2 polygamous towns investigated

The Arizona Republic/October 2, 2002
By Dennis Wagner and Mark Shaffer

Authorities from Arizona and Utah revealed Tuesday that they have spent the past two years investigating underage marriages and other crimes in the polygamous towns of Colorado City and Hildale, although no arrests have been made to date.

Dennis Burke of the Arizona Attorney General's Office said agents began a "very broad criminal investigation" after the state's top prosecutor, Janet Napolitano, learned about allegations of child abuse and teen marriages in the towns along the Arizona Strip. Colorado City and Hildale are dominated by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a sect that splintered from mainstream Mormonism after the mother church renounced polygamy more than a century ago. There are now an estimated 10,000 congregants in the fundamentalist group.

Burke confirmed that agents from his office are working in concert with Ron Barton, a Utah investigator hired specifically to prosecute polygamists. Barton was responsible for the conviction of Tom Green, who was sentenced to prison in a highly publicized case, but has otherwise claimed no successes in a state with thousands of multiwife families.

Leaders in Colorado City could not be reached for comment.

Tuesday's disclosure of the joint probe came after The Arizona Republic was provided anonymously with what Burke said is a fraudulent analysis of the case, purportedly written by a supervisor in the Arizona Attorney General's Office. The analysis warns of a "Waco-level problem in Colorado City" and contains numerous other inflammatory statements, including bigoted remarks about the mainstream Mormon Church.

The report, which apparently was faxed to the newspaper from a phone line in the basement of the Arizona Department of Corrections headquarters, contains a detailed analysis of legal and political obstacles to any campaign against polygamy in Colorado City. The document is modeled after other reports written by attorney general's agents, and it contains initials which resemble those of a supervisor in the Special Investigations Section.

But Burke said the supervisor did not author the report and her initials are a forgery. "The document is completely bogus," he added. Burke said the Attorney General's Office may ask the Maricopa County Attorney's Office to file criminal fraud charges against the author of the fraudulent report. "We take this matter very seriously," he added. "It's a false document, and it's being disseminated."

Meanwhile, Burke declined to provide details of the criminal probe along the Arizona-Utah line, where members of the FLDS church live in isolation, shunning outsiders. He would not discuss whether the case encompasses allegations of welfare and education fraud which have been directed at members of the church. It was unclear what would motivate someone to falsify and forge a report on the probe.

However, authorities in Utah and Arizona have been chastised by former Colorado City residents who advocate aggressive law enforcement against the sect. State Rep. Linda Binder, R-Lake Havasu City, said it has been a "maddening experience" to try to get state law enforcement agencies to investigate polygamist activities in Colorado City, which she described as "like having the Taliban in our own back yard." "The Mohave County Sheriff's Office and County Attorneys' Office want nothing to do with it and their attitude is 'it's there, what are we going to do?' It's really too big for them anyway," Binder said. "Then, I met with the attorney general two weeks ago and she literally told me there's not much they can do. "I talked with the governor on this to see what she would do and she just said, 'that brought down Governor Pyle. I don't think so.' Somebody has got to say enough is enough."

Gov. Howard Pyle ordered a 1953 raid on the Colorado City area, then known as Short Creek, that resulted in the arrest of polygamist husbands. Most of the criminal indictments were eventually thrown out, and bad publicity from the raid was blamed for ending Pyle's political career.

George Weiss, a spokesman for the governor, said Hull's comment was a quip that was taken out of context.

Under leadership of the late Rulon Jeffs, a patriarch who died three weeks ago at 92, the fundamentalist LDS group proclaims plural marriage as a key to reaching the highest place in heaven. Arizona and Utah law prohibit polygamy. Church members forego civil bonds in favor of religious ceremonies known as "celestial weddings."

State law also restricts underage marriages, but church members seldom cooperate with civil authorities.

Burke said state agents have received information from residents of the community, and from others who left. He said Napolitano met with Utah officials, and the joint task force also works with the Mohave County Attorney's Office.

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