Utah Targets Polyg Prophet

While Arizona autorities languish, the Utah Attorney General's Office focuses on the leader of the fundamentalist Mormon Church

Phoenix New Times/August 21, 2003
By John Dougherty

"We are under attack," declared fundamentalist Mormon Prophet Warren Jeffs from his pulpit in Colorado City during an August 10 sermon.

"We need the Lord's protection," he warned members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS).

Utah authorities are investigating Jeffs for allegedly having sex with underage girls he "married" in polygamous ceremonies, as well as with performing such marriages for members of his community. Jeffs used his 70-minute sermon to announce a series of drastic measures.

The most startling were the suspension of church services for the first time in 50 years and the suspension of all future polygamous marriages. The last time the FLDS canceled religious services was under a court order in the wake of the infamous 1953 police raid on the remote town that straddles the Utah border north of the Grand Canyon.

Jeffs told the congregation that services were canceled until further notice because he had received a "revelation" from the Lord.

There was no mention of the threat by outside authorities. Instead, Jeffs said, "Until this people honor the word of God, this privilege [marrying into polygamy] is withdrawn from them."

The prophet's sermon was secretly recorded by a member of Jeffs' congregation and a copy provided to New Times.

Some observers say Jeffs took the action to undermine opposition to his theocratic rule over the fundamentalist border area that also includes Hildale, Utah. But the more likely explanation, others speculate, is that he is preparing to flee the area ahead of Utah authorities.

Repeated attempts by New Times to reach Jeffs for comment about this and several previous articles on polygamy in Arizona have been unsuccessful.

"This is a totally unexpected change in events -- no question about it," former FLDS member and Colorado City schoolteacher Deloy Bateman said about Jeffs' edicts.

Observed former church member and Colorado City historian Benjamin Bistline, "He's running scared."

They said Jeffs knows he's a prime target in Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's aggressive prosecution of polygamists who marry underage girls.

Shurtleff told New Times, "Once we establish the case and have the evidence, we will charge him."

Utah birth certificates show that Jeffs, 47, conceived children with at least two girls under the age of 18 -- making him vulnerable to felony sexual-misconduct-with-a-minor charges.

Not only does Jeffs exert enormous influence over the daily lives of FLDS members living in the area, he also controls most of the property in both Colorado City and Hildale through a trust called the United Effort Plan. The UEP's holdings in the two towns are estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

Jeffs' surprising announcement came four days before the FLDS received another blow to its cherished practice of coercing underage girls into polygamous marriages with much older men.

Colorado City police officer Rodney Holm was convicted on August 14 of three felony counts of bigamy and sexual misconduct with a minor in nearby St. George, Utah.

The conviction marks the first time Utah has successfully prosecuted an FLDS member on such charges since the mid-1940s. A five-woman, four-man jury deliberated for only 90 minutes before convicting Holm, who lives in Hildale.

Prosecutors said the fact that the conviction was by a jury selected from St. George -- a historic Mormon town where many are descended from polygamous families -- demonstrates that civil law trumps religious doctrine in the minds of citizens.

"If you marry underage girls," said Kristine Knowlton, lead prosecutor in the case, "we are going to come after you. It's child abuse."

Holm's conviction also raises serious questions about the conduct of the Colorado City Police Department, which also serves Hildale.

Holm's illegal underage marriage was well known in the community, yet his fellow officers -- some of whom are polygamists -- took no action to protect the 16-year-old victim who lived with Holm, two other wives and 20 children.

In addition, Utah state police records reveal that many, if not all, of Colorado City's cops have failed for more than a decade to complete Utah's required annual continuing education courses. Failure to complete a minimum of 40 hours a year of continuing education automatically suspends an officer's certification in the state, Shurtleff said.

"That is a huge concern for me," Shurtleff said.

With or without the continuing education, the AG said, the certification of the entire department should be terminated based on the officers knowing that Holm had committed crimes and failing to do anything about it.

The lack of a legitimate police force in Colorado City-Hildale is raising concerns among critics of the community that an armed vigilante group loyal to Jeffs might seek revenge against those who have resisted his authority. Known locally as the "God squad," the group is said to number up to 50 men.

"The whole atmosphere is scary," said Deloy Bateman.

The Holm conviction and Jeffs' suspension of religious services and polygamous marriages -- plus the problems facing the police department -- will serve as a dramatic backdrop to the August 22 summit scheduled in St. George between Shurtleff and Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. The two AGs, to be joined by county authorities from both sides of the state line, will talk about a joint prosecution strategy aimed at the FLDS.

To date, Arizona has done little to address the well-documented sexual, welfare and education abuses in Colorado City -- other than to conduct a three-year criminal investigation that has resulted in no arrests.

