SOCIETY'S LURES: Is Polygamous Sect Circling The Wagons?

The Salt Lake Tribune/August 3, 2000
By Greg Burton

Like the town that encircles it, Colorado City High School is a blend ofthe modern and antiquated.

Adobe blocks, stacked four decades ago, still support one end of the school's roof. New computers blink in one classroom. In another, boys barely old enough to shave learn without the distraction of girls, who typically drop out of school around the age of 15.

Now, if townsfolk agree to follow the word of their prophet, the boys, too, will disappear from the Utah border area's public schools, leaving educators and experts in child welfare struggling to understand life inside the largest polygamist group in America.

"They just don't want anybody in there," says Ruth A. Huth, a domestic violence counselor for Utah's Division of Child and Family Services. Other than the nonpolygamous teachers at the four public schools in Colorado City, Ariz., and adjacent Hildale, Utah, Huth is one of a few outsiders who get a glimpse inside the society of the twin Utah-Arizona border towns.

Until recently, Huth was the person tearful husbands and wives -- those who rarely seek help beyond the redrock desert -- turned to when their complex and nuanced plural marriages fractured.

She did not pander to the polygamists nor did she advocate monogamy. Her goal, as always, was to heal the family, regardless of internal structure.

"They used to call me," Huth says. "But now there is silence. Abuse doesn't just go away."

In sermons delivered the past two Sundays, Warren Jeffs, first counselor of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), has called on the church's 10,000 members to withdraw their children from public schools and to spurn "apostates," including relatives.

Jeffs speaks for his father, Rulon Jeffs, the FLDS prophet who is wheelchair-bound and nearly mute following a series of strokes.

As recently as two years ago, the polygamists had begun displaying a more amiable side to their neighbors. Glimpses of girls in gunnysack dresses and boys in overalls reminded many visitors of the Amish.

That relative openness may have come at a price. Leaders recently chastised followers for ignoring social strictures -- high collars, long skirts and no pierced ears, makeup or the casual mixing of unwed couples.

Over the last 12 months, a half-dozen teen-agers in the two towns have been arrested for alcohol or tobacco violations. Reports of runaways persist.

Home schooling is merely a logical, and socially acceptable, alternative to public education, says Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, a high-ranking church official.

"Warren [Jeffs'] words, I suppose, have had some effect upon the people," Barlow says. "But no one is being forced to do anything."

Some experts believe FLDS leaders are fearful the next generation will be lost to the allure of the modern world or to the mainstream, predominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which disavowed polygamy 110 years ago. Others think the withdrawal has to do with Rulon Jeffs' apocalyptic prophecies.

Whatever the catalyst, Mike King, a special investigator for the Utah attorney general, says the latest moves are eerily familiar to patterns followed by other closed societies.

"It's just amazing to me that each of these cults are so much alike," says King, whose work a decade ago led to the arrest and conviction of polygamous child abuser Arvin Shreeve. "These same kind of control tactics surface time and time again. It all comes down to dominion, control and power."

"Poppycock," says Barlow. "That's just idiotic. . . . There's nothing sinister about this move. It's simply people exercising their American rights."

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