Colorado City school superintendent Alvin Barlow meets me inside the hallway of the public school district's crumbling administration building with an armed Colorado City cop at his side.
Arizona's senior school administrator is quivering with rage. He's extremely unhappy to see me.
Barlow ignores my greeting, abruptly turns and walks down a hallway toward a meeting room where two years ago I began the tedious task of poring through thousands of pages of the school district's financial records.
Polygamy in Arizona
I follow him, with the cop a few steps behind. Barlow silently places two black notebooks containing district meeting minutes and agendas for the last 10 months on a table for me to review.
As he turns to walk away, I ask him the question everyone in this isolated town north of the Grand Canyon wants him to answer:
"Why are the school district's payroll checks bouncing?"
Barlow ignores my question and walks out of the room.
He doesn't need to say anything. I already know the answer.
Two years ago, I uncovered substantial and compelling evidence that Barlow and the Colorado City Unified School District's school board were systematically looting public funds for the benefit of the fundamentalist Mormon polygamists who control all aspects of life in the twin towns of Colorado City and Hildale, Utah.
In April 2003, I wrote a lengthy feature story detailing how the school district is merely a pawn in a much larger and surreal power play orchestrated by Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS openly practices polygamy. The sect is a renegade offshoot of the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church, which banned polygamy in 1890 so that Utah could gain statehood.
Despite nearly two years of warnings in New Times stories that Barlow and his FLDS cohorts were driving the Colorado City school district into the ground, the state of Arizona has done nothing to prepare for the inevitable moment that has now arrived -- the district is in financial ruin and teachers aren't being paid.
The district's biweekly, $108,000 worth of payroll checks began bouncing in late October without warning. Teachers not only suffered the loss of their paychecks, many have incurred hundreds of dollars in penalties from their banks as their checks bounced in the wake of the district's payroll default.
But the teachers continue to show up each day for their classes.
"We're teachers, and when 6-year-olds depend on you, what are you going to do?" a teacher tells me. "We don't do this for the money."
The teacher, who asked not to be identified, says many of her associates are hugely frustrated; they have been abandoned by the state and lied to by the school board.
"I think if [state school superintendent] Tom Horne really cared, he would be here," the teacher says. "If anybody in the state really cared, they would be here."
Amazingly, even if Horne and other state officials swooped into Colorado City, there is nothing they can do about the renegade school district. There is no law that allows the state Department of Education to forcibly remove a corrupt and/or incompetent public school administration and school board from power -- even if they effectively bankrupt a school district.
"Nothing can be done until I get authority to do something," Horne tells me. "I should already have that authority, but I don't."
Horne says he will ask the state Legislature to pass an emergency bill in January allowing the state school superintendent to take over "dysfunctional" school districts. A similar bill failed last year. Horne says he still has to find a sponsor for the bill, which could meet stiff resistance from legislators who want local school boards to remain completely insulated from state control.
Governor Janet Napolitano should play a prominent role in pushing through emergency legislation. But she continues to ignore the outrageous situation in Colorado City. Her office did not respond to a series of questions I sent to her press secretary concerning the school crisis.
Attorney General Terry Goddard says he will strongly support legislation that would allow him to ask a court to force a financially insolvent school district into receivership. But at this point, Goddard says, there is nothing his office can do unless the school district voluntarily files for bankruptcy -- which is extremely unlikely.
"Short of legislation, I don't know what we can do to ease the situation up there," Goddard says. "Obviously, it's tragic and irresponsible of the people who run the district up there."
If and when the Legislature finally addresses the crisis, it will have a gigantic mess on its hands. The district already is more than $1.5 million in the red, and that will only mount as it continues to issue worthless paychecks that legally must be paid.
Financially destroying the school district is precisely what FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs wants to happen.
Jeffs hates the children and teachers at the Colorado City school because most of them are members of a rival polygamist Mormon sect in nearby Centennial Park.
Jeffs ordered all FLDS members to withdraw their children from the Colorado City schools in July 2000 and enroll them in church schools. Since then, the Colorado City school district's primary purpose has been to provide jobs to FLDS members and divert taxpayer money into FLDS schools.
Alvin Barlow and other administrators and school board members are not about to challenge Jeffs' dictates. FLDS adherents believe Jeffs is God's only true spokesman on Earth. They think those who dare to question Jeffs risk losing their home, job, multiple wives and children, and, worst of all, be cast into hellfire for eternity.
Under Barlow's direction, the district hired scores of FLDS members for unnecessary jobs in order to provide paychecks to church members. The FLDS employees work as staff members, principals, janitors, bus drivers and maintenance workers. They were ordered by Jeffs to have no contact with the teachers and the students at the school -- who were deemed by Jeffs to be evil.
