Colorado City, Ariz. -- As a little girl, Laura Chapman taped the words "Keep Sweet" on her bathroom mirror to remind herself how to get by in this remote, polygamous community.
Keeping sweet, Chapman says, meant staying silent as her father molested her starting at age 3. It meant hiding her secret from her 30 brothers and sisters. It meant being lashed with a yardstick by one of her father's four wives. It meant having to quit school at age 11, then work without pay in a store owned by her church's prophet.
Keeping sweet meant being forced into marriage at age 18 to a man she didn't know, let alone love. It meant having a baby every year. It meant walking 10 paces behind her husband. And, above all, it meant smiling, sweetly through her pain.
"We were just little girls in odd clothes and funny hair who thought we were going to hell if we didn't obey," recalled Chapman, now 38, who has made a new life in Longmont since fleeing 10 years ago with her five children. "Who would think, right here in the United States of America fathers are trading their daughters away like trophies? It's brainwashing and slavery. It's a complete system of organized crime right in our backyard that for some reason the government has simply chosen to ignore."
Chapman is one of dozens of people known among locals as "apostates" - mostly female dissidents who have fled or been booted from this fundamentalist Mormon community and are calling attention to the child abuse and sexual slavery they say are rampant here. They're demanding that law enforcers investigate crimes they say have gone overlooked too long. Community leaders dismiss those outcries as carping by bitter, godless women. They insist problems here are no worse than in any other town, and that locals simply are following the straightest line they know to God.
"Every community has its loudmouths, grumblers and complainers," said Mayor Dan Barlow, one of few citizens in good standing willing, albeit reluctantly, to speak with reporters. "I think we've got a nice community. . . . It's a wholesome place to live."
Authorities in Arizona and Utah have paid little heed to this desert hamlet, which straddles the border between both states.
"I've seen underage girls married off, marriages between relatives and families removing youths from school. There's an element of abuse, physically and sexually, involving some members of these households that in most cases go unreported," said investigator Ron Barton, who is conducting Utah's first statewide polygamy probe in decades.
"Some men seem to be using their religion as an excuse for behavior that shouldn't be tolerated. I'd say it's time for all levels of government to stand up and take notice."
Plural marriage is one of the "eternal principles" of Mormonism, based on a revelation by founder Joseph Smith that he should take more than one wife. Practitioners believe that men attain exalted status in the afterlife by having multiple wives in the present one. Only wives who sweetly comply will be "lifted up" to the "celestial kingdom" by their husbands.
Polygamy is taught in several verses of the standard Mormon scripture, "Doctrine and Covenants." The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints disavowed the practice in the 1890s after what church leaders call a divine revelation, but what others say was a political compromise so that Utah could become a state. Rebellious zealots calling themselves the "true Mormons" claimed that if the principle was valid once, it's valid forever.
Leaving family and friends behind, they moved in the 1920s to this parched landscape south of Zion National Park. Here, they formed a new order, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which shares most of the same doctrines but is unaffiliated with the mainstream LDS Church.
LDS officials don't recognize members of the FLDS as Mormons. "I don't think it's accurate for them to call themselves that. They have nothing to do with our religion," said LDS spokesman Mike Otterson. Known as Short Creek until the 1960s, Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, its neighbor across the state line, now make up the nation's largest polygamous community. Most of the towns' estimated 8,000 residents live in polygamous families.
Married men here typically take about three wives, each bearing about nine children, locals say. Most keep their entire family under one roof, where "sister wives" share the cooking, cleaning and babysitting. Husbands rotate between bedrooms either on a fixed schedule or according to whim. "Biologically, it's the nature of women and men. Men are so much more hormonal than us. For a lot of women, sex is a chore. Very few women will admit that they want a night off," 38-year-old Naomi Hammon, the third wife of her 76-year-old husband, said in support of the practice.
Like Chapman, girls start early learning to accept their role. Thus, the reminders to "Stay Pure," "Smile," and "Keep Sweet" that they post at home or carry in the pockets of their home-sewn, flowered frocks. Still, some never get comfortable with the arrangement. "It takes a while to get over the jealousy. You learn pretty fast to try to ignore what you're feeling," said Katie Cox, who for 38 years has endured what she calls a "hands-off" relationship with her sister wife. Added Chapman: "I've seen women scratch, kick, pull hair over how they load the dishwasher."
