Bound by Fear: Polygamy in Arizona

For decades the state has let a feudal colony of fundamentalist Mormons force underage girls into illegal polygamous marriages

The probe so far has only confirmed the obvious. Polygamous marriages like Ruth Stubbses are routine in Colorado City.

"We've got quite a few names of young girls who have . . . turned 15, and they're gone. So they have been married," attorney general's investigator Ron Gibson said in a transcript obtained by New Times.

"Poofer" is the Colorado City slang for a girl who has vanished from her parents' home into a husband's abode.

Colorado City town marshal Sam Roundy has several wives.
John Dougherty
Colorado City town marshal Sam Roundy has several wives.
Lenore Holm was served eviction papers after she objected to the planned marriage of her 16-year-old daughter as the second wife to a 39-year-old man.
John Dougherty
Lenore Holm was served eviction papers after she objected to the planned marriage of her 16-year-old daughter as the second wife to a 39-year-old man.

"One day they would be there, and the next day they were gone – poof," explains Mary Mackert, a former plural wife who left Colorado City after 16 years in a polygamous marriage as the sixth of seven wives. "When they are married is a secret [to the overall community]."

The grand jury investigation has netted no indictments because "we need a victim," maintained former assistant attorney general Leesa Morrison, who oversaw the inquiry until Governor Napolitano appointed her director of the state Department of Liquor Licenses and Control in January.

The search for an underage plural wife willing to take the stand against her fundamentalist Mormon husband has been complicated by the fact that many teenage girls want to be part of the system. In fact, many have lobbied the Prophet to pick a husband for them.

"They are champing at the bit to get married," says Craig Chatwin, a 30-year-old ex-fundamentalist who is one of the few men to leave Colorado City and pursue a college education.

The teenage girls' eagerness to "turn themselves in" to the Prophet shows how deeply ingrained the religious beliefs and customs are in the rapidly growing community.

"They know no other way," Chatwin says. "For [many], it's the most exciting thing in the world to participate in this system. Outside of it, they would crash and burn."

As a young girl, Mackert said, she remembers sitting under the kitchen table during quilting bees listening to women talk about marriage.

"The old women would talk about a poor girl who was a first wife, and how much she needed to have a sister wife," Mackert recalls. "It was talked about like it was such an awful thing to be the only wife."

Such discussions have powerful influence on young minds, particularly in a town with strict censorship of publications and where watching television is strongly discouraged.

Moreover, there is no way in and out of town for a teenage girl who has no money and no access to a car. There is no bus service, and the church will send out a posse to round up any young female trying to flee. Few girls even think about leaving.

Girls typically begin discussing marriage when they are about 12.

"That's just what you talk about. Who you're going to marry," says Jenny Kesselring, an ex-fundamentalist who left Colorado City when she was 17 and moved in with cousins in Salt Lake City.

This is even though the girls know they have no control over who becomes their mate.

"We were just scared to death it was going to be an old guy, or an ugly one," Kesselring, now 24, says. "Everybody worries about that."

In many cases, marriage is seen as a way to quell teenage rebellion. If a teenage girl is seen so much as talking to a boy, her father is likely to ask the Prophet to find her a husband.

"If she's good-looking, the Prophet might marry her [himself]," says local historian Ben Bistline.

By turning in his daughter for marriage, the father not only takes care of the problem teen, he gains favor with the Prophet, increasing his chances for future wives.

Naturally, fathers in town marry each other's daughters. The Prophet is the broker in these swaps. "They are chattel," Bistline says of the girls.

Frequently, the girls are shipped out of town, to a sister FLDS town in Creston, British Columbia. In turn, that town ships girls to the Colorado City area.

Chatwin says seven of his sisters were married to members of the Canadian FLDS congregation.

Two of Chatwin's sisters were married to the same man on the same day. The groom was Winston Blackmore, the bishop of the FLDS' Canadian church. Blackmore already had a dozen wives.

Chatwin recounted what his sisters told him about their wedding night:

Blackmore approached Zelpha, 21, and Marsha, 17, asking which one wanted to have sex with him first. He said, "We are in the business of making babies."

Zelpha pushed Marsha forward.

Chatwin said, "The next night it was Zelpha's turn. That was the extent of their romance."

Before the marriage, Chatwin had told Zelpha she would be lucky to total three years of the rest of her life with Blackmore because he was spread between so many women and also had extensive church duties.

A few months later, Zelpha wrote in a letter: "Craig, you were so wrong about what you said. I spend far less time with him. In reality, I'm married to the other women."

With arranged polygamous marriages a given, it's not surprising that nearly every aspect of life, particularly that of women, is dictated by the church and its Prophet.

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