"What does intimate mean?" 21-year-old Ruth Stubbs asked prosecutor Kristine Knowlton, in response to the attorney's question about her relationship with Colorado City police officer Rodney Holm.

Startled, Knowlton paused, and carefully selected her response in the context of her previous question to Stubbs. She had asked the witness how often she had engaged in "intimate" relations with Holm.

"Sexual intercourse," Knowlton explained to the witness.

Ruth nodded. Her unfamiliarity with the word "intimate" and several other common words speaks volumes about how young girls are commonly treated in Colorado City. Ruth's formal education ended after sixth grade, four years before she became a child bride at age 16.

One of 42 children raised in a polygamous household, Ruth was entered into a polygamous union -- known as a "spiritual" marriage -- to Rodney Holm on December 11, 1998. She joined two other wives in his household.

Ruth was special, because it meant that Holm, under fundamentalist Mormon theology, would be able to enter the "celestial kingdom" when he dies. A third wife is a requirement for such ascension to godlike status.

At first, Ruth had had no interest in helping Rodney reach this crucial threshold. She had wanted to marry another man, a bachelor, whom she had been seeing for several months.

But when she approached FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs (who died last September) to gain his permission to marry her sweetheart, the elder Jeffs told her that she "belonged" to Rodney.

Holm was already legally married to Ruth's older sister, Suzie, and spiritually married to a second wife, Wendy.

"I just cried," Ruth testified, recalling Rulon Jeffs' decision.

But Ruth testified that she went along with the edict anyway.

When Knowlton asked her why she had agreed to marry Holm, Ruth said, "I don't know."

The day after Rulon's decision, Ruth was "sealed for time and all eternity" to Holm in a religious ceremony conducted by Warren Jeffs. Ruth Stubbs was 16 and Rodney Holm was 32.

Within two months, Ruth was pregnant with her first child with Holm. She would conceive one more child with Holm before turning 18.

Even though she has only a grammar-school education and few job skills, Ruth fled the polygamous marriage in December 2001. With the help of a sister who had left the community two decades earlier, Ruth filed a child-custody case in Maricopa County that ultimately resulted in Utah filing the criminal charges against Holm. Shurtleff's office used the case in preparing its charges against the Colorado City cop.

Despite her troubled history in the polygamous enclave, Ruth was not an enthusiastic prosecution witness. After a short stay in Phoenix, Ruth moved back to the Colorado City area, and her children have been staying on a regular basis with Holm and his other wives. She had signed a statement in her child-custody case that she did not want Holm to go to jail.

And for a while, Ruth appeared to be sticking to her commitment to help Holm stay out of jail. She failed to appear for Holm's preliminary hearing last December -- which led to the dismissal of a bigamy charge the state had filed against her sister, Suzie, for pressuring Ruth to marry Holm.

Her absence also prevented Utah authorities from obtaining sworn testimony they planned to use to file a felony charge against Warren Jeffs for conducting her spiritual marriage ceremony. That charge can no longer be filed because the statute of limitations has expired on the commission of the alleged crime.

Even as Holm's trial date approached, authorities were uncertain whether Ruth would honor a subpoena to appear, since FLDS elders were pressuring her not to cooperate.

But she did appear, and the chamber was packed to overflow capacity in Utah Fifth Judicial Judge G. Rand Beachum's court.

Many of the seats were occupied by stern-faced FLDS members -- in an obvious message to the jury, and to Ruth Stubbs.

FLDS women -- wearing dowdy clothes, no makeup and their hair pulled back in tight braids -- sat next to their husbands. During breaks in the proceedings, the men directed the females around the courthouse complex with mere nods and flicks of their fingers.

But the FLDS' hope that Ruth would fall into line like any loyal fundamentalist wife, taught to obey men without question, was dashed when Ruth walked into the courtroom. She had tossed aside any remnant of the strict FLDS dress code, and strutted to the witness stand wearing a tight, white-knit blouse and clingy blue jeans.

The state's ploy was to establish that Ruth had been victimized by a man twice her age intent on stealing her virginity. And her mostly yes-and-no answers, coupled with her lack of education and young-girl demeanor, were enough to convict Holm of bigamy and the two counts of sexual misconduct charges leveled against him. Each of the three counts is punishable by up to five years in prison.

Holm had married Ruth's sister, Suzie, in a civil ceremony in 1986. Prosecutors established that he and Ruth then entered into a spiritual marriage in 1998, while Holm was still legally married to Suzie and spiritually married to Wendy. In Utah, bigamy occurs when a legally married person is married to or "purports" to be married to another person.

The unlawful sexual misconduct charges were easy to prove.

Since Holm did not testify, there was little the defense could do to refute Ruth's sworn statements, not to mention copies of birth certificates showing that Holm was the father of two children conceived when Ruth was underage. Ruth testified that she had engaged in regular sexual relations with Holm in their house in Hildale while she was under 18 and not legally married to him.