The pecking order for FLDS members is unwavering: Children are subordinate to their mothers, who are subordinate to their husband, who is subordinate to the church prophet, who answers to Jesus Christ.
"I have to be a chauvinist in order to manage my family," said high school science teacher DeLoy Bateman, who has 17 children with his two wives but has left the church and questions gender roles in the community. "The women give their minds over to the men. They're really, really good, if you want a Stepford wife."
Families have intermarried over the decades so that husbands and wives commonly are stepsiblings and cousins. Visitors remark on the number of children who suffer from physical or mental disabilities. "It's the incest capital of the world," said Rowenna Erickson, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a Utah group pushing for investigations into such communities.
"These huge families are forced on each other," added Hammon, most of whose 75 siblings haven't spoken to her since she split from the church not because of polygamy but because of what she describes as the group's increasing cultishness. "They're all living like sardines. It's all incredibly unhealthy."
Not so, counters one church defender, who touts the community as "a piece of lost Americana." "Everyone talks about family values, but these people, they've really got family values. They've got 20 to 30 children who've all got to get along. Money is always tight. They're more committed to family than anyone else I've seen in America," said Scott Berry, a Salt Lake City lawyer representing the church.
Berry dismisses apostates' allegations as sour grapes. "They probably feel pretty badly that they've devoted large chunks of their lives to the church. They're pretty bitter about that. They have their own agenda and will tell their yarns to anyone who will listen," he said.
Nestled between high vermilion cliffs, Colorado City is an ideal spot for seclusion from the outside world. It's located in a remote strip of Arizona separated from the rest of that state by the Grand Canyon. The 425-mile drive from the Mohave County seat in Kingman keeps social workers, investigators and sheriffs away.
The city's mayor and council members come from the FLDS elite. Even police officers, known among dissidents as the "God Squad," practice polygamy. "That's none of your business," Police Chief Sam Roundy said of his home life. "It's a religion and we have the freedom to do that. We're not infringing on anybody. Don't we have the right to practice our religion?"
The community lived mostly undisturbed during its first 25 years here. That ended in July 1953, when Arizona state officials grew annoyed by the group's flagrant disregard of polygamy laws. ThenGov. Howard Pyle ordered all married men here - including now-Mayor Barlow - arrested and jailed on charges of bigamy, adultery and rape. The National Guard hauled the women and children off to Phoenix, holding them for two years as wards of the state.
But Pyle's strategy backfired. Swayed by news reports showing Guardsmen prying babies from their fathers' arms, public opinion shifted against the arrests. Prosecutors failed to win convictions, largely because unrecorded marriages here make it difficult to prove polygamy. The Short Creek raid ultimately cost the governor another term in office.
"You get killed quicker in government doing your duty than turning your back," Pyle was quoted as saying. Having forged a powerful bond as martyrs of the raid, families regrouped here during the late 1950s, determined to rebuild stronger than ever.
The population has exploded during each of the four decades since, so that the twin towns each rank as having among the youngest and largest households in their states. Arizona and Utah officials say they give food stamps to about a third of residents here - polygamous wives and mothers describing themselves as single, many of whom are underage. Colorado City gets about $8 in services for every tax dollar it pays, compared to the average $1.20 countywide, Mohave County officials say.
"There are some polygamists accepting aid from the government to support their lifestyle," said Barton, the Utah investigator. Meantime, locals have expanded beyond subsistence farming on the town's outskirts. They've built a cabinet company, a uniform factory and construction firms, among others, that do business in nearby Utah and Nevada towns. Most local businesses sit on land held by the United Effort Plan (UEP), a religious charitable trust formed in 1942 that owns virtually all real estate in the towns.
The UEP assigns residential lots to men who tithe the requisite 10 percent of their earnings. Families, in turn, build but don't actually own the sprawling, do-it-yourself homes that house their large broods. Continued use of the land depends on good standing with the church and its reclusive prophet, Rulon Jeffs, whose words are held in godlike esteem by members. The 92-year-old retired tax attorney is said to have 48 wives.
