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.

"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.

"[Former trustees] have a responsibility to give an accurate accounting," Shurtleff says. "They could be held in contempt if they don't."

Severing Jeffs' control over the UEP is a major step toward breaking the theocracy that has controlled all aspects of life in the two communities for more than 70 years. For the first time, the about 6,000 residents can openly express dissent without fear of losing their homes, businesses and families.

"I expect to see the towns becoming more normal," says Benjamin Bistline, who has written an exhaustive history of the nation's largest fundamentalist polygamist community.

But that doesn't mean the practice of polygamy will end.

It's too deeply ingrained, Bistline says. Instead of a single religious leader controlling life in the community, the local historian expects more families to quietly practice polygamy in independent clusters.

"You will never get rid of polygamy," Bistline says.

As for Warren Jeffs, the sooner we learn what happened to that airplane, the sooner the so-called prophet could be behind bars.

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