Colorado City still FLDS stronghold

Clandestine FLDS reasserts control in 2 remote communities

The Arizona Republic/July 31, 2011

Colorado City - Joseph Jessop, a patriarch of polygamy, grunts as his hoe uproots weeds from a tomato patch in the heart of this religious commune along the Arizona Strip.

The 89-year-old allows that much has changed in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints since 2002, when authorities launched an enforcement campaign to stop child marriages and other crimes.

More than a dozen churchmen have been imprisoned for taking teenage brides, and their prophet, Warren Jeffs, is on trial in Texas on charges of bigamy and sexual assault of two underage children he allegedly married.

Most of the town's homes, businesses and properties, once held by a church-controlled trust, are now overseen by a court-appointed fiduciary.

A half-dozen local police officers were stripped of law-enforcement authority because they pledged allegiance to the church rather than to the law.

Public schools, once operated by an FLDS board, were taken over by the state.

Turmoil even reached inside the clandestine church: Jeffs at one point renounced himself as a prophet, then abruptly reassumed the mantle. Scores of former FLDS elders have been excommunicated, stripped of wives and banished from their homes.

Yet amid all the change, the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, remain a sanctuary for plural marriages, celebrated by the FLDS as a key to eternal salvation. Jeffs continues to issue edicts from behind bars. Women still wear ankle-length dresses in a place that seems frozen in the early 1900s.

Jessop grumbles about persecution as he cultivates the flower-fringed fields, removing weeds as if they are metaphors for evil.

"I'm still here, still gardening," the old-timer says. "They've put us through an awful lot of inconvenience. But we refuse to die. We're still who we are and will always be."

Indeed, after nearly a decade of enforcement efforts that included two failed rape-as-an-accessory cases against Jeffs, government officials concede that the two towns embody an aphorism: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

"Our idea was to stop the underage marriages, and I think we've done that," said Gary Engels, a Mohave County investigator who spearheaded the crackdown. "But, if anything, the community has become a lot more closed to society. The people have become a lot more paranoid.

"They all still believe the walls will come tumbling down on the jail, and Warren Jeffs is going to walk free."

"Change in a situation like this comes very slowly," added former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who helped orchestrate the enforcement campaign in Colorado City. "It hopefully happens when you re-establish the rule of law so people can make their own decisions."

Absence of leader

The most glaring change for the FLDS may be the absence of Warren Steed Jeffs, 55, the sect's "prophet, seer and revelator," who is said to have as many as 70 wives.

After he was indicted in 2005 by grand juries in Arizona and Utah, Jeffs became one of the FBI's most-wanted fugitives. The suspect, an angular 6-foot-4 who was listed then at 155 pounds, was captured a year later and has been incarcerated ever since.

In Utah, Jeffs was found guilty of rape as an accessory and sentenced to 10 years in prison for betrothing an underage girl to her adult cousin, but the conviction was overturned because of faulty jury instructions.

He faced similar counts in Arizona, but Mohave County prosecutors dismissed the case after new charges were filed in Texas, carrying more severe penalties.

Using jail phones, authorities say Jeffs maintained his reign over the FLDS faithful, issuing edicts and planning strategy.

Former church members say key church elders, including the mayors of Colorado City and Hildale, were among those dismissed from the flock.

At one point, Jeffs suffered ulcers on his knees from constant prayer and was force-fed because of malnourishment caused by fasting.

Later, in a conversation videotaped in jail, he resigned as church president, renounced himself as a false prophet and admitted to terrible sins. But he later recanted those statements and reclaimed his position as leader of the sect.

At a San Angelo, Texas, courthouse, at least a half-dozen FLDS men already have been convicted of bigamy and/or sexual assault of children who were taken as brides, based on evidence gathered during a raid of the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, three years ago.

As opening statements were scheduled to begin in Jeffs' trial Thursday, the defendant fired his defense team and was granted permission to represent himself. It is the seventh time in six months that Jeffs, who has pleaded not guilty, has dismissed his lawyers.

Earlier in the week, during jury selection, the lawyers had indicated they planned to contest charges based on religious-freedom provisions of the First Amendment. They also filed a motion challenging the validity of warrants issued prior to searches of the compound.

