Custody battle could become criminal case

19-year-old flees what she says is polygamous marriage, seeks custody of her two children

The Spectrum/April 17, 2002
By Angie Parkinson

St. George -- What is now a custody battle could turn into much more depending on the actions of the Washington County Attorney's Office.

Former Hildale resident Ruth Stubbs said she fled a polygamous marriage four months ago and is now fighting for custody of her two young children. Stubbs said she was the third wife of Rodney Holm, member of a sect of the religion known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). He is also a sworn police officer in both Utah and Arizona.

The first hearing in the custody case will be held May 2 in 5th District Court in St. George.

But some say another related matter should also be in court.

"This easily could be the next Tom Green, if they prosecute it," said attorney Mike Shaw, who is representing Stubbs pro bono in the custody case.

Stubbs' experience is parallel in some ways to the highly publicized case of polygamist Tom Green. Stubbs was not legally married to Holm but she said she did marry him in a spiritual ceremony when she was 16 years old. Stubbs said Holm was 32 at the time and already had two wives and more than 10 children. She was 16 when she first became pregnant. She bore Holm two children and is expecting a third.

Under Utah Code (76-5-401.2), a person 10 years or more the senior of a sexual partner that is 16 or 17 years old is committing unlawful sexual conduct, a third-degree felony. Under Arizona Code (13-1405), a person commits unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, a Class-6 felony, when "intentionally or knowingly engaging in sexual intercourse or oral sexual contact with any person who is under 18 years of age."

Stubbs, now a soft-spoken 19-year-old, said she was 16 years old when she requested a meeting with Rulon Jeffs, who is regarded as a prophet by members of the FLDS church. Stubbs went into the meeting with Jeffs hoping to be allowed to marry the man she was in love with, but Jeffs told her she would be given in marriage to Holm instead.

"He just told me he felt like I belonged to Rod," Stubbs said.

Because Stubbs believed in Jeffs' leadership and the FLDS religion at the time, she married Holm as she was instructed. She became Holm's third wife and lived in a house with Holm, the other two wives and their children for three years.

One of Holm's other wives is Stubbs' sister. Stubbs said there was tension in the home and sometimes jealousy between the wives. Stubbs said she had very little freedom. She had to ask Holm permission for little things. "I had to ask to eat candy, sugar, caffeine or sodas," she said.

Once she became dissatisfied with the lifestyle, Stubbs abruptly left the morning of Dec. 9, 2001. Holm generally had control of any money in the household, but Stubbs said she set aside $50 under the guise of an anniversary gift for Holm.

So with a suitcase filled with her children's clothing and $50, she left the Hildale and Colorado City area for good. "I told him I was going to get goat's milk and I left," Stubbs said.

One of her sisters came and picked Stubbs up and another sister -- Pennie Petersen -- took Stubbs into her Phoenix home. Stubbs said she was raised in a polygamous FLDS family. She said she has 39 siblings and half-siblings. Some of her siblings married into polygamy and stayed in the Colorado City-Hildale area, and others did not.

Stubbs said she decided to leave based on the needs of her children -- ages 1 and 2. And that is part of what the court will have to decide in the custody battle -- whether the polygamous lifestyle will be a part of her children's upbringing.

Holm wants full custody, his attorney, Rodney Parker, said Tuesday. Stubbs also wants full custody and the assurance that her children will not have to visit their father at his Hildale home where his other wives allegedly live.

As to any potential criminal case against Holm for unlawful sexual conduct or any other charge, Parker had no comment. "I can't comment on that unless they do something," he said. And there is no word as to whether the Washington County Attorney's Office will file charges.

Petersen said she understood the case had been investigated by attorneys general in both Utah and Arizona and was now in the hands of Washington County Attorney Eric Ludlow and/or prosecutor Paul Dame. Dame would not confirm or deny that Holm was being investigated.

Rick Cantrell, spokesman for the Utah Attorney General's Office, had the same answer Tuesday. He would not confirm any information about the existence of an investigation by his office. "We can't comment on an ongoing investigation," he said.

Stubbs is not concerned with a criminal investigation. She has not sought one but said she would testify if such a case is brought against Holm. "I don't care if it does, but I want my kids. I don't want to hurt him (Holm)," she said.

For Petersen, the fate of her sister and her children is the most important thing but she does think a criminal case against Holm might help other young brides. "Maybe they'll think twice about marrying them at 16," Petersen said. Petersen said she fled a polygamous marriage to a 48-year-old man who already had four wives when she was 14. She worries about young girls like herself and her sister that may feel forced to marry within the FLDS culture. She gives the example of Stubbs, who has only a sixth-grade education and was faced with the decision of marrying at the age of 16. "At 16, do you have the understanding to make that decision? I don't think so," Petersen said.

Stubbs said her goals for the future are to move into her own apartment and work to support her children.

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