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.
Polygamy in Arizona
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.
"I don't know what's going to happen," Zitting says, but if FLDS leaders order people to move, "a high percentage" would.
Helping fuel speculation of a mass exodus is the fact that a number of prominent men in the community have disappeared in the past couple of months.
Among the most notable absences is Richard Allred, who suddenly resigned as Colorado City mayor in February. His son, Joseph Allred, also resigned his position as Colorado City town clerk. Joseph Allred has not been seen in town since December, while Richard Allred has been gone for more than a month, local residents say.
Warren Jeffs has been moving key followers to other FLDS properties scattered across the West. In the past three years, Jeffs followers have purchased land and are erecting new compounds in Eldorado, Texas; Mancos, Colorado; and, in the most recently discovered outpost, Pringle, South Dakota. The sect also has control of a large farm near Pioche, Nevada, and holdings in Bountiful, British Columbia.
Historian Bistline predicts that Jeffs will select about 2,500 FLDS members and order them to leave Colorado City-Hildale and relocate to church property elsewhere. The rest of the FLDS members would remain in the towns and be forced to make a difficult choice: Pay property taxes and remain in their homes, or remain loyal to Jeffs and risk eviction by refusing to pay the taxes.
"I think a lot of [FLDS members] are fed up with this, and if push comes to shove, they will pay," Bistline says.
The pushing and shoving over property taxes and the right to stay in their homes is about to escalate into a wrestling match between Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan and FLDS counselor Lyle Jeffs.
Wisan was appointed as special fiduciary by a Utah state court last summer to oversee $111 million in assets controlled by the United Effort Plan trust. The UEP trust was created by the FLDS leaders to own all the property and structures in Colorado City and Hildale. Warren Jeffs and his top aides were stripped of control of the trust last summer after Jeffs refused to defend himself in three civil suits filed against him in Salt Lake City.
Despite removal as a trustee and becoming a fugitive, Jeffs continues to exert control over the FLDS members living on UEP land. Last fall, he ordered FLDS members to refuse to pay Washington County and Mohave County property taxes. Only a handful of residents -- all former FLDS members -- have paid the taxes on their homes.
Wisan has since held several town meetings and has sent written notices to FLDS members warning that if they refuse to pay their property taxes, eviction proceedings will be initiated. Wisan has now escalated the warnings by seeking immediate payment from Lyle Jeffs.
"We want to get him evicted, or get him to pay the taxes," Wisan says. "This will clearly send a message."
If Lyle Jeffs pays the property taxes -- which is considered unlikely -- it would signify a major break with Warren Jeffs and would be a clear signal that the FLDS prophet is losing his grip on the community.
The more likely scenario is that Lyle Jeffs will simply abandon the house and move to another location. The third alternative would be for Lyle Jeffs to refuse to pay the property taxes and refuse to abide by the eviction order and leave the property.
Wisan would then be forced to rely on the Colorado City Marshal's Office to enforce the order. The local cops have in the past shown that their allegiance is to Warren Jeffs and the FLDS, making it questionable whether they would cooperate with Wisan.
The local cops' refusal to enforce laws that are not in synch with FLDS mandates has triggered several investigations by Utah and Arizona police-certification agencies. Three Colorado City policemen already have been stripped of their certifications, and the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board is considering decertifying more local officers.
In an effort to quell the rebellion by Colorado City police -- which, in essence, has become an FLDS militia -- AZ POST executive director Thomas Hammarstrom says he warned the officers in a March 21 letter that they must enforce the law without regard to religious obligations and requirements, particularly when it comes to issues involving UEP property.
"I delivered that letter personally and read it aloud so there was no question about what was in it," Hammarstrom tells me.
As Wisan gears up for his clash with FLDS leadership, federal authorities confirmed the arrests of James Allred and Mica Barlow.
U.S. Marshal David Gonzales said both men were arrested on Friday, April 7, on civil contempt-of-court charges issued by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton.
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The arrests indicate that a federal grand jury investigation may be under way and that the men were charged after they refused to testify.
They apparently were following the orders of Warren Jeffs, who (referring to outside law enforcement) admonished his followers: "Tell them nothing."
Allred, who works as a postal clerk at the Colorado City-Hildale post office, reportedly told another postal worker that he expected to be held for up to 18 months.
"The entire town is buzzing with news of the arrests," says Isaac Wyler, a lifelong Colorado City resident and former FLDS member.