Polygamists Probed

The Utah AG's office vows aggressive prosecution of fundamentalist Mormons who "marry" young girls

"They started ordering us to turn over the camera," Shurtleff says. "Our guys said, Do you have weapons?' They did."

When the state investigators asked the FLDS members if they had concealed-weapons permits, they said they did not and "backed off at that point," Shurtleff says.

Infiltrating the FLDS community is difficult because church officials monitor traffic that enters the area. The FLDS, Shurtleff says, has followed his investigators through town and sometimes beyond. The FLDS' intimidation efforts, Shurtleff says, will not deter his plans to prosecute polygamists for pedophilia.

Washington County (Utah) sheriff's deputies at Orson William Black's house.
Courtesy of KTVK-TV Channel 3
Washington County (Utah) sheriff's deputies at Orson William Black's house.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff: "They want to get them pregnant when they are still kids."
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff: "They want to get them pregnant when they are still kids."

"They have gotten away with it for so long. We want to get the message out. We want convictions in place."

At the same time Shurtleff is stepping up the pressure on polygamists, Arizona's Child Protective Services agency and the Washington County (Utah) Attorney's Office have been verbally attacked for mishandling investigations involving fugitive Orson Black.

The botching of the Black case threatens to derail Washington County Attorney Eric Ludlow's bid to become a state judge. His confirmation hearing before the Utah Senate Judicial Confirmation Committee was delayed after anti-polygamist groups raised questions over his failure to prosecute alleged crimes by FLDS members in Hildale.

Records obtained by New Times show that Ludlow's office intervened on March 20 during a police standoff at Black's home near Hildale that resulted in Black avoiding arrest.

Three weeks earlier, on February 27, the Arizona Attorney General's Office had filed a felony warrant charging Black with five counts of conspiracy and sexual misconduct with Roberta and Beth Stubbs.

Washington County Sheriff's Office records state that Deputy Chris Ray discovered Black's minivan at his home on the evening of March 20. Ray had been dispatched to pick up three of Black's many children from half a dozen wives and turn them over to an ex-wife, Tamara Phelps.

The presence of Black's van at the home surprised Phelps, who told police her ex-husband had fled to Mexico after Arizona Attorney General's investigators attempted to serve him with the felony warrant on March 13.

According to Ray's police report, the deputy notified his superiors that Black appeared to be in the home and refused to answer the door. Ray also told his superiors that Black was known to have a firearm in the house and that Phelps' children were believed inside.

Sheriff's officials mobilized a tactical assault team and ordered Ray and other deputies to surround and illuminate the structure with strobe lights because officers were worried that Black would attempt to flee into the night. Meanwhile, sheriff's officials began the process of obtaining search warrants for the house and of Black's vehicle.

About this time, the police report states, Black's attorney, Todd MacFarlane, began discussions with sheriff's officers and the Washington County Attorney's Office. Soon after, Deputy Ray states in the report, he was told that MacFarlane might be able to talk Black into surrendering if the deputies turned off the lights pointed at the house.

They did so, and a short time later, Ray states, superiors told him that MacFarlane, Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith and the County Attorney's Office had agreed to meet the next morning to talk about peacefully settling the standoff.

Ray was ordered to withdraw from what appeared to be a hostage situation where an armed fugitive was barricaded in a house with several teenage girls. "Sheriff Smith wanted all officers and deputies pulled from the scene," Ray's report states.

The decision infuriated Phelps, whose three daughters were still in the home with Black. She had accused Black of physically and sexually abusing her children.

"Tamara was very emotionally upset, saying Orson would for sure take the children and go to Mexico with them," Ray's report states. "She wanted to know why we were leaving her children in a dangerous environment."

Pennie Peterson, a former FLDS member, had accompanied Phelps to pick up the three daughters. Peterson says she and Phelps went to the sheriff's office the next morning and were informed that MacFarlane no longer represented Black and that Black had not surrendered.

Later that day, March 21, sheriff's deputies returned to the Black home and were allowed to enter. The deputies found Phelps' three daughters, and returned them to their mother.

But Black -- the polygamous fugitive who had been surrounded the night before -- was long gone.

County Attorney Ludlow and MacFarlane did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Smith, the Washington County sheriff, says his top priority was the safe release of the children. He says he wasn't aware that Black was wanted on a felony warrant from Arizona -- despite the fact that his deputies had notified sheriff's department supervisors of the warrant early on the evening of March 20.

Even if he had known about Arizona's warrant the night before, Smith says, he still would have removed his officers to defuse the situation.

"Black was the least of my worries," Smith says.

Smith says he's had no personal contact with the Arizona Attorney General's Office and that he thinks Black's arrest is a low priority for Arizona authorities. Besides, he says, the Arizona felony charges against Black were not serious enough to risk a violent confrontation.

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