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Blasphemous Backlash

Ross Chatwin compares sect leader Warren Jeffs to Adolf Hitler during his historic news conference in Colorado City.
John Dougherty

COLORADO CITY -- With his wife and six children clustered behind him on the front porch of his modest home, Ross Chatwin did what no resident of this isolated, fundamentalist Mormon town has ever done.

Chatwin, 35, publicly denounced the religious leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) before more than two dozen reporters from across the country. It was the first news conference in the closed polygamous society's 70-year history and the first time so much press, including network television and the New York Times, had descended on the town in Mohave County.

Raised in a culture where absolute obedience to the FLDS is the church's first commandment, Chatwin ignored thinly veiled death threats circulating through town and harshly criticized the iron-fisted rule of Prophet Warren Jeffs, against whom Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is pursuing charges. Shurtleff maintains that Jeffs has cohabited with underage girls and has arranged the cohabitations of many other men in his congregation with girls younger than the age of legal consent.

Indeed, armed law enforcement was present en masse for the Chatwin event in Colorado City, since it was feared by Utah investigators that armed members of the "God Squad," a group of zealots that protects the prophet, might attempt to intervene.

"This Hitler-like dictator has got to be stopped before he ruins us all and this beautiful town," said Chatwin, holding up a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Rather than submit to Jeffs' demands that he turn over his 32-year-old wife, Lori, and their children to the church for reassignment to another man and then leave town, Chatwin called for other members of the community to join him and rebel.

"We want to make a firm stand that we are not leaving and we are going to stand up to Warren," Chatwin said. "We need your help and support to stop Warren Jeffs from destroying families [and] kicking us out of our homes."

It's uncertain how Chatwin's call for rebellion will resonate in this secretive community where outsiders are considered wicked. An FLDS attorney says Chatwin was asked to leave town because he had asked two underage girls to marry him. According to FLDS doctrine, only the prophet can decide which females go to which men.

And disobeying the prophet apparently is the problem. Chatwin acknowledges that he made marriage overtures to 15- and 17-year-old sisters last year. But in a society where, Utah investigators say, Jeffs himself has impregnated two underage girls, why would this constitute a violation of church doctrine?

Since all the publicity surrounding polygamy in Arizona and Utah has opened his eyes (New Times kicked off its series on the fundamentalist church in March of last year), Chatwin said he has changed his mind about the practice and does "not plan on pursuing polygamy" again.

In the last few years, more than 100 men have been stripped of their families and homes and ordered by Jeffs to leave town. Save for the men in favor with the church who receive what skeptics in the town call "new breeding stock," the reassignments are devastating to all concerned -- especially young girls who face coerced cohabitation with their new stepfathers (these men frequently are betrothed in church ceremonies to mothers and their daughters in such situations).

"Children and women are being taken from their husbands," said Ron Barton, an investigator for the Utah Attorney General's Office. "That's about the worst kind of violence that we can expect in America."

Earlier this month, Jeffs ordered 21 men to abandon their families and leave town. Among those excommunicated was Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, who quickly complied with Jeffs' command and resigned the post he has held since the town was incorporated in 1985. It appears that most, if not all, of the excommunicated men have obeyed Jeffs' order.

The mayor's sudden departure illustrates the Prophet's absolute control over all aspects of public and private life in Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah. And it makes it all the more remarkable that Chatwin had the nerve to speak out.

Another public official, Joseph Barlow, resigned his position on the Hildale City Council under Jeffs' excommunication order.

The FLDS owns most of the land in the two towns through a trust called the United Effort Plan. The trust, in turn, is controlled by Prophet Jeffs. Those who fall into disfavor with the church are routinely evicted from their homes. FLDS members believe Jeffs is God's only spokesman on Earth and that disobeying his commands will lead to eternal damnation.

"They believe that Warren Jeffs has control over their eternal salvation, and they are in fear of him condemning them to hell," said Ben Bistline, a former church member and the town's unofficial historian. "So that's why they don't dare do anything against him."

 

A longtime critic of the FLDS, Bistline received an anonymous letter two days before Chatwin's press conference warning him that "when you take on Gods [sic] chosen people, you are playing with his fire." The letter alluded to a ritual called "blood atonement" where a person is killed for his sins, and it warned that young FLDS men -- the God Squad -- are willing to carry out such action if ordered by Jeffs.

The Prophet's actions have attracted considerable attention from law enforcement in Utah and lately Arizona, but no charges have been filed against the reclusive leader who refuses all media interview requests and is rarely seen in public.

At the same time Jeffs has stepped up excommunications, he's also demanded that FLDS faithful make frequent $1,000 contributions to the church. The onerous tithing demands began last fall and came at the same time he and his brother, Leroy Jeffs, were facing federal tax liens totaling more than $67,000. Warren Jeffs paid off a $25,468 federal lien on December 10. Leroy Jeffs still owes the IRS $42,000 in back taxes dating back to 1999.

Authorities believe Warren Jeffs is committing crimes by conducting multiple marriages of men in his church to underage girls. Those joined in such "spiritual" unions are not recognized as legally married in Arizona or Utah, where bigamy laws allow for only one spouse. Utah birth certificates reveal that Jeffs, 48, fathered children with at least two girls who were 17 at the time they became pregnant and were not his legal wives.

Polygamy is unconstitutional in Arizona, but there is no criminal statute calling for sanctions against those who engage in the practice. For someone to be in violation of the state's bigamy statute, he would have to have married more than one woman in a civil ceremony; there is no language in the statute dealing with multiple cohabitation of those who have not signed marriage certificates. Arizona legislators are expected to debate a bill this year aimed at stopping the underage polygamous marriages that are rampant in Colorado City.

