Double Exposure

Arizona's finally followed Utah's lead and launched serious action to stop abuses by polygamists

"He told me I couldn't get away," she says. "I was his wife now."

Black then drove her to Rulon Jeffs' home.

"[The prophet] told us to stand up and then said, You're married.'"

Brian Stauffer
Warren Jeffs' compound: The prophet's horde of wives live in structures the size of hotels.
John Dougherty
Warren Jeffs' compound: The prophet's horde of wives live in structures the size of hotels.

The date was July 27, 1987. Her new husband, she says, didn't so much as give her a ring.

"I didn't know what I was getting into. It was just horrible."

Life got worse from there, she says.

Phelps says she knew nothing about sex, but was about to find out.

"He took me home, threw me on the floor and he raped me," she says of her wedding night and the loss of her virginity. She was more than 11 months away from her 18th birthday.

Phelps says she had three children in the first five years of the marriage.

About Black, she says, "He was just going on talking real strange. He started telling everyone that he was the prophet. That God was talking to him."

Phelps says she finally left because of mental and physical abuse. Since she wasn't sure of her future, she had to leave the children behind.

Phelps, who was forced to drop out of school in the 11th grade, lived with her mother in town for several years, finally leaving Colorado City in 2000. After getting intimidated into signing over the children to Black, she was allowed to see them for four hours every other weekend.

Last March, Arizona filed five felony charges against Black, alleging he sexually assaulted two teenage sisters whom he had purportedly married in spiritual ceremonies. Black fled to Mexico before he could be arrested.

Phelps immediately regained temporary custody of her three children -- an 11-year-old boy and two daughters, ages 15 and 13. Though she alleges that her daughters were also abused by Black, they were not the girls listed in the legal complaint against the polygamist. She moved her kids to her home in Cedar City, Utah. But Amy Black, who had raised the children after Phelps had moved out, petitioned to regain custody.

Phelps acknowledges she was having a difficult time controlling the children, the oldest of whom was particularly belligerent. The girl was upset because her wedding plans had been derailed. She had been preparing to marry her stepbrother, Dave Barlow, with whom she had lived in the Black household for the previous eight years, says Penny Petersen, who aided Phelps in her custody case.

Before he was forced to flee, William Orson Black had planned to perform the marriage ceremony involving his stepson (from his fourth wife) to his and Phelps' daughter Natalie.

Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding her regaining custody of her children, Phelps says she was helping them make the difficult transition into life outside the strict confines of Colorado City.

It was slow going, she admits. She lacked parenting skills, and the children did not view her as their mother, court records show.

"They had all this anger," Phelps says about the children, whom she sent to detention centers on a few occasions. "And then Amy started calling them on the phone, and that just made them more angry."

The custody battle soon turned in favor of Amy Black, as the court-appointed guardian for the children supported returning the kids to her rather than keeping them with their natural mother.

A Utah CPS worker interviewed the children on at least three occasions, and they contradicted Phelps' assertion that they had been abused by their father.

"I found them to be angry and defiant on each of the occasions," CPS worker Mary Beam stated in a letter to the court. "They adamantly denied that they had ever been physically or sexually abused by their father or any other family member, with the exception of their mother. The children wanted it to appear as though Tamara Phelps is the abusive parent."

Phelps says her court-appointed lawyers told her that if she didn't agree to Amy Black getting custody, she could lose all visitation rights to her children.

And, Phelps says, she was told that if she insisted on placing the children in foster care, she would be forced to pay child support even though she is indigent.

By late October, Phelps was emotionally and physically drained from the ordeal. Her options bleak, she turned over legal custody of her children to Amy Black, her former sister wife and the only legal spouse of fugitive Orson William Black.

Phelps is allowed to see her children every other weekend and six weeks in summers under an agreement approved by Utah Fifth District Juvenile Court Judge Hans Q. Chamberlain.

The guardianship orders issued by Chamberlain had some unusual stipulations, especially since Amy Black is currently one of at least five women betrothed to Orson Black.

The judge ordered Amy Black not to take the children outside the area and that she should have no contact with her husband. And he ordered Amy not to let any of the children marry before they turn 18. But he also decreed, "Polygamy shall not be taught to the children, nor lived or practiced in the home of Amy Black."

Though some of Orson Black's spouses are reportedly in Mexico with him, Phelps fears that these stipulations will not be followed.

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