New letter fans FLDS dispute

Salt Lake Tribune/February 4, 2004
By Hilary Groutage Smith

Cane Beds, Ariz. -- Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheehan is investigating an unsigned letter that rails against the interference of "gentiles and apostates" in the workings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and claims "blood atonement" is the only salvation for people who leave the sect.

Ben Bistline, who left the FLDS 20 years ago, said he received the letter at his Colorado City post office box Jan. 23.

"I'm not afraid for my life," said Bistline, who has written a history of the area. "What scares me is the mentality."

The FLDS is based in the border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., and is led by Warren Jeffs, considered by his followers to be their prophet. Many of its 8,000 members practice plural marriage. The community has been in the news since early January, when Jeffs excommunicated 21 men and asked them to leave their homes, wives and children.

The two-page, single-spaced letter, addressed to "Benny Bistiline," reads in part: "The prophet says the only hope for a person who disobeys is blood atonement. He hasn't told anybody to kill anybody else. He's working very hard to get us to a point where God will clean up the world.

"He's destroying the seeds of contention. . . . Then God will be able to order the destroying angels to go forth and they will kill off all the wicked."

This is at least the second anonymous letter that has appeared since Jeffs' action. Excommunicant Ross Chatwin of Colorado City, who on Jan. 24 publicly denounced church leaders, said a letter was left at his house with instructions to copy it and mail it, which he says he did. Chatwin said Monday he knew nothing about the latest letter.

Chatwin has been summoned to a court in Kingman, Ariz., on Thursday to answer the "notice to quit property" he was given Jan. 27 by the FLDS. Homes and property in the towns are held in trust by the church; those who live in those homes do so at the pleasure of their religious leaders.

The concept of blood atonement -- that a person must shed his own blood to atone for shedding another's -- was put forth by Brigham Young and a few other early leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That view, however, is not considered doctrine of the LDS Church, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism. The LDS Church disavowed polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates those who practice it.

Bistline said Monday he would stay put in Cane Beds, a desolate desert stretch about two miles south of Colorado City. Sheehan said his investigators are deciding whether to turn the letter over the FBI. "I read it and I would consider it a threat," Sheehan said.

Sheehan has stationed extra officers around Hildale and Colorado City since early January. Although emergency calls placed in the towns ring to the city marshal's office, Sheehan said, residents also may call 800-526-1911 to contact deputies patrolling the Arizona Strip.

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