.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office in February charged Black, 42, with five felonies related to sexual misconduct with two underage sisters. The women -- Roberta Stubbs, now 20, and Beth Stubbs, now 19 -- have refused to cooperate with authorities in the prosecution.

The Black family's sudden relocation to Mexico is a serious setback to Arizona's first effort in 50 years to prosecute a polygamist on sexual misconduct charges, says Don Conrad, the AG's chief criminal investigator.

The lack of even reluctant witnesses to testify against Black makes it "extremely difficult" for the state to proceed with a criminal case, Conrad says.

The Black family's international flight comes at the same time as more evidence surfaces showing that underage girls enter into polygamous marriages performed by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) based in Colorado City, Arizona.

New Times reported recently ("Fornicating for God," March 20) that Jeffs, who is considered to be the FLDS prophet, is also the father of a baby delivered by Mildred Annie Jessop. Records indicate that the girl was 17 years, six months old at the time of conception based on complete gestation.

The reclusive Jeffs avoids the media and rarely makes public appearances. He could not be reached for comment.

It is a felony in Utah for a person at least 10 years older to have sexual relations with a 16- or 17-year-old who is not his legal spouse. Last month, Utah Governor Mike Leavitt signed into law a bill that makes "marrying" a second girl who is under the age of 18 a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison.

The FLDS is a renegade branch of the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church. It is estimated to have 10,000 members scattered across the intermountain West. Colorado City, its headquarters town, is adjacent to Hildale, on the north side of the state line. The closed society in the area is hostile to outsiders and expels its own members if they question religious leaders.

Jeffs is married in the eyes of his church to more than a dozen females housed in a fenced compound in Hildale. Jeffs is the only FLDS official ordained to perform plural marriages and his arrest on sexual misconduct charges would be a major blow to the church.

The discovery of a second underage "spiritual" wife is expected to intensify scrutiny of Jeffs and other FLDS members. The Utah Attorney General's Office is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into criminal activity by the church that has now expanded to include federal law enforcement agencies.

"We are taking a look at this from an organized-crime standpoint," Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff tells New Times.

Shurtleff says his office is "trying to get some cooperation with the feds looking for potential violations that might come under RICO and [involve allegations that some FLDS leaders are the same as] crime bosses."

Shurtleff declined to elaborate on the extent of the investigation, but he says it includes the FLDS in Hildale and other polygamous communities scattered across Utah. Shurtleff was emphatic that his office intends to aggressively prosecute polygamists who are involved in sexual misconduct with minors.

"I want them to get the message that we will prosecute," Shurtleff says. "We want to get two, three or four cases under our belt."

Shurtleff says FLDS officials have told him they are against the marriage of girls 15 years and younger, but that 16- and 17-year-olds are fair game. Shurtleff says he told FLDS leaders he will prosecute if they force teenagers under 18 into polygamy.

"They want to get them pregnant when they are still kids," Shurtleff says. "[They want them] married and pregnant and working in a job where they have no money and no hope and where they are locked in."

Shurtleff, who is a member of the mainstream Mormon Church, says he has met with Utah county attorneys and told them he is willing to prosecute any polygamy-related sexual misconduct and welfare-fraud cases that may arise.

Shurtleff is likely to run into stiff opposition from the politically well-connected FLDS polygamists who hold powerful sway in Washington County, Utah, politics. The FLDS has a long-standing reputation for delivering block votes in local elections.

State investigators already have been challenged by the FLDS in more serious ways that could have led to a dangerous confrontation. Last year, Shurtleff says, his investigators were confronted by FLDS members after agents began photographing Jeffs' expansive home during an unsuccessful attempt to serve subpoenas to get documents.

"They started ordering us to turn over the camera," Shurtleff says. "Our guys said, Do you have weapons?' They did."

When the state investigators asked the FLDS members if they had concealed-weapons permits, they said they did not and "backed off at that point," Shurtleff says.

Infiltrating the FLDS community is difficult because church officials monitor traffic that enters the area. The FLDS, Shurtleff says, has followed his investigators through town and sometimes beyond. The FLDS' intimidation efforts, Shurtleff says, will not deter his plans to prosecute polygamists for pedophilia.

"They have gotten away with it for so long. We want to get the message out. We want convictions in place."

At the same time Shurtleff is stepping up the pressure on polygamists, Arizona's Child Protective Services agency and the Washington County (Utah) Attorney's Office have been verbally attacked for mishandling investigations involving fugitive Orson Black.

