Girls flee polygamous sect as leader splits families

The New York Times/January 31, 2004
By Nick Madigan

Colorado City, Arizona -- A power struggle between members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect has exposed deep fissures in the largest polygamous community in North America, a town in which most men have several wives and sometimes dozens of children.

A handful of congregants normally subservient to the dictates of Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet and leader of the sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have begun to rebel against his rule.

The rebellion was put in motion this month when Mr Jeffs expelled more than 20 men from the church, separating them from their wives and children and forcing them from their houses, over which the church claims ownership through a land trust that Mr Jeffs controls.

Invariably, in such purges, an excommunicated man's wives and children are placed under the control of another man, who may then marry whomever he chooses, including the female children, church members say.

In recent days, at least three teenage girls have fled Colorado City, just south of the Utah border, with the help of anti-polygamy advocates.

One of the girls said she had escaped to avoid being married, on Mr Jeffs's orders, to a man many years her senior, a common practice here.

Last week Ross Chatwin, whom Mr Jeffs had earlier expelled, publicly denounced the leader and compared his authoritarian style to that of Adolf Hitler.

In expelling the men, Mr Jeffs cited a revelation from God. However, his detractors say he did so to thwart potential rivals to his authority.

"We need your help to stop Warren Jeffs from destroying families, kicking us out of our homes, and marrying our children into some kind of political brownie-point system," Mr Chatwin told reporters and townspeople from his front porch as his wife, Lori, and six children stood by him.

"This Hitler-like dictator has got to be stopped before he ruins us all," said Mr Chatwin, 35, who does not practise polygamy.

Mr Jeffs, 47, a former high school principal, controls virtually everything in town; his followers say he even decides the fates of his flock in the afterlife.

He routinely forces girls, some of them barely teenagers, into plural marriages, to men who are often in their 50s and 60s, according to people who are no longer his followers. Co-operation is rewarded: men who comply with Mr Jeffs's demands are given more wives.

The fundamentalist community evolved after members of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City, Utah, officially renounced polygamy in 1890. The practice is forbidden under Utah law. The Arizona constitution also forbids polygamy. Although the prohibition was never written into state law, state officials have promised to prosecute polygamists under child-abuse statutes.

"I knew at 13 that I didn't want to live like that," said Fawn Louise Broadbent, 16, one of the teenagers who fled recently. "I want to go to a real school, not a church school. And I want to be a clothing designer, not somebody's 15th wife."

Lorie Wyler, who was one of four wives of a local man before she left him and the church several years ago, said more young people were rebelling.

"Kids are leaving - it's not uncommon," Ms Wyler said. "This is getting ready to explode."

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