School payroll records I examined reveal that Barlow paid FLDS members far more than the teachers, whose starting pay is slightly more than $18,000 a year. The district has more than 100 employees for 350 students, a ratio much higher than other public schools of its size.
It was obvious that featherbedding would eventually outstrip the district's funds.
Not only did Barlow pack the district with FLDS employees, he orchestrated giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of public school assets to the FLDS church, including several school buildings in which the district forfeited prepaid leases that were financed through bonds.
I also discovered that Barlow and other administrators were illegally using the district's fleet of four-wheel-drive SUVs for private use. Barlow and other administrators also illegally used district credit cards, ringing up more than $20,000 in unpaid personal expenses.
My investigation found that Barlow and administrators traveled relentlessly, often taking their wives and children on trips at district expense.
Travel remains a priority. The district, which has the lowest average teacher pay in the state, bought a $220,000 airplane in 2002 to facilitate trips to dozens of conferences and meetings each year. The aircraft purchase violated state conflict-of-interest laws because the school board's chairman, F. Lee Bistline, voted to buy the plane knowing that it would be operated by his son.
Criminal statutes mean nothing to Jeffs if laws get in the way of practicing a religion based on the teachings of Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith, who first introduced polygamy as church doctrine in the 1830s.
For years, Jeffs lived across the state line in Hildale, Utah, where he reportedly had as many as 70 wives. Sources and records reveal that Jeffs has a penchant for taking underage girls into his harem.
Despite the fact that having sex with an underage girl who is not a legal wife is a felony, Utah has yet to charge Jeffs with child rape.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff says that he was reluctant to arrest Jeffs on child rape charges unless the girls were willing to step forward as victims.
"Without a cooperative witness, we may lose the case, and that will make Jeffs look even more like a god," Shurtleff tells me.
But Shurtleff now says he is reconsidering that position, given that it appears that Jeffs has fled from the Colorado City and Hildale area.
"We don't have the luxury of waiting much longer to make an arrest," he says.
Just last week, reports surfaced about another underage girl who reportedly was seeking to escape from the FLDS after being forced to "marry" Jeffs.
An Arizona criminal investigator questioned the girl on November 17, but she refused to answer questions about whether she was "spiritually" married and where she had been living the last year since she first disappeared from her Colorado City home just after turning 16.
The investigator says he had no choice but to return the girl to her parents' home in Colorado City. But the investigator says he strongly suspects the girl is "married" to Jeffs but is afraid to talk to police.
Arizona and Utah law enforcement agencies are conducting wide-ranging criminal investigations into Jeffs and the FLDS, but they have little to show after several years of investigation. Lawsuits have also been filed, alleging Jeffs also engaged in sexual misconduct with minor boys, among other outrages.
The increased scrutiny has forced Jeffs and his closest disciples to go underground -- just like Mormon polygamists did 120 years ago when the federal government outlawed polygamy in the Utah Territory.
Jeffs' exit strategy from the Colorado City area is now unfolding. He abandoned his palatial home in Hildale and is believed to be living at a 1,600-acre compound under construction in south central Texas near the town of El Dorado.
The flurry of construction at the site is attracting considerable attention from Texas authorities, but they appear to be at a loss as to what to do. More than a dozen large structures have been erected in recent months, and hundreds of men and women have been moved from Colorado City to the Texas location.
Sources say a temple is now being constructed at the Texas compound. If that is true, it is a powerful indication that Jeffs has abandoned Colorado City-Hildale after the twin towns served as the FLDS base for more than 70 years.
There are a number of other indications that Jeffs has fled, leaving behind a financial and social mess along the Arizona-Utah border. Goddard says he is increasingly concerned that Arizona may suddenly have a massive social disaster as Jeffs leaves behind thousands of lesser FLDS members without jobs and support.
The community's only financial institution, the Bank of Ephraim, failed last summer, costing taxpayers more than $13 million. Law enforcement sources say FLDS members defaulted on more than $1 million in personal loans.
The FLDS, which has steadily accumulated vast real estate holdings in the beautifully desolate ranch land around Colorado City, is now offering to sell thousands of undeveloped acres. A Web site offering the property states the sellers "will accept any reasonable offer."
But just because Jeffs appears to have left the area doesn't mean he doesn't retain control over the people. Nearly all of the developed property in Colorado City and Hildale is controlled by a trust called the United Effort Plan. And Jeffs has complete control over the trust.
The only way to break up the trust and end Jeffs' grip on the community, Shurtleff says, is to prove the trust is, or has been, engaged in criminal activity.
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And it increasingly appears the only way to crack the trust is to put Warren Jeffs and his top associates, including school superintendent Alvin Barlow, behind bars.
The time for law enforcement in Arizona and Utah to act has long passed.
Issue an arrest warrant for Warren Jeffs now!
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