On a Wing and a Prayer

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

"I was trying to make them let me see the plane when Mike [File] came up," Engels says. "But Mike wouldn't stand up to them and make them show us the damn plane!"

The district borrowed money from a bank to purchase the aircraft, and it can't legally be sold without the bank's permission. But such legalities haven't stopped the FLDS from doing what it wants to in the past.

In addition to Mohave County's criminal investigations of individuals in Colorado City, the state of Arizona is investigating school district officials for alleged misuse of public funds.

I documented in late 2002 and early 2003 that the district has a long and sordid history of using school property to benefit the FLDS church and private businesses ("The Wages of Sin," April 10, 2003).

I asked Engels if he thought the school district had disposed of the plane. "They would be pretty damn stupid to have gotten rid of it," Engels replied.

But that just might be what happened, says Benjamin Bistline, a former FLDS member and authority on polygamist activities in the area. Benjamin is the brother of F. Lee Bistline.

"What I suspect is they sold the damn thing and didn't tell anybody," Benjamin Bistline says.

That is, after Warren Jeffs was done with it.

Four days after File was rebuffed, the Attorney General's Office served a search warrant on the Colorado City school district. The warrant is related to the criminal investigation into the possible misuse of public funds by the district's three top administrators: Superintendent Alvin Barlow, Business Manager Jeffery Jessop and Assistant Business Manager Oliver Barlow.

More than 20 law enforcement officers spent all day on May 23 removing boxes, computers, file cabinets and records from the school district's headquarters. Documents related to the use, maintenance and loan payments for the airplane were among the records seized.

"Part of the reason we wanted the records for the plane is to determine if they were using it properly for school business and school business only," Attorney General's Office spokeswoman Andrea Esquer tells me.

Amazingly, the search warrant didn't require the district to produce the aircraft, which I believe was a critical mistake. Esquer declined to comment on whether a search warrant for the plane will now be sought.

The last time the Attorney General's Office can verify that the plane was used is February 23, when Alvin Barlow was flown to Phoenix to appear before a legislative committee.

The district has used the plane to fly administrators, school board members, teachers, students and others on trips across the Southwest. No other school district in Arizona owns an airplane.

At the time of the plane's purchase, F. Lee Bistline was president of the school board. He voted not only to buy the plane, but also in favor of the school district's signing a contract to hire his son as its pilot.

F. Lee Bistline's approval of a district contract that provided direct financial benefits to his son appears to be a violation of the state's conflict-of-interest statute. But this matters little to the hard-core FLDS fanatics who place obedience to their religious leaders above civil law.

Even Colorado City's police force has pledged allegiance to the FLDS ahead of the state. Arizona AG's investigator Ron Gibson says he's learned from a search warrant served on the school district that members of the Colorado City Marshal's Office made statements to that effect.

As indicated earlier, the mystery swirling around the location of the school district airplane and the disappearance of Jeffs comes as Arizona and Utah authorities are making significant progress in their efforts to prosecute polygamy-related crimes in Colorado City and adjacent Hildale, Utah.

The Arizona Legislature passed a law in April that will allow the state Board of Education to seize control of the Colorado City school district by the end of the summer. The law will allow the state to appoint a receiver to run the school district for up to two years. Mohave County superintendent File is expected to be named receiver, and he says he intends to fire the district's top administrators.

The state's impending seizure of the district is an important first step in cutting off the flow of public money to the FLDS. The school district receives more than $6 million in state and federal funds, some of which has been used to prop up church activities and to pay the salaries of unnecessary FLDS employees.

Another milestone was reached on June 22 when a Utah state judge stripped control from Jeffs and five other trustees of the religious trust that owns nearly all of the property in the twin towns of Colorado City and Hildale. A July 21 hearing is scheduled to appoint new trustees to oversee the United Effort Plan and its $150 million in assets.

The UEP owns more than 700 homes, and Jeffs has had, until recently, complete control over the property. He routinely evicted families from their houses and frequently moved families from one home to another to make it difficult for church members to claim financial interest in property they had built upon.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff tells me that the judge's ruling gives his prosecutors additional opportunities to file criminal charges against Jeffs and other former UEP trustees if they fail to produce financial records related to the UEP's activities. Shurtleff says insiders have told him that the UEP has kept multiple sets of financial records.

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