Blasphemous Backlash

Ross Chatwin said no way to polygamy's holy man before the national press. Will others join him now?

The Prophet's actions have attracted considerable attention from law enforcement in Utah and lately Arizona, but no charges have been filed against the reclusive leader who refuses all media interview requests and is rarely seen in public.

At the same time Jeffs has stepped up excommunications, he's also demanded that FLDS faithful make frequent $1,000 contributions to the church. The onerous tithing demands began last fall and came at the same time he and his brother, Leroy Jeffs, were facing federal tax liens totaling more than $67,000. Warren Jeffs paid off a $25,468 federal lien on December 10. Leroy Jeffs still owes the IRS $42,000 in back taxes dating back to 1999.

Authorities believe Warren Jeffs is committing crimes by conducting multiple marriages of men in his church to underage girls. Those joined in such "spiritual" unions are not recognized as legally married in Arizona or Utah, where bigamy laws allow for only one spouse. Utah birth certificates reveal that Jeffs, 48, fathered children with at least two girls who were 17 at the time they became pregnant and were not his legal wives.

Former church member and Colorado City historian Ben Bistline (top left) 
and Ross Chatwin's wife, Lori, and children (above) listen to Chatwin's statement. Canadian polygamist leader Winston Blackmore (top right) darts to a car following a funeral near Colorado City a week before Chatwin's remarks.
photos by John Dougherty
Former church member and Colorado City historian Ben Bistline (top left) and Ross Chatwin's wife, Lori, and children (above) listen to Chatwin's statement. Canadian polygamist leader Winston Blackmore (top right) darts to a car following a funeral near Colorado City a week before Chatwin's remarks.

Polygamy is unconstitutional in Arizona, but there is no criminal statute calling for sanctions against those who engage in the practice. For someone to be in violation of the state's bigamy statute, he would have to have married more than one woman in a civil ceremony; there is no language in the statute dealing with multiple cohabitation of those who have not signed marriage certificates. Arizona legislators are expected to debate a bill this year aimed at stopping the underage polygamous marriages that are rampant in Colorado City.

Chatwin's public defiance could signal a major split in the FLDS. Such divisions among members of other polygamous Mormon sects have been marked by violence in the past, and there is concern among state law enforcement that a split in the FLDS could lead to bloodshed.

Fundamentalist Mormons believe a man must have at least three wives to reach the highest level of heaven called the "Celestial Kingdom." The mainstream Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah obtaining statehood. Polygamy, however, remains a central tenet in the modern-day mainstream church as a reward to the faithful in the afterlife.

Included among law enforcement on hand to make sure no violence broke out during Chatwin's remarks were Mohave County sheriff's deputies and Arizona Department of Public Safety officers. In addition, undercover detectives from Arizona and Utah were scattered around the property and along the street while Chatwin spoke.

"I'm glad they are here and I think I need them," Chatwin said later about the police presence.

The outside authorities were brought in because of serious concerns over the operations of the Colorado City Police Department. As part of his widespread investigation, Utah AG Shurtleff is trying to shut down the department principally because officers have ignored the widespread practice among polygamists of sexually abusing underage girls. Some of the officers, all of whom are fundamentalist Mormons, have sexually abused underage girls themselves, the Utah AG's Office says. One has even been convicted of that crime.

In his remarks, Chatwin mentioned former FLDS bishop Fred M. Jessop, who was stripped of his church position by Jeffs earlier this month and has not been seen in town since mid-December. Jessop, 94, is a beloved figure in the community who is also a member of the Hildale City Council. He was seen by many as the likely successor to the late Rulon Jeffs as FLDS leader. But after Rulon's death in September 2002, his son Warren quickly assumed control of the sect.

Chatwin said he believes Fred Jessop has been moved by Jeffs to a secret compound under construction somewhere in Mexico.

"I would like to convey that many people in the FLDS are concerned in regards to . . . Fred's whereabouts," Chatwin said.

Chatwin also revealed that Jeffs has named Kevin Barlow, Colorado City's town clerk, as superintendent of the church's private schools. Kevin Barlow's father, Alvin, is superintendent of the public Colorado City Unified School District.

The public school system is under investigation by the Arizona Auditor General's and Attorney General's offices for alleged misuse of public funds -- including the transfer of public school buildings to the FLDS at a loss of more than $300,000 to the school district. Despite Alvin Barlow's position overseeing the district, he joined other FLDS faithful in withdrawing his children from the public schools and placing them in private FLDS schools on orders from Warren Jeffs.

Rather than rely on religious leaders for advice during times of turmoil, as is customary among FLDS men, Ross Chatwin turned instead to his wife for consultation.

"Thank you for showing me that my best friend has, all along, been right beside me," Chatwin said during his prepared statement to the press.

And instead of following FLDS directives to abandon her husband if ordered to by the prophet, Lori Chatwin decided to stay with the man she loves.

"I am supportive of my husband, and I'm not going to leave him. I think that a lot of people have left their husbands and they are hurt by it," she said in response to a reporter's question.

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