Under Siege

Polygamists are barricading their homes in the midst of mounting legal assaults by authorities

One politician who benefited from this arrangement was former Mohave County Attorney Bill Ekstrom, who ignored rumors of underage marriages during his 24 years in office. Ekstrom resigned in December 2003, and Smith was appointed in January 2004. Smith, a Republican, won his first term last November.

Smith says the problem of underage marriages in Colorado City was driven home to him by New Times' "Polygamy in Arizona" stories, the bulk of which were published in 2003, and by the best seller Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer published the same year. (New Times' stories are referenced in Krakauer's book.)

The Mohave County Attorney promises to press forward in his effort to stop the sexual assault of underage girls in Colorado City, even if he loses the current set of cases.

Mohave County Attorney's Office special investigator Gary Engels
Jackie Mercandetti
Mohave County Attorney's Office special investigator Gary Engels
Warren Jeffs lands on the FBI's most-wanted list.
Warren Jeffs lands on the FBI's most-wanted list.

"I'm not going to back down or worry about politics or public opinion," he says. "It's my job, it's something that needs to be done. Let the chips fall where they may."

Only one parent showed up for the August 18 meeting of the Colorado City Unified School District's board of governors. It was a shockingly low turnout given that, less than a week earlier, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard had announced that he planned to place the district in receivership.

"The financial mismanagement of the Colorado City School District is egregious. It is time to put its finances in competent hands," Goddard said at an August 11 news conference where he revealed plans to use a new law passed last spring allowing the state to seize control of financially mismanaged school systems.

Because the district is $1.4 million in debt, teachers' paychecks bounced several times during the last school year. The school board has been accused by the attorney general of excessive spending for equipment and services -- including purchasing a $220,000 airplane -- and for misuse of state property.

Never before has Arizona sought such sweeping action against a school district. In most communities, such an announcement by the AG would bring an angry swarm of parents, teachers and students to the next school board meeting to demand answers. But not in Colorado City, a closed society where most parents and teachers are indoctrinated never to question the actions of all-powerful FLDS officials.

In addition, parents and teachers "don't feel that their opinions or them being present at a school board meeting is going to make any difference," says Michele Chatwin, the only parent who attended the board meeting.

Six weeks after Goddard's news conference, the school board continued to function as usual; the top administrators who wrecked the district's budget still had their jobs.

The Attorney General's Office is expected to formally request that the state Board of Education place the Colorado City school district into receivership at an education board meeting scheduled October 20.

Goddard says he is confident that the education board will approve his request: "I think we have a rock-solid case."

But that does not mean the AG's request is a slam-dunk.

The district is challenging Goddard's action. Ironically, it is using state funds to hire an attorney to fight the receivership request.

If the AG's request is approved, the state Board of Education will appoint a receiver to oversee day-to-day administration of the district. His duties will include handling personnel issues. Three of the district's top administrators -- Superintendent Alvin Barlow, finance manager Jeffrey Jessop and assistant finance manager Oliver Barlow -- are under criminal investigation by the AG's Office for misuse of public funds and could be relieved of duty by the receiver.

For several years, teachers and parents have quietly complained about financial mismanagement of the school district and about widespread discrimination against non-FLDS members and their children.

Serious problems with the district began in July 2000, when Warren Jeffs ordered FLDS members to withdraw about 600 children from the public school and enroll them in private FLDS schools. He also ordered all FLDS teachers to resign from the public school.

At the same time, Jeffs directed key FLDS members to keep their positions on the school board and as top administrators to keep control of the district's $6 million budget. Jeffs ordered FLDS members to have no contact with the remaining parents, teachers and about 300 students left attending the public school.

Most of the students still at the public school were the children of members of a rival fundamentalist Mormon polygamist sect based in the nearby unincorporated community of Centennial Park. Because the rival group does not consider Jeffs its prophet, he decreed the Centennial Park polygamists as among the most evil people in the world.

During the five years that followed Jeffs' withdrawal order, the school board and administrators allowed the district's budget to plunge into the red. At the same time, they paid FLDS members who continued to work as janitors and bus drivers much higher salaries than certified schoolteachers who are members of the Centennial Park sect.

New Times exposed the financial crisis at the school following a four-month investigation that included the review of thousands of pages of district records ("The Wages of Sin," April 10, 2003). Three months later, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne asked the state Auditor General's Office to begin a special review of the district's finances. The auditor general has not yet released his findings.

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