Berry, his attorney, refuses to confirm that number, saying it's "impolite" to ask. Jeffs suffers from Parkinson's disease. He has left most oversight of the church and its business holdings to his 45-year-old son, Warren. Warren Jeffs, who lives next door to his father in their huge, heavily secured compound, refused to be interviewed for this story.
Said Berry: "It's like asking to interview the pope." Predictions of doom`and ascension As several townsfolk tell it, Warren Jeffs has prophesied a mass lifting up in which only the most devout will rise to heaven. The ascension is supposed to take place from the community garden in the center of town, which dissidents call the "launching pad." Warren Jeffs is said to have named several dates that have come and gone with no apparent heavenly rapture.
"They've predicted so many doomsdays that I think it's messing with their mental processes," Hammon said. Berry said apostates make too much of the predictions. "The church does believe the end is near. But I can assure you that no one has set a date," he said.
To prepare for the end, Warren Jeffs preaches increasing isolation from the secular world. He urges his flock to avoid newspapers, television, the Internet and other exposure to outsiders, known as "gentiles." The town radio station shuns popular songs with lyrics, broadcasting mostly upbeat, patriotic instrumentals. Computer bar codes printed on most retail products are believed to be the "Sign of the Beast."
Children have little contact with kids outside their faith because they generally don't play competitive sports, which are considered unspiritual. Their main pastime is bouncing on the massive trampolines in front of nearly every home.
"Jumping on those tramps was the only freedom we had growing up. In a way, it was the closest we ever really got to being lifted up," said LuAnn Fischer, a 30-year-old mother of four who says she and her husband were booted from the church last fall after they questioned Warren Jeffs' authority.
In a move toward further isolation, Warren Jeffs urged parents last summer to yank their children out of public school. Contact with non-believers, he said, could hurt their prospects for the afterlife. As a result, about 800 kids - threequarters of the school district's entire student body - didn't show up for classes in September.
"Jeffs didn't like that they couldn't teach religion in school," said Mohave County schools superintendent Mike File. "Parents felt that if they didn't pull their kids out they'd be excommunicated."
Community leaders defend the mass exodus, saying they're preserving their culture. "I'm convinced that there's never been a time that parents have taken such an active interest in education," said Mayor Barlow. "You being from Denver, Littleton, you know there's some major problems in public schools these days."
During a recent visit to Colorado City, school-age children were seen playing in their yards during school hours. Officials say lax laws in Arizona and Utah give them no authority to monitor whether those students are being taught either at home or at the FLDS parochial school, nor to check the qualifications of the people supposed to be teaching them.
"That's the way the law's written. Nothing I can do," File said. Others suspect that parents are trying to avoid outside oversight. "They know that if we have access to these students we'll find out what's going on in the community," said Ron Allen, a Utah state senator who has authored several bills to fund probes into polygamous groups. "A child that's not in school is a child that can't tell a counselor they're being abused."
Seven female apostates interviewed for this story said they were molested or raped as children. None of their alleged perpetrators were charged. Four of those apostates are Chapman and her sisters Rena Mackert, Louise Mackert and Kathleen Swaney, who all said their earliest memories are of being sexually abused by their father, Clyde Mackert. Louise recalls lying awake as her father molested her little sister Rena in the same bed.
Their mother, who asked not to be named, said in hindsight she has "no question" that her ex-husband sexually abused their daughters. Chapman and Rena Mackert said they reported the molestation by phone to Mohave County and Washington County sheriffs in 1991, more than a decade after the alleged abuse occurred. That was the year Chapman said memories came back to her. Both sheriffs offices said they normally keep such reports, but have no record of the sisters' complaints.
Clyde Mackert refused comment about his daughters' allegations. "I don't want to talk about it," he said. "I'm not interested in this conversation."
In perhaps his most controversial move, Warren Jeffs is said to be arranging an increasing number of marriages between teenage girls and much older men. Locals say most girls over 14 already had dropped out of high school, even before the mass dis-enrollment.
One such case involves Nichole Holm, who, according to her mother, was taken by the Jeffs family at age 15 and assigned to be the second wife of a man 23 years her senior.
