The anticipated exodus of teenage girls from the strife-torn, polygamist communities of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, began in earnest this weekend as about 10 fanned out to towns in southern Utah seeking protection, anti-polygamy activists said Sunday.
The movement followed a ruling by a Maricopa County juvenile court judge late Friday that two 16-year-old teens from Colorado City, who had fled to the Valley last week, would be allowed to stay in foster homes rather than remain in state custody.
"We've got eight runners now, including two with children, and got a bunch more coming," said Flora Jessop of Phoenix, a former Colorado City resident who has been active in opposing multiple marriages since she escaped from the polygamist enclave as a teenager in the mid-1980s.
Bob Curran, director of the St. George, Utah, group Help the Child Brides, said "a number" of both teenaged girls and boys have left the towns in the past few days and many have made contact with Utah child-protection officials.
"We had one runaway yesterday, a 16-year-old girl, whose marriage already was all planned out and we got her to the child-protective people," Curran said. "There are also a lot of young boys fleeing and they are reluctant to have contact with the state. We are encouraging the kids to get out now amidst all this turmoil."
On Jan. 10, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints' controversial prophet, Warren Jeffs, excommunicated about 20 of the communities' most influential men and issued an edict stripping them of their wives.
Included in that group was the public face of Colorado City for the past three decades, Mayor Dan Barlow, and three of his brothers, among them Louis Barlow, a high-ranking member of the polygamist church's priesthood. Dan Barlow also resigned as mayor.
Jeffs also excommunicated four of his brothers and Fred Jessop, a 93-year-old patriarch in the country's largest polygamist area. Many residents of the two neighboring communities, population 6,000, had wanted Jessop to succeed Warren Jeffs' father, Rulon, who had been the church's prophet until his death two years ago.
The towns have been the focus of increased scrutiny by the offices of Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff since the August conviction of Colorado City police Officer Rodney Holm. Holm was convicted of bigamy and having unlawful sex with a minor after Holm took on a 16-year-old as his "spiritual wife."
Last month, the Mohave County Board of Supervisors approved a measure to construct a justice center in Colorado City. The supervisors hope the center will be a way station for women attempting to leave polygamy, which is against the law in Arizona and Utah.
The latest turmoil in Colorado City has put law-enforcement agencies in both states on edge. Four extra deputies and a canine unit were dispatched by the Mohave County Sheriff's Office last week to patrol the area.
The excommunicated members of the Barlow family are still believed to be in the area, but Jessop hasn't been seen by townfolk in nearly a month.
Rumors of violence and growing weapon stockpiles have been circulating throughout the communities. An anonymous letter sent via metered mail in Colorado City last week was sent to more than 400 area residents and predicted that Louis Barlow would become the FLDS church's next prophet.
Law-enforcement agencies also expressed fears 20 years ago that competing factions were stockpiling weapons in the cliffs around the communities and preparing for a showdown before the death of church prophet Leroy Johnson. But that situation resolved itself peacefully.
Tony Judd of Fredonia, the nearest federally licensed gun dealer to Colorado City, said there hasn't been any run on weapons by residents of the two communities in either Fredonia or neighboring Kanab, Utah.
"I've only sold a half-dozen single-shot 22s to people out there during the past year, and that's the kind of gun you shoot rabbits with, not go to war," Judd said.
Longtime Colorado City historian and former church member Ben Bistline said he thinks the tense situation will resolve itself peacefully, as other church conflicts have in the past.
"I think Warren will end up going to Mexico with some of his followers since he recently bought land south of Nogales," Bistline said. "He claims to have 500 faithful, but that's probably only about 200 now. The Barlows have gone elsewhere to regroup, but I think they'll come back and run things again."
Bistline also said that Jeffs had unsuccessfully tried to "win over" Jessop, who has been allied with the Barlows, during meetings in Mexico last month.
"Fred still controls the tithes in the church. This whole thing is all about money," Bistline said.
Shem Fischer of Salt Lake City, former FLDS church member and business manager of a Colorado City cabinet factory before running afoul of the religious leadership, also said he thinks the Barlows will prevail.
"If he (Warren Jeffs) had picked off only one Barlow at a time, maybe he could have gotten away with it," Fischer said. "But he took on all of them, and there will be retribution. The last I heard, none of them had relinquished their homes so that tells you they plan on sticking around."