The botching of the Black case threatens to derail Washington County Attorney Eric Ludlow's bid to become a state judge. His confirmation hearing before the Utah Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee was delayed after anti-polygamist groups raised questions over his failure to prosecute alleged crimes by FLDS members in Hildale.

Records obtained by New Times show that Ludlow's office intervened on March 20 during a police standoff at Black's home near Hildale that resulted in Black avoiding arrest.

Three weeks earlier, on February 27, the Arizona Attorney General's Office had filed a felony warrant charging Black with five counts of conspiracy and sexual misconduct with Roberta and Beth Stubbs.

Washington County Sheriff's Office records state that Deputy Chris Ray discovered Black's minivan at his home on the evening of March 20. Ray had been dispatched to pick up three of Black's many children from half a dozen wives and turn them over to an ex-wife, Tamara Phelps.

The presence of Black's van at the home surprised Phelps, who told police her ex-husband had fled to Mexico after Arizona Attorney General's investigators attempted to serve him with the felony warrant on March 13.

According to Ray's police report, the deputy notified his superiors that Black appeared to be in the home and refused to answer the door. Ray also told his superiors that Black was known to have a firearm in the house and that Phelps' children were believed inside.

Sheriff's officials mobilized a tactical assault team and ordered Ray and other deputies to surround and illuminate the structure with strobe lights because officers were worried that Black would attempt to flee into the night. Meanwhile, sheriff's officials began the process of obtaining search warrants for the house and of Black's vehicle.

About this time, the police report states, Black's attorney, Todd MacFarlane, began discussions with sheriff's officers and the Washington County Attorney's Office. Soon after, Deputy Ray states in the report, he was told that MacFarlane might be able to talk Black into surrendering if the deputies turned off the lights pointed at the house.

They did so, and a short time later, Ray states, superiors told him that MacFarlane, Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith and the County Attorney's Office had agreed to meet the next morning to talk about peacefully settling the standoff.

Ray was ordered to withdraw from what appeared to be a hostage situation where an armed fugitive was barricaded in a house with several teenage girls. "Sheriff Smith wanted all officers and deputies pulled from the scene," Ray's report states.

The decision infuriated Phelps, whose three daughters were still in the home with Black. She had accused Black of physically and sexually abusing her children.

"Tamara was very emotionally upset, saying Orson would for sure take the children and go to Mexico with them," Ray's report states. "She wanted to know why we were leaving her children in a dangerous environment."

Pennie Peterson, a former FLDS member, had accompanied Phelps to pick up the three daughters. Peterson says she and Phelps went to the sheriff's office the next morning and were informed that MacFarlane no longer represented Black and that Black had not surrendered.

Later that day, March 21, sheriff's deputies returned to the Black home and were allowed to enter. The deputies found Phelps' three daughters, and returned them to their mother.

But Black -- the polygamous fugitive who had been surrounded the night before -- was long gone.

County Attorney Ludlow and MacFarlane did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Smith, the Washington County sheriff, says his top priority was the safe release of the children. He says he wasn't aware that Black was wanted on a felony warrant from Arizona -- despite the fact that his deputies had notified sheriff's department supervisors of the warrant early on the evening of March 20.

Even if he had known about Arizona's warrant the night before, Smith says, he still would have removed his officers to defuse the situation.

"Black was the least of my worries," Smith says.

Smith says he's had no personal contact with the Arizona Attorney General's Office and that he thinks Black's arrest is a low priority for Arizona authorities. Besides, he says, the Arizona felony charges against Black were not serious enough to risk a violent confrontation.

"There are felonies, and then there are felonies," Smith says.

Asked why he didn't leave a deputy to monitor Black's house overnight, Smith says he didn't have enough manpower for such a stakeout.

Bottom line: Black's arrest, Smith says, is not Washington County's concern.

"That's Arizona's problem," he says.

The WCSO encounter with Black was expected to be raised during a Utah Senate confirmation committee hearing on Ludlow's judicial nomination scheduled for April 30 (after press time for this article). A committee staff member, Jerry Howe, says the Black incident raises a serious question about Ludlow's competency.

"Why didn't they arrest the guy when they had them surrounded? I don't have the answer to that," Howe said before the hearing.

The failure by Washington County law enforcement to arrest Black surprised Mohave County (Arizona) Sheriff Tom Sheahan. On the morning of March 21, Sheahan told New Times that he understood Black's house had been surrounded the night before and that Black would be arrested.

"If they capture him, he would be extradited to Arizona and would be in our jail," Sheahan said at the time.