The defense's principal argument was that the state could not prove the exact location of the sexual intercourse that led to the conception of the children. Defense attorney Rodney Parker argued that conception could have occurred when the couple was traveling outside the state of Utah.

The defense attempted to have two expert witnesses testify about the history and philosophy of the FLDS, but Judge Beachum would not allow it. "The community is not on trial," Beachum said.

The only defense witness called was Ruth's father, David Stubbs, who testified that he gave Holm permission to marry his 16-year-old daughter.

"I told [Ruth] I felt like Rod was a good man," David Stubbs said.

On cross-examination, he admitted that Ruth's mother had been opposed to her marriage to Holm.

With the facts stacked against them, Parker, and his senior partner, Max Wheeler, tried to convince the jury that Holm should be acquitted because he had merely followed deeply held religious beliefs that were once common throughout Utah.

The lawyers alluded to the fact that polygamy was first introduced to the Mormon Church by founder Joseph Smith in 1843. The mainstream Mormon Church moved away from the practice in 1890, although high-ranking church officials continued to practice it well into the 20th century.

The fundamentalist Mormon community in Colorado City and Hildale was formed when polygamists broke with the Salt Lake City-based church over its renunciation of plural marriage and moved to the isolated area along the Arizona Strip.

In his closing arguments, Parker seized on an ambiguity regarding polygamy in the mainstream church. While the church says it excommunicates any member engaging in polygamy, the practice remains codified in church doctrine. In fact, it is believed by many mainstream adherents that polygamy will be practiced in the afterlife.

"We don't see our ancestors as criminals and immoral," Parker told jurors, several of whom are Mormon. "We see our ancestors today as victims of religious persecution. . . . If the federal government had not forced us, the [Mormon Church] would not have given up polygamy."

Parker said Holm was simply following "God's laws," instead of the state's.

Prosecutor Knowlton shredded Parker's religious-based defense in her brief rebuttal.

"It is not appropriate to come in to this court and ask you to ignore the law," Knowlton told the jury.

She argued that historical religious practices are irrelevant when it comes to the legal prohibition against adults having sex with children: "What was acceptable in the 19th century is not acceptable now."

Even if polygamy were legally allowed, Knowlton said, the bottom line is that Holm could have waited until Ruth was 18 to make her his third wife.

"He's sworn [as a police officer] to protect children," she said. "He violated that trust and violated these laws."

Despite Knowlton's emphasis on the letter of the law regarding sex with underage girls, defense attorney Wheeler insisted during a break in the trial that the charges against Holm were really an attack on the institution of polygamy.

"You can't separate these prosecutions from the whole concept of plural marriages," he said.

After the verdicts were returned, Ron Barton, a Utah AG's Office investigator working on the case, said, "Today we have sent a message to Warren Jeffs that those marriages will not be tolerated, and we have also sent a message to the young women in Colorado City that they are entitled to the protection of the law."

Holm's lawyers said they plan to file an appeal, based in part on the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down a Texas sodomy law involving consenting adults. Parker said the Supreme Court's ruling is broad enough to protect Holm's religious right to practice polygamy.

Holm is scheduled to be sentenced on October 10.

Nearly an hour into his August 10 sermon, Prophet Warren Jeffs announced that God had told him he was upset about the construction of a stone monument in Colorado City commemorating the 50th anniversary of Arizona's police raid on the community.

The July 26, 1953, raid is the penultimate moment in FLDS history. Directed by then-governor Howard Pyle, the raid resulted in the arrest of most of the men in town and the forced removal of women and children to Phoenix. Pyle's effort to end polygamy in the community ultimately failed.

The raid has been elevated to biblical proportions by the FLDS, whose members see its failure as a confirmation that they are entitled to practice their fundamentalist religious beliefs -- foremost among them polygamy.

Late last month, Colorado City officials dedicated the stone monument and museum built inside the town's historic schoolhouse. Several senior members of the Barlow family, including Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, had been among those arrested in the raid half a century ago. The museum featured a slide show and photographs depicting the event.

Warren Jeffs was not alive during the raid and moved to Hildale from Salt Lake City in the late 1990s. He did not attend the July 26 dedication. Jeffs assumed the role of prophet last September after his father Rulon's death.

For the past 10 months, Jeffs and members of the Barlow family have quietly engaged in a power struggle for control of the FLDS community. The Barlows, who handle nearly all of the civic duties in Colorado City, also have a natural claim to religious power.

They are descendants of former FLDS founder and Prophet John Y. Barlow, who died in 1949. In recent months, the Barlows have been holding religious meetings outside of Jeffs' direction.

