Authorities Swarm Polygamists

State and federal law enforcement launches a multifaceted campaign against fugitive fundamentalist Mormon Prophet Warren Jeffs and his followers

Published online April 11, 2006, 1:55 p.m. MST

State and federal authorities and the Mormon polygamist sect headquartered along the Arizona-Utah border seem finally headed for a showdown.

So far, there have been no reports of violence in the towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, but tensions are escalating in the remote communities about 400 miles north of Phoenix.

Fugitive polygamist leader Warren Jeffs has vowed not to be taken alive and has ordered his 10,000 followers to refuse to cooperate with law enforcement.

Authorities launched a multifaceted campaign against Jeffs and his top aides during the week of April 6, which marked the 176th anniversary of the founding of the Mormon Church by Joseph Smith -- the man who first espoused polygamy as the cornerstone of Mormonism.

The modern Mormon Church gave up polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah's gaining statehood. But Jeffs and members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints continue the practice that frequently involves the coercion of heavily indoctrinated, underage girls into "spiritual" marriages with already married men.

Key developments include:

• Washington County, Utah, Attorney Brock Belnap announced on April 6 the filing of two first-degree felony charges of rape as an accomplice against Jeffs in connection with his conducting the "spiritual" marriage of an underage girl and ordering her to consummate the marriage despite her objections. If found guilty, Jeffs could face life in prison.

• At least two prominent FLDS members have been detained by federal authorities and are being held at the Central Arizona Detention Center in Florence. James Allred, a high-ranking FLDS official, and Mica Barlow, a Colorado City police officer, are being held on civil contempt-of-court charges. Allred has played a key role in the collection of hundreds of thousands of dollars from FLDS members that have been used to assist Jeffs' fugitive flight.

• Utah authorities initiated legal proceedings against Jeffs' top assistant in Hildale demanding the payment of delinquent property taxes or immediate evictions will result. Jeffs has ordered FLDS followers not to pay their property taxes. Authorities say they don't expect Warren Jeffs' brother, Lyle Jeffs, to pay the property taxes, setting up the potential for law enforcement forcibly evicting Lyle Jeffs from his home.

• Arizona law-enforcement-certification authorities warned the Colorado City Marshal's Office, the local police force, that its officers will be stripped of police certification if they continue to place their religious obligations ahead of enforcing civil laws.

• Two longtime FLDS members of the Colorado City Unified School District governing board resigned from their posts on April 6. The resignations of Scott Jessop and Ralph Johnson come at the same time Arizona authorities are conducting criminal and civil investigations into the district that is more than $1 million in debt and was placed into receivership last winter.

The Washington County criminal charges filed against Warren Jeffs mark a significant change in how southern Utah authorities have reacted to polygamous marriages of underage girls in Hildale.

Washington County is home to thousands of mainstream Mormons, who have not practiced polygamy in generations but have a connection to the practice dating back to when patriarch Brigham Young and his plural wives kept a winter home in St. George. For decades, Washington County has virtually ignored the FLDS practice of polygamy and underage marriages.

But that changed last week when Washington County Attorney Belnap announced the indictment against Warren Jeffs. Belnap emphasized that the criminal case was not "about religion, nor is it about polygamy."

"This case is about a violation of the law by someone in a position of power and authority over a vulnerable young girl," Belnap said.

The criminal case is similar to a lawsuit filed last December in nearby Cedar City, Utah, by an unnamed young woman who alleged that Warren Jeffs forced her into a polygamous marriage as an underage girl. Belnap declined to comment when asked whether the victim in the criminal case is the same woman who filed the suit. Belnap referred calls to Roger Hoole, the attorney handling the civil suit. Hoole declined to comment.

The Washington County charges come 10 months after Mohave County, Arizona, filed seven felony counts against Jeffs in connection with his conducting spiritual marriages of three underage girls. The U.S. District Court of Arizona filed an unlawful flight to avoid prosecution charge against Warren Jeffs on June 27.

The FBI placed the 50-year-old Jeffs on its Most Wanted list in August.

Mohave County also has filed criminal charges against eight other Colorado City men for taking underage girls as spiritual wives. The cases are expected to go to trial later this summer.

The flurry of law enforcement activity comes amid reports that many FLDS members living in the remote towns that straddle the Arizona-Utah border north of the Grand Canyon are poised to leave the area.

"Warren's told them to all be prepared to move," says former FLDS member and historian Benjamin Bistline.

Hildale Mayor David Zitting hinted in December that a mass exodus from the community could occur. Zitting said there are "parallels" between the situation in Colorado City and Hildale and what occurred 160 years ago. Early Mormon leaders abandoned their stronghold of Nauvoo, Illinois, 19 months after church founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob in nearby Carthage on June 27, 1844. The mass exodus from Nauvoo began in February 1846.

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