A month later, Sheahan says he doesn't know why Black wasn't nabbed and that he hasn't asked for an explanation from Washington County.

"It doesn't matter what happened at that time," Sheahan says. "It matters where he is at now."

Law enforcement officials in Arizona and Utah believe Black has fled to Mexico. In recent weeks, several of Black's wives and more than a dozen children have also left the country to reportedly join him south of the border.

Among the children who left Arizona is 15-year-old Sally Beth Barlow, whom Peterson believes is now "married" to Black as his seventh wife and has borne him a child.

Sally Beth's mother, Rosie Stubbs Barlow Black, is also married to Black. Sally Beth was fathered by a previous husband.

Beginning in February, Peterson says, she made repeated calls to Arizona Child Protective Services asking that the welfare of Black's children, including Sally Beth, be ensured. Peterson says she was concerned about reports that Sally Beth's appearance had changed dramatically in the last year and that the girl had not been in school for many months.

Peterson had good reason to be worried.

Her sisters are Roberta and Beth Stubbs. Roberta and Beth both delivered babies before they were 18, and Black claims to be the father.

The girls, however, told Arizona AG's investigators in separate interviews last year that they have never had sexual relations with Black, claiming they became pregnant through artificial insemination.

Peterson wasn't the only person expressing concern to CPS that Sally Beth appeared to have had a baby.

A Mohave County sheriff's deputy told a CPS worker that he had observed Sally Beth adjusting a nursing bra and standing close to an infant during an unsuccessful attempt in March to serve the felony warrant on Black, according to an April 14 taped phone call between Peterson and CPS investigator Joanna Donglinger obtained by New Times.

"The police officer said . . . the baby was laying on the bed and that Sally Beth was standing in front of a mirror and adjusting a bra," Donglinger says during the taped conversation. "And he put two and two together, assuming or thinking, that she's been nursing the baby."

Donglinger would soon meet Sally Beth and see evidence for herself. Donglinger went to Black's Arizona home in late March and observed Sally Beth hovering near a baby. Black had his half-dozen or so wives and children spread between two homes about eight miles apart -- one in Arizona and the other in Utah.

"I just happened to notice what looked like a nursing bra," Donglinger says on the tape. "It was just lucky. She was staying so close to that baby, it was a little confusing."

Donglinger was apparently confused because another of Black's wives had also had a baby recently -- although Peterson says that baby is older than the infant observed with Sally Beth.

Despite evidence that Sally Beth was the mother of a baby and that Black was a fugitive on charges of sexual misconduct with minors, CPS failed to act quickly and remove the children from the home, much less see that medical examinations were conducted.

Peterson continued to lodge complaints with CPS officials about the slow pace of Donglinger's investigation. Peterson, who lives in Phoenix, says her contacts in Colorado City told her on April 7 that Black's wives and children were preparing to leave.

Peterson says she immediately began calling all of her CPS contacts, including Donglinger and her supervisor, Carol Quasula, warning that the group was preparing to flee.

Late on the afternoon of April 8, CPS sent investigator Vince Vincent to the house. But Vincent did not have a court order and his effort to remove Sally Beth was rebuffed. Vincent, according to a Donglinger's taped phone call with Peterson, saw several men helping to pack vehicles parked at the house that afternoon.

A CPS investigator returned the next day with a court order, Peterson says. But by that time, Black's brood of wives and more than a dozen children -- including 15-year-old Sally Beth -- were gone. Also fleeing the country were the two victims in Arizona's case against Black -- Roberta and Beth Stubbs.

Peterson says this is the third time CPS has failed to take action when notified about possible sexual abuse of teenage girls by Black. She says she complained repeatedly in 1995 and again in 1997 to CPS investigator Steve Terry when she learned that first Roberta, and then Beth, had moved into his home.

"Nothing happened," Peterson says. "If they had done their job then on Roberta and Beth, we wouldn't have five felony charges now pending against William."

(Subsequently, Terry was promoted to a supervisory position by CPS.)

CPS spokeswoman Liz Barker declined to talk about the case, citing state confidentiality laws.

If Sally Beth had a child with Black, she likely had sexual relations with him when she was about 13 or 14 years old -- which is a more serious felony than the charges Black already faces. Peterson fears that something terrible might happen to Sally Beth and her baby, who are presumed also to be in Mexico with Black.

"I want CPS to be held responsible," Peterson says. "I'm sick of it. We've lost two girls, and now here we go again and lose another one."

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