Jeffs is focus of FLDS crackdown

No. 1 priority: 'He has hurt hundreds, if not thousands, of people,' Shurtleff says

Salt Lake Tribune/July 17, 2005
By Pamela Manson

After a 1953 raid to crack down on plural marriage turned into a public relations disaster, a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona border went largely unnoticed for the next half-century.

Not anymore. In the past two years, authorities in both states have become ever more aggressive in investigating and prosecuting alleged crimes in the closed society of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, based in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

By design, it's a cooperative effort. In the past several months, eight Colorado City men have been charged with marrying underage girls. A Utah judge has taken away the power of trustees of an FLDS trust fund for allegedly failing to protect the assets. And Arizona is investigating the Colorado City Unified School District's finances.

Most prominently, FLDS President Warren Jeffs - already the subject of lawsuits by disaffected former followers - was charged in June with child sexual abuse for sanctifying a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a married 28-year-old man. A federal charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution came a few weeks later.

But what really racheted up the pressure was an unprecedented offer of a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of Jeffs, who has not been seen in public for a year and a half and whose whereabouts are unknown.

To Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, finding Jeffs, considered a prophet possessed of absolute authority by thousands of followers in several Western states and Canada, is the No. 1 priority.

"His hold on this community continues to hurt its members, and it is time he answered to these charges in a court of law," Goddard said in a written statement when the reward was posted last week.

To many in both states, the push is long overdue. Others, however, worry that adult believers will be persecuted for deeply held religious beliefs and that polygamous societies will retrench into even greater insularity.

To Linda Kelsch of Principle Voices of Polygamy, the fact that the Arizona and Utah attorneys general have put out a $10,000 reward for Jeffs is particularly shocking. Her organization is not affiliated with the FLDS, but supports plural marriage as a religious tenet, based on the early teachings of Mormon founder Joseph Smith. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints left polygamy behind in 1890 as a condition of statehood, and excommunicates members who practice it.

Kelsch fears the crackdown will lead the public to believe that all those who live in polygamous cultures - as tens of thousands of people do - are criminals. And she repeated her contention that decriminalizing plural marriage would allow crime victims and witnesses to come forward without fear of polygamy-related charges being brought against family members.

"The more a community goes into hiding, the more it creates a problem," Kelsch said.

Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney who has written extensively on polygamy and has gotten to know many fundamentalists, said there is a taunting tone directed at Jeffs in the poster and that such a "blunt instrument approach" won't work.

"It makes it harder for people looking for a middle ground to operate," he said. "It makes it hard for someone to come forward."

Besides, Driggs said, just about every effort in the past to get rid of polygamy has failed.

"If they think these people are going away, they're just wrong," he said. "This kind of pressure brings more cohesion and increases the barrier to the outside world. Throwing people in prison has just not worked, not just for this religious community, but other communities."

Goddard flatly rejects the argument that the poster itself will discourage people with knowledge of Jeffs' whereabouts from speaking up.

"They're not coming forward in droves already," he said Friday. "All we can do is try to use every tool in the toolbox to get Mr. Jeffs to do what he's legally required to do and that's to turn himself in. He has flouted the law and obviously is doing his very best to elude discovery."

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Jeffs disdains the law and has failed to protect the church trust and its assets, which includes the homes of many of his followers.

"He has hurt hundreds, if not thousands, of people, mostly women and children," Shurtleff said.

His predecessor, former Attorney General Jan Graham, praised Shurtleff's aggressive efforts to address concerns in the community.

When Graham was in office, she focused primarily on family violence and child sexual abuse issues in the FLDS community and said she received cooperation, for the most part, from the church's leaders. However, she said, some young women and other victims in Short Creek, the historic name of the Hildale-Colorado City area, were too fearful to reach out for help.

"I will never forget the words of a 14-year-old third bride of a man in his 40s: 'No one ever gets out of the crick,' " Graham said.

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