In exile at home

Salt Lake Tribune/November 14, 2004
By Brooke Adams

Colorado City, Ariz. -- Here is the scene inside Ross and Lori Chatwin's home on this glorious fall day: Their six children are scattered around a television in a crowded basement family room, watching a cartoon that features colorful, cavorting bears.

There is a gaping hole in the ceiling above their heads that exposes the floor joists of the home's main level. A man's voice drifts down through the hole, his careful, solemn cadence settling oddly between the cartoon's chirps.

It is Warren Jeffs, on tape. The leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is telling a parable about two mothers, one wicked and one worthy. "They play [his sermons] all day," Lori Chatwin says as she turns off the television. "If I turn this up, they turn that up."

"They" happen to be Steven Chatwin, his wife, Elizabeth, and their four sons - Ross' younger brother and his family.

And this is one way holy war plays out in Colorado City: a home is split apart, an extended family divided and then left to its own means of drowning out theological differences.

Here was the scene 10 months ago: a defiant Ross Chatwin, wife and children at his side, stood on the porch of his plywood-sided home on Willow Street and declared he would ignore Jeffs' edict that he give it all up - his home, family, community.

"I'm not going anywhere," he said that January day.

Ross Chatwin, 36, was one of dozens of men Jeffs labeled "master deceivers" last winter and told to repent from afar.

The men were to leave their wife or wives, their children, jobs, homes and the only community most had ever known.

Only Ross refused. And Lori, unlike so many other women, stood by her husband.

"I love him, not Warren," she said last January.

Ross vowed to go to court to defend his claim to the home, where his family had lived since January 2001. The house was unfinished when they moved in - commonplace in the hardscrabble communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, which straddle the state line and are home to some 10,000 followers of the FLDS church.

The church adheres to a 19th-century version of Mormonism, a highly patriarchal faith in which plural marriage is a key to salvation, though not all practice it. Followers consider Jeffs to be their prophet.

All property is owned by the FLDS church's United Effort Plan, which means no one can get a mortgage or construction loan. And that means most homes are built, added to and finished as finances permit - which in some cases appears to be never. The Chatwins fashioned living quarters in the basement and planned, as money and time allowed, to finish the main level. It was slow going for Ross, who has worked as an auto salesman and construction laborer.

And it became even tougher in 2003, when Jeffs began to isolate Ross and his family. That June, the prophet told Steven Chatwin and his family to move into the main floor of his brother's home.

It was a command calculated to drive a wedge between Ross, whom Jeffs had already begun to identify as a problem, and his more faithful brother.

Ross comes from a typical polygamist family: he has 33 full and half-brothers and -sisters. Until two years ago, the family was as tight-knit as a big family can be.

"I thought we were as close as this," says Ross' father, Marvin Wyler, crossing his fingers.

There were vacations to Knott's Berry Farm and Sunday dinners with 100 or so people. Nearly all of Wyler's boys - and some girls, too - worked side by side in his stucco business. And everyone starred in Steven's homemade movies - such as "Wanna Be Western," a spoof made in 1999.

As Wyler plays the video for a visitor, he repeats this refrain as first one son and then another comes on screen: "That's my boy who won't have anything to do with me anymore." Or: "Now they won't have anything to do with us."

Jeffs' ascension to prophet following his father Rulon's death in 2002 fractured this family. Father and sons took different views of Jeffs' worthiness to lead. Wyler joined the dissenters.

"I thought I'd taught them to think better than that," Wyler says of his children who stuck with Jeffs. "I just messed up. Warren overpowered me."

Back then, Ross still believed in Jeffs, so much so that when the prophet asked him to repent of various sins, he tried to comply.

Ross cleaned up his messy yard, piled high with nearly 100 junked cars, and strove to be less prideful. He searched for the person Jeffs said he'd wronged in a business deal.

"I talked to literally hundreds of people trying to figure out who I'd offended," says Ross. He came up blank and, one night in early June 2003, told Jeffs so.

"That is the night he told my brother to move into the upstairs," Ross says.

Alarmed, Lori met with Jeffs. He quizzed her about her love for Ross and her desire to stay with him. Then Jeffs asked Lori to stop sleeping with her husband while he was disciplined.

"I asked, 'How long?' and he just said, 'It's not forever,' " Lori says. "I pushed a little, saying, 'How can I live in this house with a man I've been married to for 12 years and not give him a hug or a kiss?' "

Still, she consented. From June to August, Ross slept on a couch in the family room.

The couple viewed sharing their home with Steven as part of their repentance - an act of generosity and obedience, the kind of thing one brother willingly does for another.

Ross and Lori and their kids would stay in the basement; Steven and Elizabeth and their children would live upstairs.

Steven still had not moved into the home by November, when Jeffs excommunicated Ross and, through emissary Sam Barlow, told him to turn his wife and family over to the church's bishop and leave town.

