The Eyes of Outsiders Are Cast on a Polygamous Community

After the group's leader expels 21 members, authorities fearing violence step up patrols.

Los Angeles Times/January 27, 2004
By David Kelly

Colorado City, Ariz. -- Nestled beneath red rock cliffs and soaring mountains, this remote desert community is a land of secrets, a fiercely closed society where outsiders are shunned and the local faith calls for multiple wives and total obedience to the will of the "prophet."

Along the dusty streets, drivers grind to a halt to gawk at strangers. Women dressed in long skirts and smocks buttoned to their chins and children scatter when approached.

The residents don't like the outside world knowing their business, but a peculiar turn of events has made that impossible now. Two weeks ago, the local religious leader, the prophet Warren Jeffs, claimed God had ordered him to expel the mayor and 20 others. He then gave their wives and children to other men.

Jeffs canceled all church services, sacraments and new marriages and retreated behind the 8-foot-walls surrounding his compound.

Those expelled have left the polygamous community, which straddles Arizona and Utah. But law enforcement officials fear they may return, looking for vengeance. Sheriff's deputies traditionally let the local police handle crime in the area. Now, they are patrolling the community.

"We don't like to come out here, and we are not wanted here," said Sheriff's Deputy Laura Stokes of Washington County, Utah. "But we're here in case things get out of control."

Colorado City and adjoining Hildale, Utah, are strongholds of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a splinter group of the Mormon faith. The two towns of roughly 7,500 residents are essentially one community, the largest polygamous enclave in the nation, where nearly every man has more than one wife.

"I think they are imploding," said Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, whose district includes Colorado City. "This is a sham government when a prophet can tell the mayor to get out."

Allegations Exchanged

Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff called Jeffs a tyrant and said that those who had been expelled were providing crucial evidence that child abuse, incest, sexual assault, racketeering and welfare fraud were widespread within the community. "I think there are some good people there," he said, "but their leaders are bad, and they are encouraging the commission of crimes and the violation of civil rights."

The Arizona attorney general's office did not return calls for comment.

One of those recently excommunicated was Ross Chatwin, who last week held a news conference and compared Jeffs to Adolf Hitler and the two towns to concentration camps.

But the prophet's lawyer called the allegations ridiculous.

"I don't know what exactly caused the expulsions," said Raymond Scott Berry of Salt Lake City. "These guys have a very strict spiritual and moral code, and my assumption is these men violated it. I think the church is being unfairly represented here."

Through the years, there have been splits within the community, but none as severe as the ones that have shaken it recently. Some say a feud between Jeffs and the Barlow family lies behind the expulsion of Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow and the others, whose whereabouts remain unknown. The prophet was reportedly angry that residents were seeking counsel from the Barlows instead of from him.

In Mormon beliefs, the prophet receives revelations from God and reveals them to the rest of the believers.

Jeffs became prophet of the fundamentalist sect after his father, Rulon, died in 2002. He wields enormous power and decides who gets additional wives. Jeffs reportedly has up to 60 himself. Most of the land here is owned by a church trust, making it easy to evict anyone seen as betraying the faith. The houses are often huge, holding numerous wives and dozens of children.

Pamela Black, 52, who grew up in Colorado City but left the church, shook her head.

"It's like living in 'The Twilight Zone' here," she said. "It always has been."

Hildale Mayor David K. Zitting is weary of all the recent scrutiny. "I would like to tell everyone to go away and leave us alone," he said, sitting in the empty town hall. "The media creates these distortions about how women and children are so mistreated here. The women and children here live some of the happiest lives I've ever seen."

Since the expulsions, three 16-year-old girls have run away from the community, two of whom said they were being forced into marriages with older men.

The 63-year-old mayor refused to discuss this or other aspects of life within Hildale.

He said "fresh air" and "good weather" brought him here decades ago from Salt Lake City. But was he a polygamist as well?

"One way or the other, I cannot say if I am a polygamist," he replied. "What I've seen of the life is beautiful."

He dismissed the illegality of the practice. "If people make laws that contradict other people's religious convictions, are those people obligated to follow those laws?" he asked.

Zitting smiled, letting the silence answer for him.

Despite flagrant violations of anti-polygamy statutes, Hildale and Colorado City have remained relatively untouched by law enforcement.

Shurtleff said that there are up to 50,000 polygamists in Utah and that he doesn't have the resources to go after them all.

In the last 50 years, only a few people have been jailed for having multiple wives. In August, a Colorado City police officer, Rodney Holm, was sentenced to a year behind bars for bigamy; on Monday, Jeremy Ortell Kingston was sentenced for a year for taking his 15-year-old cousin as his fourth wife.

One reason for the lax enforcement stems from a 1953 raid by the Arizona Highway Patrol and the National Guard that became a public relations disaster.

The authorities stormed the community, arresting the men and putting the women and children on buses to Phoenix.

"The men went to the county jail and the children were declared wards of the state," said Colorado City historian Ben Bistline, 68, who witnessed the event and is writing a book about the city. "They planned to put the children up for adoption."

But a two-year legal battle and public outrage forced the state to return the children, while the men received one year's probation.

Since then, residents have lived their faith here largely undisturbed.

The Strong Pull of Faith

In one of the few local cafes, two teenage girls were having a playful argument.

"Dad loves my mom the best!" declared one.

"No, he loves mine best," said the other.

The two were half sisters; their dad had six wives.

"It's so fun to watch how jealous the wives get," said one, who asked not to be identified because she said her father would punish her.

Asked about the recent expulsions, they grew silent.

"All that matters is who is left standing tall in the end," said one.

The pull of the faith remains strong even among those who have left it.

At the end of a red dirt road, Black sat with her 76-year-old mother in a tiny house dominated by a large portrait of Joseph Smith on the wall. Smith, a polygamist, founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Mormon Church outlawed the practice of polygamy in 1890.

"My husband tried to beat me into submission; he told me I was going to hell," Black said. "I used to pray for him to get another wife, just to get him off my back."

Her mother, who would only give her first name, Julia, winced. She says she left the fundamentalist church because she felt it strayed from its original teachings, but she stills calls polygamy "celestial marriage" and wears the modest dress of the faithful.

"This religion has some good in it," she said sternly. "You're not supposed to go into it if you're not strong enough to handle it. If you want love, go to another religion."

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