Nichole Holm could not be reached for comment. Berry did not return phone calls about the Jeffs' role in her disappearance. Now 17, Nichole Holm doesn't speak to her mother.
"One day I saw her walking down the road with a heavy load. I stopped to give her a lift and she ran into the bushes to get away," Lenore Holm said. Because she refused to consent to her daughter's marriage, Holm says the Jeffs are kicking her and her 11 younger children out of their home. She goes to court this month to fight eviction notices.
Mayor Barlow counters that Holm is being ousted because she left the church and no longer deserves to live on land owned by the UEP trust. Holm said the ordeal is more anguishing than the abuse she suffered during her first, polygamous marriage.
"Taking the hits all those years wasn't as hard as worrying about what Nichole is going through," she said. "I'll pitch a tent if I need to. But I'm not going to let them herd her through life like a head of cattle."
Holm filed reports with local police, county sheriffs deputies, state child protective officials and the FBI. "Nobody's lifted a finger to help," she said. An FBI agent in Arizona said his agency has "looked into" Holm's sex offense complaint, but wouldn't say whether it's still investigating.
Officials with Arizona's Division of Child, Youth and Family refused comment, citing confidentiality laws. Mohave County sheriffs deputies say they last investigated in October, when they were told that Nichole Holm has chosen to live with an aunt. Still, they sent the case to county prosecutors, who passed it on to the Arizona attorney general's office. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said "it's extremely unlikely" for her office to prosecute cases not pursued at the county level.
Colorado City Police Chief Roundy said his department investigated Holm's complaint, but acknowledged that officers didn't actually interview her. "I didn't feel I had to talk with her. It's done. It's been done forever. All the allocations (sic) of Lenore is not true. The girl is not married.
She has not been raped. Everything is upboard and legit," he said. Roundy promised to forward the investigative report to The Denver Post, but failed to do so. He said his department has responded to only five domestic abuse calls during his 12 years on the force.
"Anything reported, we'd investigate, of course. But we just don't have domestic problems. We've got family structure. They're decent, law-abiding citizens," he said.
Police here have never made an arrest for polygamy. "I'm not going to mess with it," Roundy said. "The state hasn't taken it upon themselves to prosecute. Why should we?" Officials call polygamy`a victimless crime Sheriffs and prosecutors in Arizona and Utah call polygamy a victimless crime that's difficult, if not impossible, to prove in such a closed society as Colorado City and Hildale. Because most plural marriages aren't licensed, they're legally similar to a man and women living together - which officials don't prosecute.
"Are there crimes going on that we don't know about? Sure. Is there domestic abuse going on? Sure. But we can't just arbitrarily go into a household. We have to have probable cause," said Steve Johnson, spokesman for the Mohave County Sheriffs Department. "At what point does it become Big Brother in "1984'? At what point does the New World Order take over?" Former Arizona Governor Bruce Babbitt agrees, saying the group's religious freedoms need to be protected.
"They're not really hurting anyone," he said. "It doesn't make sense to approach them like the Gestapo." One notable exception to such government ambivalence is the current, highly publicized case against Tom Green, a northern Utah man with five wives and 28 children.
Juab County attorney David Leavitt - brother of Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt - launched the case last year after Green was featured on "Judge Judy" and "Jerry Springer" talking about his polygamous lifestyle. Leavitt alleges that Green's wives were between 13 and 16 when he married them. He charged Green with bigamy, welfare fraud and one count of child rape, for having sex with one wife when she was 13. That wife, Linda Kunz, is Laura Chapman's first cousin.
Other than the Green case, however, polygamy is "something that prosecutors haven't been real enthused to prosecute," said Reed Richards, who left office in January as Utah's chief deputy attorney general.
Lawmakers, too, generally are unwilling to step in. Several bills to investigate polygamous groups and fund shelters for women fleeing plural marriage have failed in the Utah and Arizona legislatures. Utah lawmakers compromised last year, earmarking $75,000 for a part-time investigator to probe "closed societies." That "is the politically correct term for polygamy," said Barton, the investigator hired to do the job.
Some critics say authorities are otherwise reluctant to intervene because of wariness left from the 1953 raid. Others say mainstream Mormons - who control government throughout Utah and in much of northern Arizona - are unwilling to face their polygamous roots. They add that many Mormons are sympathetic because they think the practice could someday be reinstated.
