Victims' Refuge

Arizona and Utah officials decide to curb underage marriages by erecting a sheriff's substation in polygamy country

Phoenix NewTimes/August 28, 2003
By John Dougherty

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is leading the charge.

Arizona and Utah authorities plan to join together for the first time in an effort aimed at curbing the widespread sexual abuse of minors within a Mormon polygamist enclave that straddles the border between the two states.

Law enforcement officials have agreed to open a sheriff's office substation close to Colorado City, Arizona, that is independent of the polygamist-controlled town police department. Hildale, Utah, is adjacent to Colorado City across the state border and is also patrolled by the same police force.

The Colorado City Police Department has lost credibility with other law enforcement agencies in the area, and with state officials in Arizona and Utah, for failing to protect underage girls from coercion into plural marriages. Utah authorities have suspended the department from operating in Hildale because most, if not all, of its officers have failed to maintain mandatory continuing education requirements.

Plans for the joint sheriff's facility were announced following an August 22 summit on polygamy in St. George, Utah, called by Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff and his counterpart in Arizona, Terry Goddard. The summit was also attended by key law enforcement officials from both states and from federal agencies. The idea was to begin developing a unified plan to address long-standing criminal, welfare and tax abuses within the secretive fundamentalist Mormon area.

The substation will be jointly staffed by the Mohave County and Washington County sheriff's offices in Arizona and Utah. It will provide the area with the first police station that is independent of the fundamentalist Mormon religious leaders who have long controlled nearly all aspects of social, political and economic life in Colorado City and Hildale.

"We have a gentlemen's agreement to do this. It will work," Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan said.

The substation will be included in a new justice court building that Mohave County supervisors have already approved for the area, Sheahan said. The $500,000 justice center is expected to be completed next year and is planned to be within walking distance of the fundamentalist communities, the sheriff said.

The substation would serve as a refuge for underage girls fleeing forced polygamous marriages, as well as for other people who have suffered physical and sexual abuse in the polygamous community that also includes Centennial Park, Arizona.

Sheahan explained that the justice center could also include offices for Arizona Child Protective Services, the state Department of Economic Security (which would monitor millions of dollars in welfare payments going to polygamist families), the state Department of Revenue (which would review property and sales tax underpayments) and an advocacy center to assist sexual-abuse victims.

Police outside the control of community leaders will be primarily focused on stemming the sexual abuse that has long gone on in the polygamous area, Sheahan stressed.

"Some of this has been going on for 100 years," he said. "It's not going to be solved overnight. But over the next couple of years [we] think we can make some significant impacts on the abuse."

Two of the three Mohave County supervisors back the plan, although they expressed several concerns.

Supervisor Pete Byers said it has proved difficult to find a suitable location for the justice facility close to Colorado City. The county, he said, is discussing leasing property in the area for the project.

Supervisor Buster Johnson said he would be opposed to leasing property under the dominion of the polygamist-controlled Colorado City Town Council.

Anti-polygamy activists were heartened by the meeting organized by Utah AG Shurtleff and said the planned substation would be a significant improvement.

"I think this is history," said Douglas White, a Bountiful, Utah, attorney who represents Tapestry Against Polygamy, an activist group that has served as an underground railroad for women fleeing the fundamentalist communities.

"I think [the substation will] make a lot of people very uncomfortable down there who have really operated in complete isolation," he said. "I think the wall is coming down."

White, who attended the closed-door meeting of law enforcement officials, said the tone of the discussions was serious.

A committed effort by Arizona and Utah law enforcement to stop underage cohabitation within polygamous "spiritual" unions will eventually knock the legs out of the fundamentalist Mormon society, White predicted.

"Ninety-nine percent of all the polygamous groups maintain their population by feeding on their young," he maintained. "It's only because of the little girls that all of the [polygamists] exist."

Fundamentalist men are induced to offer their teenage daughters for marriage to gain favor with religious leaders. If they do not play along, they risk being denied young spiritual brides in the future. To enter the highest echelon of heaven, a fundamentalist man must have at least three wives.

Conspicuously absent from the summit was any representative from Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano's office and from state Child Protective Services, an agency that Napolitano monitors closely.

Calls to Napolitano's spokeswoman, Kris Mayes, to discuss the CPS' role in the proposed new facility were not returned.

The commitment by law enforcement to take tangible steps to stop the abuses comes just days after a St. George, Utah, jury found Colorado City police officer Rodney Holm guilty of bigamy and unlawful sex with a minor.

After the verdicts, AG Shurtleff announced that his office is investigating the leader of the fundamentalist enclave, Prophet Warren Jeffs, for allegedly having sexual relations with two underage spiritual wives with whom he bore children.

Holm's conviction is putting additional pressure on police regulatory agencies in Arizona and Utah to permanently decertify the Colorado City police force.

A high-ranking Utah law enforcement official said it is essential for both Arizona and Utah to immediately remove the polygamist-controlled Colorado City department and replace it with deputies from the two county sheriff's departments. In addition, Hildale and Colorado City should be forced to pay for the police services provided by the counties, he said.

The official also expressed concern over waiting until next year to erect the substation. "I think it needs to be done now," he said, recommending that a portable building be used until the permanent facility is completed.

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