Polygamist church battered as April trial is set for Jeffs

The Arizona Republic/December 15, 2006
By Dennis Wagner

When a Utah judge on Thursday ordered polygamist sect leader Warren Jeffs to stand trial on charges of being an accomplice in the rape of a 14-year-old girl, it was just one more hurdle in a legal gantlet facing the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and its estimated 12,000 members.

For centuries, forces of nature in the Arizona Strip sculpted rust-colored bluffs overlooking the polygamist communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah. Now, winds of change are ripping at the bedrock of those towns: the FLDS.

As Jeffs, known as the prophet, sits in a Utah jail awaiting the April 23 trial, a wide government campaign churns on against nearly every facet of sect members' lives:

  • Eight other churchmen face charges in Mohave County on conspiracy and sexual conduct with minors.
  • The Colorado City Unified School District, taken over by a court-appointed receiver and a new board of education, has replaced church members who served as trustees, administrators and teachers.
  • The Police Department remains under investigation after allegations that its officers are more devoted to Jeffs than to law enforcement.
  • The church and its leaders face lawsuits filed by former members who were expelled amid power struggles.
  • Jeffs and his followers have lost control of the United Effort Plan, an FLDS trust that oversees $110 million in assets, including nearly all the congregants' homes and businesses.
  • Colorado City and Hildale residents appear to be suffering amid unemployment, tax-collection efforts and faltering businesses.

Some have fled the Arizona-Utah towns to join satellite communities in Texas, Colorado, South Dakota and British Columbia. What remains unclear is whether the government initiatives will strengthen the community's resolve or force it to dissolve.

"I see a huge internal combustion of some sort for the FLDS," said Ed Firmage, a University of Utah law professor who believes polygamy ought to be legal.

Others say church members are becoming more zealous and insular.

"They regard it as a test of their faith, and the more the Lord tests them, the more they're going to prove their faith," said Rodney Parker, an attorney who unsuccessfully defended a Colorado City police officer against bigamy charges in Utah. "True believers, they're sticking with Jeffs."

One example of that attitude is exemplified by a note Colorado City Marshal Fred Barlow wrote while Jeffs was a fugitive. In the letter, seized by authorities, Barlow assures Jeffs that his peace officers are following the prophet's directives. He explains how authorities are investigating and disrupting FLDS members, including the Police Department. Finally, he writes, "I rejoice in the tests, and hope and pray that I will not offend God. . . . I love you and acknowledge you as my priesthood head."

The FLDS is not affiliated with mainstream Mormonism, which bans polygamy.

Critics, including many former members, say the FLDS perpetuates pedophilia, fraud, bigamy and tax evasion.

Defenders say the sect is a victim of religious and cultural intolerance.

Jeffs continues guiding his flock from behind bars, sending directives via letters, calls and visitors. His legal plight, meanwhile, seems to symbolize the fate of his church.

During hearings, police snipers and SWAT members hover around the courthouse in St. George, Utah. Inside, the case hinges on legal intricacies and the words of a young woman who says she was forced into a "spiritual marriage" with a cousin when she was 14.

The accuser, now 20, gave tearful testimony during preliminary hearings, describing her horror when marital bonds were consummated.

Jeffs has pleaded not guilty to two charges of being an accomplice to rape. A trial is scheduled for April 23 in Washington County, Utah.

"The strength of this case is the emotional content of the witness statements," said Parker, who unsuccessfully defended Colorado City police Officer Rodney Holm.

In the Holm case, Parker said that he asserted that the criminal acts may have taken place across the state line in Arizona, but jurors "just had no patience for that type of argument."

In court motions in Jeffs' case, defense attorney Walter Bugden Jr. argued that prosecutors could not prove the accuser had been sexually assaulted by her husband, let alone that Jeffs had directed or sanctioned non-consensual sex.

Defense lawyers may also attempt to paint Jeffs as a victim of religious persecution, a notion that already has been advanced outside the courtroom.

On the other hand, Holm employed some of those strategies in his 2003 trial for bigamy and sexual contact with a 16-year-old, one of three spiritual wives. He was found guilty; the conviction was upheld by Utah's Supreme Court.

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