"I've been surprised to find active LDS members who are extremely supportive of polygamy. My impression is that if they had wives that would go along with it, they would be polygamists themselves," said Barton, himself a member of the mainstream church.
LDS church leaders note that plural marriage has been grounds for excommunication for more than 100 years. "The matter's closed as far as we're concerned. That is, until the Lord speaks again on the subject," said Otterson, the church spokesman. Berry lauds authorities' hands-off approach.
"Politicians have figured it out that there was no percentage in hauling these families off to jail," he said. But dissidents bristle at officials' liveand-let-live attitude.
"It's that big elephant in the living room that no one wants to acknowledge," Tapestry's Erickson said. "The state has treated us like just a bunch of angry women. They've really downplayed what we're saying." Rena Mackert notes that her mother was pregnant with her during the 1953 raid. Had authorities protected them then, she complains, she wouldn't have been forced to sexually satisfy her father nor to marry her stepbrother.
"If the state had done their job then, none of this would have happened to me," she said. Critics complain bitterly that authorities don't crack down on Colorado City's town councilmen and police officers, who have a stake in preserving plural marriage because they gain status by accumulating many wives and children. Apostates describe a bartering system whereby the more young daughters a man gives away, the more young wives he is rewarded.
Dissidents don't challenge polygamy between consenting adults. Rather, they object to the practice when it involves coercing and bartering adolescent girls. "If they're married in the eyes of their religion, it's really of no concern to me," said Arizona state Rep. Linda Binder of Mohave County, one of the few lawmakers besides Allen rallying on behalf of the apostates. "But they're dealing in trafficking underage females, forcing them to marry older men, not allowing children to be appropriately educated. Then they tell them they'll be condemned into eternity if they talk. That's brainwashing, and that's not OK with me."
Exacerbating the problem, watchdogs say, is that even women who want to flee are stuck. They own no property, have little education and no job training. They're typically bound by several kids. Most know no one outside the community. And they believe they'll burn in hell if they stray from the church.
"When you try talking to the girls, they say nothing because they're convinced they'll die if they talk," said Allen. "They just look straight ahead and stare, like deer caught in headlights."
That's a familiar look to visitors here. Girls turn away in apparent horror when asked about their lives. A photographer's tire was slashed and a reporter's car keyed while parked outside homes of apostates still living in town. It's that kind of wariness that some perceive as the community's increasing cultishness. Warren Jeffs is so isolating the group, dissidents say they fear a Waco- or Guyana-type tragedy.
"People here are armed. The 1953 situation got people defensive. If (officials) ever did that again they'd be looking down the barrel of a shotgun," Hammon said. "The kids who were kidnapped are now adults. Like hell they'd let that happen again. They have a cause. You know the most bloody wars are holy wars with causes. And I can't blame them." Chapman worries about the safety of her 50 family members still living in the community. "They're going to more and more extremes. It's hard to say where it will end," she said.
As though it were another life, Chapman remembers the time when she, too, hated and feared outsiders. She recalls with disbelief that she grew up thinking that females naturally outnumber males two to one. She cringes at the thought that she lived as her husband's property. "It's a lopsided life," she said. "It's like I was walking around unconscious."
Since Chapman fled her marriage in 1991, most of her family here won't speak to her. She nevertheless has helped two teenage girls escape the community and is writing a book about growing up in polygamy. She wants to open a shelter in Colorado, a state she thinks will offer more protection than Arizona or Utah.
As an adult responsible for carpools and mortgage payments, Chapman looks around her new world with amazement. She is painfully and wonderfully aware of all she missed as a kid - the prom she never attended, the rock songs she doesn't recognize, the strawberry lip gloss she never wore. She remembers peeking in one recent night on one of her teenage daughters enjoying a slumber party with friends. The girls giggled about the sticky green and brown on their faces from the mint chocolate chip ice cream they'd been eating all night. Chapman was struck by the sweetness in their smiles.
"They were so free, uninhibited. They didn't have to worry about being dragged into marriage or sharing their husbands. They won't have to live numb," she said. "I just stood there and watched those girls being girls, being goofy. And I knew then why I had left."