With their ‘prophet’ behind bars, jittery FLDS communities in Arizona and Utah face the scrutiny of a DOJ civil rights lawsuit
COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Last fall, a handbill began to appear in the dusty Northern Arizona desert with two pictures of convicted child molester Warren Jeffs. One was a mug shot of Jeffs when he was arrested in Texas four years ago, the other, a prim-and-proper studio portrait taken when he was headmaster of a Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) elementary school.
“Where is the faith to set me free?” the flyer implored. “How much longer will it take to have a clean prepared people that will obey Father’s commandments?” And, finally, it added, “It’s not me. ... It’s you.”
Here, in one of the last bastions of the Mormon polygamous tradition, a place known for its bellicose distrust of the outside world, the message is clear: Jeffs is watching. In the odd world of the FLDS — a racist, polygamist cult formed by fundamentalists who split from the Mormon church over its decision to abandon polygamy — this chastising from Jeffs is a common occurrence. Since his arrest, he has frequently blamed his followers’ lack of faith for his incarceration.
But, despite his flock’s loyalty, there has been fallout from his continued leadership from a prison cell in Texas. Four years after he went on the run to avoid charges he sexually abused underage girls, an act that prompted the FBI to put him on its “Ten Most Wanted” list, the barren desert outposts of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah — twin cities which straddle the Arizona-Utah border and are together known as “Short Creek” — have become an embattled wasteland struggling to live up to the prophet’s demands amid intense outside scrutiny.
Most recently, that scrutiny has included a civil rights lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department last June. It accuses city leaders in both communities of operating as an “arm of the FLDS” and engaging in a “pattern or practice of illegal discrimination against individuals who are not members” of the church, in violation of the First, Fourth and 14th Amendments. According to the lawsuit, the Colorado City Marshal’s Office carries out the “will and dictates” of FLDS leaders, most notably Jeffs’ commands that have, for example, banned children from playing and dancing, and even prohibited families from owning pets.
More seriously, the Justice Department accuses marshals of turning a blind eye to a pattern of intimidation targeting non-FLDS residents in the two communities, a very distinct minority among the more than 7,000 people who live in Short Creek. There have been news reports, online videos and individual testimonials accusing church members of destroying crops, stealing animals, even adjusting property lines to evict residents at odds with the church from their homes.
Sam Brower, a private investigator who has chronicled the FLDS for the better part of a decade and who has helped law enforcement in the prosecution of Jeffs and other ranking church members, said the lawsuit is a long time coming for a place where people live in a state of constant fear.
“Where else in America do you go into a town that has video cameras, people in big pickup trucks watching you and trying to discourage you from even being there?” Brower asked. In Short Creek, he said, the rule of law is often whatever the prophet demands. “It’s absolutely the most lawless town in America.”
A History of Problems
Short Creek, nestled underneath the red peaks of Canaan Mountain, which cuts rigidly against azure skies, is a paragon of natural beauty. Mormon fundamentalists chose the area to settle due to its remote location, which they hoped would afford them the freedom to practice “plural marriage,” or polygamy, after the Mormon church officially rejected the practice in 1890.
In the years since, it has come to resemble something of an anachronistic wasteland, a place where women and girls wear iconic “prairie dresses,” their hair pinned and unadorned — another directive from Jeffs. Houses lie in disrepair, some unfinished. Some of the streets are paved, while most exist as packed clay.
It is here, since 2000, according to the federal lawsuit, that a pattern of harassment representing the “fusion of government power and religious authority,” has led to a climate where the whims of religious leaders often trump state and federal law. According to the lawsuit, for example, in 2001, Jeffs prohibited families from owning household pets and ordered the marshal’s office to enforce his whims. Deputies went to each household in Short Creek and asked residents to turn over any dogs they owned. All the animals were taken to a “slaughter pit” just outside of town and killed.
Four years later, as authorities closed in on Jeffs, then-Town Marshal Fred J. Barlow sent a letter to the prophet, in which he wrote, “I rejoice in the peace that comes over me when I follow the directives that you have sent. ... I have felt a unity between the peace officers. They have all stated to me their desire to follow the directives that are placed before us.”
Such obedience to Jeffs prompted the Arizona Legislature to consider bills last year to disband the marshal’s office in Colorado City. Because the marshal’s office serves both towns on the border, an accompanying bill was drafted in the Utah Legislature, though both were unsuccessful.
“There is a real challenge when you have the police officers themselves who have an allegiance to something other than the Constitution and protecting ‘We the people,’” Utah state Sen. Curt Bramble, who introduced the bill with the backing of the Utah attorney general, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Since 2003, the state of Arizona has decertified six officers at the Colorado City Marshal’s Office after their loyalties to Jeffs and the FLDS were determined to have interfered with their job performance. In 2003, Rodney Holm lost his certification after he married a 16-year-old girl. Two years later, Sam Roundy and Vince Barlow, both deputies, lost their jobs for practicing bigamy. In 2006, Mica Barlow quit and then was decertified for refusing to answer questions about Jeffs’ whereabouts. And most recently, in 2007, Preston Barlow lost his job after it was discovered he reached out to Jeffs when he was a fugitive, then failed to answer questions about Jeffs’ location.
Jeff Maturas, an attorney representing Colorado City in the lawsuit, said that while officers had lost their certification, the Justice Department is seeking to punish the cities only because of a viewpoint “clouded” by prejudice, not fact.
“Just because someone has a religious belief doesn’t mean they would act on behalf of that belief,” Maturas said. He added, in regard to the Justice Department’s claim that the marshal’s office works in concert with FLDS leadership, “Great headline. Great lead into a news story. But it’s a hundred percent false.”
