Allegations Abound: Colorado City's polygamous community comes under increasing scrutiny

Havasu News-Herald/September 25, 2004
By Mark Hall

As allegations of abuse and fraud in the polygamist community of Colorado City become more prominent, at least one long-time critic believes federal, state and local governments haven't done enough to address the situation.

What's more, he charges that officials aren't addressing the issues at hand and have no practical solutions and, at some point, should be held accountable.

For seven years, District 3 Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson of Lake Havasu City has alleged abuses in the community of about 10,000, which is dominated by members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

He is among a handful of elected officials who have tried to expose unlawful activities in the city - which sits on the Utah-Arizona border - and has specifically identified fraud and widespread child sexual abuse as the two critical issues of concern.

Many of the allegations are old news to him, Johnson said.

"It's just new to the media. There are so many things that were exposed when we first came out with it. There is still more stuff that we have not brought to the public, but they just won't believe it," Johnson said.

Some say there have been crucial steps taken to offer help to victims of abuse, as well an increased law enforcement presence in the area.

Last month, Mohave County and the state opened a joint-government justice center in Colorado City. Various investigators from the county and the state Attorney General's office, Arizona Child Protective Services, as well as victim's advocates and Sheriff's deputies, are on staff at the facility.

Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan also recently announced that his deputies have the jurisdiction to investigate crimes within the city - if they are reported to his agency.

Moreover, neighboring Washington County, Utah, the location of the twin border town of Hildale, recently vowed to step up its patrols and procure funds to place a full-time officer in the area, according to the Associated Press.

For example, it has been alleged that many officers in the Colorado City Police Department - who are law enforcement certified in both Utah and Arizona - are practicing polygamists.

Strong police departmental ties to church leaders, who run all aspects of the municipal government, have been a concern.

Johnson, who voted in favor of the facility, a prefabricated modular structure, said he only did so out of principle, adding, "it is mobile and can be moved."

He said given the fearful and mistrusting nature of alleged victims, many are hesitant to seek outside help.

"These people who are being abused do not trust any of these agencies, which have never stepped forward and helped in the past," Johnson said.

Furthermore, many of the victims don't even know that they are being abused because of their extreme isolation from the outside world, he said.

Abuse allegations often stem from church elders arranging marriages of teenaged girls to older men. It has also been alleged that the rate of incest, child molestation and rape is very high in the community.

While efforts to investigate abuses have intensified, Johnson said the government should target what he believes is financial fraud.

"I think there needs to be, whether it is federal or state, (an investigation) into their money for education, which has already been documented," Johnson said.

From what he has found, Johnson said he believes community leaders have defrauded the county, state and federal government for about $400 million under the guise of "poverty."

After bringing down church leaders for their alleged crimes and cutting off their money supply, Johnson said the government could then address abuses, which could be a very daunting task.

"You are just starting to see the tip of iceberg with the abuses. You just can't let these people (abused women and children) back into society without support," Johnson said.

In many cases victims of extensive abuse become abusers later in life, said Johnson, a retired police officer.

Johnson also said government officials who have known about the situation in Colorado City and Hildale for a long time - and have done nothing to help - should be held to answer for their inaction.

"At some point it comes back to the people that should do something. They should be held accountable at some point," he said.

Earlier this month, Colorado City resident Ross Chatwin was arrested for trespassing at his own home by Colorado City authorities. Chatwin was ex-communicated by church leader, Prophet Warren Jeffs, and told to leave his residence.

The arrest came days after a Mohave County Superior Court judge ruled that Chatwin could continue to live in the house, despite the fact that the church owned it.

"Ross Chatwin goes to court, (is) told he can stay home, (and) police go arrest him for trespassing," Johnson said. "Why hasn't our County Attorney's office gone after the police department? Why do we allow this police department to violate civil rights?"

More Americans are learning about the controversial polygamist sect - an offshoot of the orthodox Mormon religion - that practices plural marriage. The Mormon religion outlawed the practice of polygamy in the late 1880s so Utah could be granted statehood.

Recently, several media outlets reported about the "Lost Boys," a large group of boys and young men from the city who are ousted for their "unworthiness." It is theorized, however, that the young men are chased out to regulate the women-to-men ratio in the community.

It was also discovered that the church is building a large complex near Eldorado, Texas, and that some its members have already begun to flow into the area.

It has been estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of practicing polygamists (mostly in Utah and Arizona) throughout the country, with wards in Canada and Mexico. Some are fundamentalist Mormons, while others simply refer to themselves as fundamentalist Christians.

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