The Barlows' quiet insurrection, along with the erection of the museum and monument, not only angered Jeffs, it apparently did not sit well with God either. Jeffs told his congregation that the holy spirit had delivered a revelation to him the day after the dedication expressing outrage.

In his sermon, Jeffs gave worshipers the following account of God's thunderous message:

"Verily, I say unto you, my servant Warren, my people have sinned a very grievous sin before me in that they have raised up monuments to man and have not glorified it to me. For it is by my almighty arm that my people have been preserved and shall be preserved if they are worthy. I use men as instruments to perform my work."

The revelation continues for another 10 minutes, with Jeffs relaying that the Almighty issued a warning through him to the FLDS members who erected the monument that they must repent and make retributions.

Quoting the Lord, he said, "And if you do not, I shall bring a scourge upon my people to purge the ungodly from among you. And those that are righteous shall suffer with the wicked."

Jeffs told the congregation that God wants FLDS faithful to remove the artifacts from the museum and to "wreck [the monument] to pieces [and] scatter the pieces in to the hills where they cannot to be found . . ."

"And he told me to say in the name of the Lord that he now removes from this people the privilege of receiving the ordinances of the house of God until restitution is made unto him. Sacraments, baptism, the laying on of the hands for the gift of the holy ghost, receiving priesthood, priesthood marriage."

Just to make sure the congregation got the message, Jeffs said the Lord had canceled all church meetings, to boot.

"The Lord wants me to say to this people that, as of now, and until further notice, all priesthood planned meetings will be canceled. Priesthood meetings, general meetings on Sundays, Monday morning meetings."

Jeffs' commands were taken to heart.

The Leroy S. Johnson Meeting Hall parking lot was empty August 17 at a time when it normally would have been jammed with cars. "There wasn't so much as a yellow dog at the meeting house," recounted Deloy Bateman.

The monument that triggered Jeffs' (not to mention the Lord's) wrath has since been removed.

Mayor Barlow declined to talk with New Times during a visit to Colorado City on August 13. But town clerk Kevin Barlow confirmed that the monument is gone.

"It came and it went," Kevin Barlow said, before adding that no state or city funds were used to pay for it.

If cancellation of the services is a prelude to Jeffs fleeing to avoid prosecution, the tactic will not save him, AG Shurtleff said.

If Utah decides to indict Jeffs and he has fled the area -- perhaps moving to Mexico or Canada, where he has polygamous supporters -- Utah will seek his extradition.

"We would issue a warrant, and when we get him, we get him," Shurtleff said.

Meanwhile, Shurtleff said, Jeffs' action is welcome news because it means that no more underage marriages will be performed, at least in the short run. Jeffs is charged with performing all FLDS marriage ceremonies.

The prospect that a member of the Barlow clan may want to assume control of the church, however, is not a comforting thought, said Shurtleff, himself a mainstream Mormon.

"The Barlows aren't pretty either. It's like dealing with the devil."

Rodney Holm's conviction has put the spotlight on whether disciplinary action should be taken against other members of the nine-man Colorado City police department for ignoring Holm's sexual relationship with a minor.

Sidney Groll, Utah's Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST) director, noted that the department has already lost its right to perform law enforcement duties in the state because members failed to keep up with continuing education requirements. Groll said he will now ask the Utah Attorney General's Office whether a formal investigation should be launched against the department.

AG Shurtleff told New Times he eagerly awaits Groll's request for advice. He said he has no confidence in the Colorado City police force in the wake of the Holm verdicts.

Because of his felony convictions, Holm obviously is unlikely ever to regain his peace-officer certification, but Shurtleff said, "The rest of [the members of the police department also] ought to be done, decertified."

In addition to being attorney general, Shurtleff is a member of the POST panel that rules on officer certification in Utah.

Arizona law enforcement certification officials are waiting to see what action Utah takes against the Colorado City department. If Utah permanently revokes officer certification for the department's failure to protect Ruth Stubbs, Arizona may also take action, said Arizona POST director Tom Hammerstrom.

The murky status of the Colorado City department combined with the presence of Warren Jeffs' armed vigilante force raises serious security issues for the town, AG's investigators and citizens believe.

Colorado City police chief Sam Roundy refused to assist Shurtleff's office when it attempted to serve Jeffs with a subpoena for records last winter. When they went to the Hildale compound Jeffs shares with his more than a dozen wives, Utah investigators said, they were confronted with men who admitted they were carrying concealed weapons.

That confrontation ended without incident. No arrests were made.

But Colorado City citizens like Benjamin Bistline believe that any effort by Utah to take Jeffs into custody will result in an armed confrontation with the "God squad."

"If they went after him with a SWAT team," Bistline contended, "I'm sure there would be a battle with bloodshed."

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