Distrust of outsiders

At first glance, Colorado City and Hildale seem to embody idyllic notions of old-time America.

Residents in the community of about 8,000 clomp down rural streets on horseback. Neighbors raise chickens, peacocks, goats, cows and even buffalo in their yards. Children play on rope swings or work the gardens alongside women with beehive hairdos.

But look closer, and there are anomalies.

The word "ZION" is inscribed over most front doors, denoting a heaven on earth in anticipation of Christ's second coming.

There are no barking dogs because, according to former FLDS members, canine pets inexplicably have been banned by the prophet.

And many of the townsfolk are less than friendly. When an outsider approaches, they often scurry away, leaving strangers to be followed by men in trucks with darkened windows.

FLDS lawyers say the distrust, or fear, stems from generations of religious persecution, dating to an Arizona raid in the 1950s, when the polygamous community was known as Short Creek.

Since then, church members awaiting the rapture have endured repeated conflicts with the state. Child marriages, which prompted the criminal cases against Jeffs, constitute the most visible controversy.

But a legal battle over ownership of the twin towns has emerged as strategically critical to both church leadership, which seeks to reassert control, and former church members and Utah, which aim to wrestle it away.

For decades, the FLDS Church, which is not affiliated with mainstream Mormonism, controlled virtually all of the community's land, homes and businesses through a trust known as the United Effort Plan. Two years ago, assets were estimated at $110 million.

Families poured their labor and earnings into the trust, which in turn assigned wives, houses and jobs.

Former church members say the religious commune was mostly harmonious until Jeffs assumed leadership in 2002: Child brides became more common. Teenage boys were banished to eliminate competition. Several hundred men, potential rivals who questioned the prophet, were removed from the sect, evicted from homes, stripped of wives and livelihoods.

Jethro Barlow, 58, who was excommunicated in 2003, says the community became an "authoritarian machine" under Jeffs' rule.

"I characterize him as the boy king who inherited more power, more resources and more control than he was entitled to," Barlow said. "He became paranoid and wasteful."

In 2004, some ousted FLDS members began filing lawsuits against the church and its trust.

According to a document filed in court known as "The Record of Warren Jeffs," which was seized during the Texas raid, the prophet had announced that God had ordered him and all the faithful not to recognize civil authority, or to "Answer them nothing."

When representatives of the trust - heeding that edict from Jeffs - declined to appear in court, a Utah judge appointed attorney Bruce Wisan as fiduciary. Suddenly, a non-FLDS outsider had legal control of the twin towns.

Wisan says he has spent years in court trying to transfer title for the properties to individuals in Colorado City - church members as well as those who left or were excommunicated.

At first, he says, FLDS leaders ignored court orders and the law. They dismantled buildings, sold off business equipment and squatted in houses.

Then, Jeffs and his church began a gradual exodus to Texas, buying the so-called Yearning for Zion Ranch to be a sanctuary during the end times of biblical prophecy. Colorado City and Hildale slowly emptied.

"This was a ghost town," recalls Barlow, who now works for the fiduciary. "Weeds were as tall as your shoulder. There were no children outside. Farms dried up."

Barlow and other former church members began moving in, reclaiming their homes, establishing a non-FLDS minority in a community with a combined population of about 7,000.

But in 2008, Texas authorities raided the ranch, temporarily removed more than 400 children from their families and filed charges against Jeffs and other FLDS elders, accusing them of sex crimes with children and bigamy.

In the wake of that event, former FLDS members say Jeffs redesignated Colorado City and Hildale as Zion, and the faithful began coming home to the FLDS cradle.

'Gentiles' shunned

Wisan, Barlow and others said vacant homes were inhabited overnight with plural families. Farm fields that had been dormant were plowed and planted.

Last year, church members worked day and night to build an enormous, opulent mansion in preparation for the prophet's anticipated return.

"There were midnight shuffles," Barlow says. "They would just belligerently take possession of houses, gardens and businesses."

At the same time, Wisan says, FLDS lawyers began fighting to regain control of the trust based on an argument of religious freedom.

"They were passively resisting during the first couple of years. Then, after the Texas raid, it was a fight to the death," Wisan says.