Not everyone agrees with Maturas’ defense of the FLDS. Maturas is “a spin doctor ... paid by a man who is sitting in a Texas jail cell,” Brower pointedly said.
Regardless of whether that is true, it is fact that for the better part of the last half-century — ever since more than 100 Arizona state troopers and National Guardsmen raided Short Creek in 1953, arresting the entire adult populace for practicing polygamy — residents here have been wildly loyal to FLDS leaders.
“Little by little, Short Creek was transformed from a poor farming community of a few dozen families who governed themselves with a semblance of democracy into a wealthy fortress ruled by the iron words of a single man, the prophet, deemed to be God’s only representative on Earth,” Debora Weyermann wrote in her 2011 book Answer Them Nothing, which chronicled the efforts to take down Jeffs.
The core ideology of the sect holds that black people are descendants of Cain, “cursed with a black skin” and selected by God to be “the servants of servants.” The FLDS also demands absolute obedience to Jeffs and preaches the divine benefit of “plural marriage” and the “wicked” intentions of government.
Even now, from prison, Jeffs rules Short Creek with an iron fist, regularly delivering bizarre new dictates, Gary Engles, an investigator for the Mohave County, Ariz., Prosecutor’s Office, told the Intelligence Report.
“They don’t know what’s coming next from Warren,” Engles said. “They don’t know if they’re the next ones kicked out. They’re trying to be as loyal and as obedient as they can be ... because the day of reckoning is not very far away.”
That is partly what makes the outcome of the Justice Department lawsuit so unpredictable. No one knows just how Short Creek — or Jeffs — will respond. With Jeffs issuing increasingly strange edicts, many of which hinge on a prediction that the apocalypse is near, there is a new and pronounced tension in Short Creek.
Jeffs, 57, assumed control in 2002 when his father, Rulon Jeffs, died after leading FLDS for 16 years. He came to national attention in 2005 when he became a fugitive after being charged with conspiracy to commit rape for arranging a marriage between an unwilling 14-year-old girl and her 17-year-old cousin, and then pressuring the girl to have sex with the young man. He was arrested more than a year later and convicted of two rape conspiracy charges, drawing two terms of five years to life in prison. Then, in a separate trial in 2011, he was convicted of raping his 12-year-old “spiritual bride,” as well as sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl.
More than any FLDS leader before, his whims have defined a community.
In the two years after he became the FLDS prophet, Jeffs forbade television, holidays, movies and music; he banned laughter and children’s play, forbade swimming and sent “God Squads” to inspect residences and report any violations of his edicts.
More recently, while in prison, he has ordered an accounting of every household item owned by church members, from linens to silver. In June, he handed down a revelation that named 15 men in the community as “fathers” in the FLDS and the only ones allowed to procreate in Short Creek. Other men in the community have been relegated to caretakers — quiet c------- ever loyal to the prophet.
“It’s his way of keeping his people stirred up and paranoid and scared,” Brower told the Report. “That fear is how he maintains control.”
The End of the Creek
The Justice Department did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the lawsuit, but the hope for many involved remains that law and order will return to Short Creek.
“Finding a solution to the illegal activities that have been occurring in Colorado City for decades has been one of my highest priorities,” Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne told The Associated Press last year. “I remain committed to stopping the illegal conduct perpetrated by the FLDS church.”
In the last two years, Jeffs’ actions in Short Creek have seemed to be focused on a game of revolving punishments designed to confuse his followers and whip them into a fervor. Immediately after the lawsuit was filed, he began excommunicating people on the grounds they had violated orders to remain abstinent. Some 50 people were tossed out of the group, and leaders loyal to Jeffs halted church meetings until the “lifting up,” or end of the world, came about, Jeffs’ excommunicated brother, Wallace Jeffs, told The Salt Lake Tribune.
“It’s just a way to punish the people,” he said.
Then, last December, Jeffs issued a provocative, eschatological “revelation” — the second in two years. Followers were told to prepare grey or blue backpacks of a certain size and pack them with essentials to be ready to go when God calls, former FLDS member Isaac Wyler told KUTV in Salt Lake City. God’s chosen destroyer was the geyser at Yellowstone National Park. Dec. 23 — the Day of Judgment — came and went with no hint of the end, and life continued in Short Creek. But by then, signs of changing times were plentiful.
The FLDS grocery store in Colorado City recently closed. It was the only place where residents could buy food but also a reported meeting place for church members. Buying groceries now requires a nearly hour-long drive to St. George, Utah. Construction goes on weekly inside the walled compound where Jeffs used to live. No one knows why, but rumors abound. There is talk of food being stored in preparation for the end, of houses being built and torn down and built again.
Professional FLDS watchers like Holding Out HELP, a nonprofit group that helps those who want to leave polygamy, remain concerned that families are being torn apart as signs point to a massive exodus of FLDS members to other places like South Dakota and Texas, both of which have heavy concentrations of FLDS members.
In late December, Mohave County sheriff’s deputies pulled over a chartered bus leaving Colorado City after hearing reports that children were posing for what appeared to be goodbye pictures before being packed into the luggage compartment with pillows. A deputy later stopped the bus, and found 15 children and several adults inside, according to a spokesperson for the sheriff’s department. For reasons unknown, the deputy did not search the luggage compartment.
If these are, in fact, signs that seams are unraveling in Short Creek, many are worried, especially given the fact that Jeffs will spend the rest of his life in prison. With nothing but time on his hands, there is no telling, as the Justice Department presses in, what he will do next or how deep his perversions will go.
There’s always that fear that Warren would see how far he could take them,” Wyler said of the FLDS faithful. He added, “I’ve got a brother-in-law who once told my sister, ‘If the prophet told me to, I’d slit your throat without even thinking about it.’”