Polygamous church may pull up roots

Utah town preps for move as sect's leader evades law

Associated Press/March 5, 2005
By Travis Reed

Hildale, Utah -- No one in this secluded polygamous town along the Arizona border is necessarily sure what it will look like a month from now. They don't know where they will live, who will live with them or whether they will be torn from their families and neighbors and uprooted two states away.

Or, if they do know, they're not saying. And neither is the man who will make that decision for them, the reclusive prophet of the polygamous Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who reportedly is building a heavily fortified compound in Texas where he and his closest supporters will live.

"I'm not in a position where I would know much about it, so I don't know that I could really comment one way or the other," said church member David Zitting, who also is Hildale's mayor.

Observers of the church, however, are convinced that church prophet Warren Jeffs, who has a reported 50 to 70 wives, is culling his flock and preparing the most devout followers for the move to Texas to avoid prosecution in Utah on allegations of forced child marriages, sexual abuse, welfare fraud and tax evasion.

The claims haven't yet produced criminal charges because authorities are struggling to find anyone in this distrustful enclave who will talk.

"Warren's going to pick out the most devout followers . . . and then move them (to Texas). He's got to keep (the cities) going because they're his slaves," said Sam Brower, a detective hired by former church members who has investigated the sect for two years.

Aside from a 1953 raid in which authorities swept in and arrested polygamists and took custody of children, this town and its counterpart just down the road, Colorado City, Ariz., have been able for the most part to live in seclusion, in full obedience to their prophet and with the belief that men can't get into heaven unless they have at least three wives.

But as Utah and Arizona authorities intensify investigations, that may be about to change.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says he's going to keep pursuing Jeffs and the group, in-state or not.

"Some people say, yeah, be glad they're moving. They're no longer your problem. I don't feel that way," he said.

Since Jeffs took over the church after his father died, observers say, he has guided it with a ruthless hand and boundless ambition to dispatch anyone who threatens his leadership.

Shurtleff has called Jeffs an "evil genius" who knows how to manipulate people and the welfare and legal systems to retain power.

"For three years now, he's been doing everything he can to keep people from cooperating with us," he said.

Jeffs has barred church members from public school. Children may attend only private schools until the sixth, seventh or eighth grades, Brower said. Most residents are considered to be functionally illiterate.

The church has purchased about 2,000 acres of land near Eldorado, Texas, and set about construction on a breakneck pace. Brower has flown over the compound and says it's guarded by sentries 24 hours a day and monitored by cameras. It now includes about eight "homes" roughly the sizes of motels, a big meeting hall, a towering temple and about four other buildings.

The church also has purchased a 60-acre plot near the southwestern Colorado town of Mancos, though it's not clear what's planned for that land.

In the meantime, Utah's 3rd District Court in Salt Lake City is considering a motion by the plaintiffs Brower works for - former members alleging sexual abuse and others who say they were unfairly kicked out of their homes by Jeffs and barred from speaking with the families - that would break up the church trust which owns all the land in Hildale and Colorado City.

It's tough for people outside the community to understand, Brower explains. Everyone here has grown up here, and they've never known anything else, he says.

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