The upstairs was still vacant in December, when Steven asked Ross for permission to put the utilities in his own name.

Ross refused. Ten days later, on Jan. 1, Steven made the change anyway.

"That's when I caught on they really wanted to get rid of us," says Ross, whose faith in Jeffs had long since faded.

And brotherly love? That was gone, too.

Two weeks after Ross denounced Jeffs and said he would not budge from the home, a work crew arrived and began a blitzkrieg build-out of the main floor.

Ross asked his brother to stop the work, to let the matter play out in court. He was ignored.

As the hammers banged above their heads, Ross and Lori came up with a countermove: cut a hole through the ceiling and floor above them and install a staircase linking the two levels. They hoped that might discourage anyone from moving in upstairs.

On Valentine's Day, "We stayed up all night cutting a hole through for the staircase to the upper floor," Lori says.

It was too late. At 2:30 a.m. on Feb. 15 - a Sunday - a Colorado City official issued an occupancy permit and Steven's family moved in.

As Ross' legal battle slogged through Mohave County Superior Court, he and his family got by as best they could. Ross' employees and business had long ago dried up; he picks up odd jobs here and there.

"We are on food stamps for the first time in our marriage," Lori says.

In May, building on a precedent set by the Utah Supreme Court in 1998, an Arizona judge ruled that Ross had a lifetime claim to the home unless the FLDS church compensated him for $130,000 in improvements he'd made. The church has appealed.

The ruling apparently made little impression on Steven; Ross says his brother tells him the victory is a lie, that he's just making it all up.

Steven built a fence around the front yard, put in grass and set up a new play area for his children.

"When our children go out to play, his children run away," Lori says.

Despite the single dirt driveway that leads to the home, the families manage to avoid each other.

Steven Chatwin declined to be interviewed, saying only: "I sure wouldn't criticize [Ross]. I just go forth. We try to do our best."

A curt nod, a slight smile is all that passed between the two families most days - courtesies that evaporated in September when a frustrated Ross changed the locks on the front door of the main floor.

Steven called the cops, and officer Fred Barlow, a Jeffs follower, arrested Ross and carted him off to Purgatory Prison, where he was booked without bail.

The charge - criminal trespassing, a first-degree felony - was dropped a day later after an Arizona prosecutor deemed it hogwash.

Older brother Isaac Wyler, 38, astounded that one brother would have another arrested, confronted Steven after the episode. Isaac says Steven was immovable in his allegiance to Jeffs, saying that "Warren is as God to me."

Isaac Wyler says if it weren't for Jeffs, his brothers would "be getting along fine, just like brothers should and everybody they are related to.

"Father's family has been shattered," he says. "It's going every which way."

Marvin Wyler also blames Jeffs, not his sons, for the family rift. He remembers being little and watching some boys rile up a box full of puppies to the point they were "snarling and growling and there was blood all over them," finally breaking it up when it seemed one puppy might die. "I think that's what's happened with my sons," Wyler says. "The bullies have thrown them together and are making them fight it out."

Ross and Lori moved their children to Colorado City's public school since they are no longer welcome at any of the dozens of private schools run by FLDS faithful.

Around town and during trips to the CMC Grocery Store, the only one in the twin cities, "Half the people completely ignore me, the other half will quietly wave, give a little sign that they approve of what I'm doing," Ross says.

After months of financial struggle, Ross has a new contractor's license and is optimistic that he can provide for his family by building homes in St. George.

He and Lori, with the help of an Arizona TV reporter, also are at work on a book - tentatively titled Creeker (for the community's old name, Short Creek) - about their experiences.

Meanwhile, the Chatwins and others say, FLDS leaders have been shuffling families from house to house with increased frequency, often in the middle of the night. The house swapping appears calculated to weaken future ownership claims.

Ross, however, is resolute about regaining control of his home - both floors.

On Nov. 22, he will be back in court in Kingman, Ariz., to seek an eviction notice for Steven and his family. Ross anticipates it won't be easy, that the church will claim he has benefited from improvements to the home.

Exactly, says Rod Parker, the FLDS church's attorney. He points out the May ruling didn't even name Steven. "There is no legal order requiring him to move," says Parker, who represents Steven. "He has a right of compensation from Ross. He moved into that house the same way Ross did."

Ross believes the fight will drag on for months or years, church against dissident, brother against brother, two families locked in a silent, bitter struggle.

He has come to see his battle as a mission of sorts. "I'm standing up for them," Ross says of his siblings, former friends and neighbors. "It would have been much easier to have left back in January, but I told them I'm doing this out of love for them." It helps that Jeffs picked the wrong brother to pit against Ross. Steven's name is so close, after all, to that of Ross' favorite brother, Stefan.

Ross was closest to Stefan, who he still loves the most despite their divergent views of Jeffs.

"Our feelings were genuine for each other," Ross says of Stefan, who no longer speaks to him.

"If they had moved him in, they would have won. I would have moved out."

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