On a Wing and a Prayer

Finding the Colorado City school district's airplane could lead to polygamist prophet Warren Jeffs' arrest

Where's the airplane?

The airplane I'm talking about is the infamous Cessna P210 purchased in late 2002 by fundamentalist Mormon polygamists who control the 350-student Colorado City Unified School District.

The $220,000 aircraft hasn't been seen in more than four months.

Neither has accused pedophile Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a polygamist cult that long ago broke away from the mainstream Mormon church.

Until recently, both Jeffs and the airplane were based in the remote village of Colorado City north of the Grand Canyon.

Is there a connection between the elusive Colorado City school district aircraft and the prophet on the lam?

It wouldn't surprise anybody if there is, including Mohave County Superintendent of Schools Mike File, who says he's concerned that the school district plane has been used to fly Jeffs and underage girls out of the Colorado City area.

"I very much believe that is the case," File tells me.

Clearly, it's time for Arizona and Mohave County authorities to find out where the plane is and how it's being used. The way to start doing that is simple: Immediately serve a search warrant on the school district to produce the plane.

You'd have to be an idiot to think this wouldn't provide a clue as to Jeffs' whereabouts.

Stealing a page from fundamentalist Mormons of the 1880s who went underground to elude federal authorities trying to eradicate polygamy from the then-territory of Utah, the 49-year-old Jeffs has vanished into the netherworld of his fanatical sect.

As the FLDS' prophet and president, Jeffs has unquestioned authority to determine the number of wives men in his community may have, as well as who is married to whom. He can also kick people out of the religion and reassign wives and children to other men he considers more worthy.

No FLDS member dares challenge Jeffs, and many have pledged to risk their lives to protect this powerful prelate from harm. Jeffs is known to have armed bodyguards near him at all times -- which meant the likelihood of a violent confrontation with police greatly increased earlier this month when a Mohave County grand jury returned a two-count felony indictment against Jeffs in connection with his performance of a "celestial" marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 28-year-old married man.

The indictment marks the first time in 52 years that a leader of the FLDS has faced serious criminal charges. A police source tells me that a federal warrant for Jeffs' arrest is expected to be issued in the next several weeks.

Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith says additional criminal charges are pending against several other Colorado City polygamists, including two men who "spiritually" married underage girls. Smith says Mohave County is also considering filing criminal charges against the parents of underage girls who agreed to allow their daughters to enter into polygamist marriages.

As for Jeffs, he is also a defendant in two lawsuits filed in Salt Lake City. One alleges he sexually molested a nephew. Another alleges Jeffs improperly took control of assets belonging to former FLDS members he kicked out of the church.

Jeffs hasn't responded to either suit, which has resulted in him losing control of an FLDS church trust estimated to be worth $150 million.

Jeffs clearly doesn't want to be found.

Authorities have received reports that he may be in Canada or Mexico. He was last seen earlier this year in El Dorado, Texas, where the FLDS is building a new community on an 1,800-acre ranch. Authorities are in possession of a photograph of him at the Texas location.

Jeffs is known to have leased private planes in the past to move quickly between various FLDS properties. That Jeffs would have used the school district's plane to get away is no stretch. He has exerted tight control over the lives of the five church members on the Colorado City School Board who voted to buy the plane, as well as over the polygamist hired to pilot the aircraft.

It seems hardly a coincidence that school board member F. Lee Bistline and his pilot son, Ladell Bistline, refused to show the plane to police and Mohave County school superintendent File when File tried to inspect the aircraft last month.

During his May 19 visit, File asked to see the plane that traditionally was stored inside a hangar at the Colorado City Municipal Airport. File says Ladell Bistline refused to open the hangar unless File first obtained permission from Alvin Barlow, Colorado City's superintendent of schools.

It was an outrageous refusal, since File is Mohave County's top school official.

File tells me that he didn't exert his authority because he didn't want to escalate an already tense situation.

"I was not there to push this issue," he says. "The time will come."

File was accompanied to the airport by Gary Engels, a special investigator for the Mohave County Attorney's Office. For the last year, Engels has been conducting criminal investigations in Colorado City, including the one that resulted in the indictment of Jeffs.

Engels says he has wanted to see the plane for months and was hoping that the Colorado City school district would comply with File's request. Engels says he's disappointed that File didn't press the issue.

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