Double Exposure

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

During the 24 years he has headed the Mohave County Attorney's Office, sexual-assault cases out of Colorado City have typically ended in plea bargains, or with sentences of less than one year in jail -- no matter how grievous the crime.

Indeed, Ekstrom's office has never prosecuted anyone for having sexual relations with an underage girl who is the spiritual wife of a polygamist.

Last year, Ekstrom's office agreed to a plea bargain that resulted in a sentence of 13 days in jail for the son of Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow. Dan Barlow Jr. had been charged with sexually molesting his five daughters repeatedly over the years.

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.

If Ekstrom has his way, the multi-agency office won't be set up to pry into what is going on inside polygamous households. For action to be taken, victims would have to come forward.

"This is not for the purpose of catching anybody," he insists, "but for the purpose of providing resources to the community."

Little is likely to change in the Mohave County Attorney's Office when Ekstrom leaves. He announced his resignation effective in January, he says, to give his hand-picked successor, assistant county attorney Matthew Smith, time to prepare for the 2004 election. Smith was the prosecutor in the Junior Barlow case.

Though his office hasn't been aggressive in investigating underage marriages in the past, Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan says he is now ready to go after men who sexually abuse females in spiritual marriages. Sheahan says he will assign six officers to the new Colorado City office to investigate victims' complaints.

"We will help [sexual-assault victims] and get them to safety," he promises.

Sheahan says he and his counterpart across the state line, Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith, are discussing the possibility of sharing space in the new facility. Both sheriffs, he says, want to have their officers cross-deputized so they have legal authority in Utah and Arizona.

Sheahan says his office is prepared to assume law enforcement duties in Colorado City, if Arizona and Utah authorities take action that effectively shuts down the town police force. His office already has jurisdiction in unincorporated areas of Mohave County, including the Second Ward district of Centennial Park.

The Mohave County Board of Supervisors is expected to rubber-stamp the project once County Manager Ron Walker finishes an analysis of what size facility is needed. "I would like to get this done as quickly as possible," Walker says.

The favored location for the office is on land in Colorado City owned by the Mohave County Community College. The location is also within walking distance for residents of Hildale and Centennial Park.

Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson says he supports putting the multi-agency facility in the community, but he stresses that it isn't enough.

Johnson recommends aggressively arresting everyone who is obviously engaged in sexual relations with underage girls.

"There's been lots of talk [about getting tough on statutory rapists], but not action," says Johnson, a former sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles County, California.

Women who have left Colorado City to escape polygamous marriages predict that the state office will be quietly welcomed among women in the community. If authorities are true to their word and remain independent of local polygamist leaders, victims will start to flock to the facility, they say.

"It's going to have to be there for a little while to build trust," says Penny Petersen, who left the community as a teenager 16 years ago and now lives in Phoenix. "The women are going to have to see the workers around town a little bit. That will build trust."

Polygs Get Mom's Kids

Such trust will surely have to be won, because a combination of factors make it extremely difficult for females to leave the closed society they were born into.

Consider what happened to Tammy Phelps, now 33, and her three children once the former polygamist wife got tangled up in the Utah court system.

Her story reveals that it's not only difficult for a woman to flee polygamy, it's nearly impossible for her to take her children with her.

Mothers who leave polygamy are generally portrayed by their husbands as wayward or mentally unstable, and even children can be indoctrinated to believe that their mothers are evil for daring to leave a situation endorsed by God and the church.

Coping with an outside world that is strange to them is problematic enough (most have seldom traveled outside the polygamist enclave, where many books are banned and watching TV and movies is discouraged), but leaving is made even more difficult because husbands often launch FLDS-financed custody battles to trap children in the polygamist culture.

Phelps, like many girls growing up in Colorado City, says she was forced into polygamy just after her 17th birthday. That's when her parents and then-Prophet Rulon Jeffs decided she would marry Orson William Black.

"My mom told me growing up that I had to do whatever the prophet said," Phelps recalls. "I had no choice."

Phelps wanted to run away when she got the news regarding Black, but her parents wouldn't let her out of the house. Eventually, she says, Black came over and, after a few minutes, grabbed her forcefully.

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