Marvin Wyler's family has abandoned him

Marvin Wyler's family has abandoned him

The Arizona Republic/May 11, 2008

Colorado City - Marvin Wyler turns up a recording of his fourth daughter, Zina, singing one his favorite songs. Her crystal-clear voice fills the kitchen and family room of Wyler's sprawling home, where he and his plural wives raised 34 children.

The recording is the only way Wyler, 63, can hear his daughter's lovely voice, even though she lives only a half-mile down the road in this small town on the windswept Arizona Strip where a fundamentalist Mormon offshoot has continued the practice of plural marriage since the 1930s.

Wyler believes in the teachings of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith that included plural marriage as a necessary precursor to exaltation and eternal life as a god in the "celestial kingdom."

But Wyler left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 2002 over doctrinal differences with its leader, the now imprisoned Warren Steed Jeffs.

Wyler's decision to quit the FLDS came with a high price. None of approximately 50 children and grandchildren remaining in the sect that has no affiliation with the mainstream Mormon Church, which disavowed polygamy in 1890, has had any contact with him in six years.

Wyler said he doesn't know how many grandchildren he may have from Zina. "It was 10 at last count, but I don't know," he said. "If they found her in my home, they would cut her off (from the church)."

It's ironic, Wyler said, that FLDS members are now suffering the agony of separation from loved ones after Texas last month removed 462 FLDS children from their religious compound and placed them in foster homes.

"I wish it on nobody, but the pain and suffering they are now feeling is exactly what they put us through six years ago," Wyler said.

Few things are more painful in life than to have someone who once was part of your family sever all contact, for whatever reason. But that is what Warren Jeffs has caused to happen to an untold number of FLDS families. Jeffs routinely, without explanation, excommunicated men he deemed spiritually unworthy, banished them from town and gave their wives and children to other men. The wives and children would take new last names and refuse to communicate with the exiled man. This harsh practice has left a swirling wake of agony, premature death, nervous breakdowns and suicide.

Breaking apart and rearranging families is part of Jeffs' belief that FLDS children do not belong to their parents. The children, he repeatedly preached, belong to a male-only "priesthood" that reports directly to the prophet, in this case, Warren Jeffs.

If Jeffs believed it was in the best spiritual interest to separate a child from her parents and send her to another FLDS compound thousands of miles away in Canada, where the child would be forced to work without pay and pray continually, it would be done.

No FLDS parent would stand in the way of Jeffs' command. To do so would risk opportunity for eternal glory in the afterlife.

After spending much of the past six years covering the FLDS for Phoenix New Times and now the New York Times, it is painstakingly clear that, although FLDS parents may love their children, they have ceded their parental rights and control to Jeffs and other church leaders.

And there is no doubt that FLDS leaders were grooming all the children removed last month from the Yearning for Zion compound to be willing participates in a religious culture that worships placing teenage girls into polygamous marriages.

Texas authorities have found 31 girls under 18 who were either pregnant or already have given birth. Records seized from the compound show girls as young as 15 were pregnant, with reports of a 13-year-old girl being "spiritually" married.

All these children were trapped on the YZF compound, although it appears few, if any, wanted to leave or objected to their fate as teen brides. It is considered the highest honor in the FLDS to have been selected to live at YFZ, and for a young girl to be married to a righteous man, no matter how old, is a ticket to exaltation in the afterlife.

The parents of these children not only supported this culture of sexual predation of teenage girls by much older men, in some cases court records indicate they actively participated in the exploitation by bringing underage wives into their families.

The children now in the Texas foster-care system will no doubt face more trauma as they adjust to the outside world that they have been taught to believe is full of the wicked. The ultimate fate of the children is far from certain. Legal battles over their custody will drag on for months, if not years.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said Texas' decision to remove all the children from the compound, based on the "possibility that they might someday grow up to be an abuser," is going to unleash a legal firestorm. "I think they have bitten off a huge constitutional problem," he said.

Time will tell. The courts will determine, on an individual basis, which parents, if any, should retain custody of their children.

Legal experts say the child-custody cases will likely withstand legal challenges to the validity of the search warrant.

But FLDS attorneys may be successful in motions to suppress the search warrant in ongoing criminal investigations of men who took underage brides and the women who supported the practice of allowing their daughters to submit themselves to unlawful sexual encounters.

Losing the opportunity to prosecute these cases because of an unconstitutional search warrant would be a major setback in efforts to persuade polygamous communities in Arizona, Utah and elsewhere throughout the West to stop underage marriages. Already, there are reports that many men have slipped away from YFZ, one step ahead of likely criminal charges, to pursue their religious beliefs elsewhere.

Although the dust hasn't settled from the Texas incursion into YFZ, anti-polygamy activists and political opportunists, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., have unleashed tirades against Arizona and Utah for not launching similar raids on FLDS communities in Colorado City and adjacent Hildale, Utah.

These shrill and somewhat hysterical demands ignore the very real differences between the Texas compound that was sealed from the outside world by guards and a locked gate and the conditions in Hildale and Colorado City, where the public, and presumably church members, are free to come and go.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said the state does not have the legal authority to start rounding up polygamists in hundreds of homes scattered across a town, based on an allegation of abuse in one home - which is something we should all be happy to know.

Furthermore, although the Arizona Constitution bans polygamy, the Legislature has never passed a corresponding criminal statute making polygamy a crime. It's unlikely such a statute will pass anytime soon.

Arizona and Utah have instead focused on prosecuting cases involving underage marriages.

It was this strategy that led to the arrest and conviction of Jeffs, who is serving consecutive five-years-to-life prison terms for his conviction last September in a Utah state court on two counts of rape as an accomplice. The conviction stemmed from Jeffs performing the spiritual marriage of an unwilling 14-year-old girl to her 19-year-old cousin.

Wyler says the late FLDS prophet Rulon Jeffs told men gathered in a priesthood meeting around 2000 that the FLDS would no longer marry underage girls.

But, according to Wyler and others at the meeting, Warren Jeffs overruled his father and said the FLDS would never allow the state to dictate religious decisions.

Warren assumed control of the FLDS when Rulon died in 2002, setting the church on a collision course with law enforcement.

Jeffs has plenty of time to ponder his decisions as he sits in a Mohave County jail in solitary confinement and suicide watch awaiting trial on sexual-abuse and incest charges stemming from his performing underage marriages.

The blame for the anguish, fear and uncertainty facing FLDS children now living in foster homes across Texas - children first ripped from their parents' souls by a religious fanatic before being physically removed by the state - sits squarely on his frail shoulders.

John Dougherty is a freelance journalist and editor of Phoenix-based

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