"I have legal control (of the properties), but only a bit of practical control. . . . The (FLDS) bishop exercises control over the members. When he tells them to move in at midnight, they move in without consulting the fiduciary."

Barlow and others say the FLDS became more clandestine and isolated: Televisions, newspapers and computers were banned. Church members erected massive walls around their compounds.

Outsiders, referred to as "gentiles" by the FLDS, were shunned, even by blood relatives. "The neighbor who doesn't talk to me on one side is my brother," Barlow notes, "and on the other side it's my son."

Amid the secrecy, former sect members say they receive only snippets of intelligence about inner workings of the FLDS world today, and no FLDS leader could be reached for comment. (Jessop, the elder who shared a few thoughts as he hoed his field, says he failed in a bid to get permission for a complete interview.)

Still, amid financial and legal pressures from the outside, as well as internal schisms, Barlow sees signs of desperation, including the formation of a rival sect in town.

"There's a lot of information we don't have right now about how draconian the new order has become," he notes. "But we know there are new levels of craziness. . . . It has to collapse."

'This is a mafia'

Isaac Wyler and Andrew Chatwin climb into a truck and rumble down Colorado City's dusty roads.

The former FLDS members, who live in town, are employed by Wisan, the fiduciary, as local eyes and ears - overseeing trust lands and monitoring church activities.

Within less than a minute, Wyler and Chatwin are followed by FLDS security men in several vehicles with darkened windows.

Wyler pulls up to a commercial building where workers, mostly teenage boys, are erecting a 12-foot wall. By court order, construction is allowed on trust lands only with permission of the fiduciary, he says, but FLDS members ignore the law.

Wisan said he has filed suit accusing Jeffs and others of "fleecing trust assets," but his resources are limited and the court cases drag out.

Workers duck for cover as Chatwin starts filming the activity. A pickup truck swerves onto the sidewalk in front of him, blocking the camera view. Chatwin crosses the street. The truck veers backward and jerks to a stop in his line of vision.

"The God Squad," Chatwin snorts. "That's what we call 'em."

Although young FLDS members typically flee at the sight of cameras, a boy of about 10 approaches from the construction site to ask what's going on.

He is told that journalists are doing a report on Colorado City, including the dispute over who owns the town. "I don't have any question," the youth mutters. "It's the church."

Wyler, 45, was among about 20 people booted from the FLDS priesthood - the church membership - in 2004.

He says excommunication orders came down after an elder inquired about his 9-year-old daughter, asking when she would be available for marriage. Wyler says he answered that, until the girl turned 18, the prophet "is going to have to come to my door with a baseball bat."

Wyler says he had built his home, but the trust held the deed, so he was evicted. He says Jeffs uses that power over property as a weapon against FLDS members.

"They're victims," Wyler adds. "When you control people through fear, that's not right. And I feel like it's my responsibility to do something."

Chatwin, 42, who left the church years ago when he realized Jeffs would never assign him a wife, says he lives as an outcast in a place where FLDS leaders still control the police, the medical clinic, the water department and Town Hall.

"It's not just a cult; this is a mafia," Chatwin says. "I know that they're watching me all the time. I've had my house broken into, my office ransacked.

"We're trying to stand up to the best of our ability. . . . And we're starting to see changes. We're starting to see people saying, 'We're done. We're fed up.' "

Just want freedoms

In the garden, Jessop acknowledges that government enforcement campaigns have taken a toll.

But he contends the FLDS has grown stronger under duress and is destined to prevail.

"This is our heavenly father's battle," he says. "And we're his church."

Jessop tinkers with an irrigation pump, then says that FLDS members just want to be left alone with religious liberty guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Asked to explain about child marriages, he slowly shakes his head.

"There's no way that you can properly represent these people," he says, "unless you've got the gift of the spirit of God with you."

Just outside of town, a teenage girl cools off in a canyon stream, sopping wet in her blue, ankle-length dress.

A hiker remarks that it must be uncomfortable, wearing such an outfit.

The girl glances back toward town, then flashes a mischievous smile: "Sometimes you feel like telling them to just go to hell, but . . . "

She shrugs, not completing the thought, then splashes upstream to join several friends.

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