Chatwin's public defiance could signal a major split in the FLDS. Such divisions among members of other polygamous Mormon sects have been marked by violence in the past, and there is concern among state law enforcement that a split in the FLDS could lead to bloodshed.

Fundamentalist Mormons believe a man must have at least three wives to reach the highest level of heaven called the "Celestial Kingdom." The mainstream Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah obtaining statehood. Polygamy, however, remains a central tenet in the modern-day mainstream church as a reward to the faithful in the afterlife.

Included among law enforcement on hand to make sure no violence broke out during Chatwin's remarks were Mohave County sheriff's deputies and Arizona Department of Public Safety officers. In addition, undercover detectives from Arizona and Utah were scattered around the property and along the street while Chatwin spoke.

"I'm glad they are here and I think I need them," Chatwin said later about the police presence.

The outside authorities were brought in because of serious concerns over the operations of the Colorado City Police Department. As part of his widespread investigation, Utah AG Shurtleff is trying to shut down the department principally because officers have ignored the widespread practice among polygamists of sexually abusing underage girls. Some of the officers, all of whom are fundamentalist Mormons, have sexually abused underage girls themselves, the Utah AG's Office says. One has even been convicted of that crime.

In his remarks, Chatwin mentioned former FLDS bishop Fred M. Jessop, who was stripped of his church position by Jeffs earlier this month and has not been seen in town since mid-December. Jessop, 94, is a beloved figure in the community who is also a member of the Hildale City Council. He was seen by many as the likely successor to the late Rulon Jeffs as FLDS leader. But after Rulon's death in September 2002, his son Warren quickly assumed control of the sect.

Chatwin said he believes Fred Jessop has been moved by Jeffs to a secret compound under construction somewhere in Mexico.

"I would like to convey that many people in the FLDS are concerned in regards to . . . Fred's whereabouts," Chatwin said.

Chatwin also revealed that Jeffs has named Kevin Barlow, Colorado City's town clerk, as superintendent of the church's private schools. Kevin Barlow's father, Alvin, is superintendent of the public Colorado City Unified School District.

 

The public school system is under investigation by the Arizona Auditor General's and Attorney General's offices for alleged misuse of public funds -- including the transfer of public school buildings to the FLDS at a loss of more than $300,000 to the school district. Despite Alvin Barlow's position overseeing the district, he joined other FLDS faithful in withdrawing his children from the public schools and placing them in private FLDS schools on orders from Warren Jeffs.


Rather than rely on religious leaders for advice during times of turmoil, as is customary among FLDS men, Ross Chatwin turned instead to his wife for consultation.

"Thank you for showing me that my best friend has, all along, been right beside me," Chatwin said during his prepared statement to the press.

And instead of following FLDS directives to abandon her husband if ordered to by the prophet, Lori Chatwin decided to stay with the man she loves.

"I am supportive of my husband, and I'm not going to leave him. I think that a lot of people have left their husbands and they are hurt by it," she said in response to a reporter's question.

While these statements may not sound radical, they are high treason among the FLDS faithful.

FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs has long taught that women must be totally obedient to men and that men must always obey the prophet, even if that means violating state and federal laws.

According to Jeffs' sermons and public statements, God cursed women to have painful childbirths in retaliation for Eve's persuading Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. And men, the proclamations by Jeffs convey, are forever cursed with having to work for food because Adam succumbed to Eve's demand and ate the apple.

Jeffs also preaches that the Lord gave women a "blessing."

"The blessing on woman was -- and the only way she could ever be happy was -- that she would let her husband, a faithful man, rule over her. That was the only way back to Heavenly Father for the woman," Jeffs stated in a 1995 lecture prepared for sixth- to eighth-grade students.

It's obvious that such religious propaganda is the cornerstone of education in the isolated towns of Colorado City and Hildale. Since community members are taught as young children that polygamy is the only way to heavenly bliss, few people break free from the church and its prophet -- no matter how painful religious subjugation turns out to be.

Ross Chatwin is slowly prying himself from FLDS theology. During the January 23 press conference, he stated that the problem wasn't polygamy but the harsh rule of Warren Jeffs. Curiously, Chatwin said he wasn't sure why he was kicked out of the church he was born into.

Reporters later learned from FLDS attorney Rodney Parker that Chatwin and his wife were soliciting the two underage sisters to join their family. Since only the prophet can arrange such marriages, Chatwin had committed a serious transgression that led to Jeffs stripping Ross of his coveted "priesthood" status in the FLDS.

A day after the press conference, Ross Chatwin told New Times that he and his wife are no longer interested in pursuing polygamy. Abandoning the concept was not easy, he said.

"I've gotten some real eye-openers making me really wake up and think," he said.

Chatwin's decision to abandon polygamy has brought about a sense of relief and disappointment. "It was part of a culture that I have known all my life."

He said he expects the FLDS, which owns practically every piece of property in the fundamentalist Mormon enclave, to initiate formal eviction proceedings against him. He said he can't afford an attorney and that his prospects for earning money (he operates a car-repair business in the community) will be severely hampered because of his open defiance of Jeffs.

Chatwin said he is cooperating with investigators who are building the criminal case against Jeffs. He declined to elaborate on what information he is providing.

While he urged other men to follow his lead and speak out against FLDS abuses, he cautioned them to make sure their wives (many of whom are so indoctrinated into the fundamentalist mindset that they would never offend the prophet) support them.

"If you are scared, just stand up," he urged. "But make sure your family is standing with you."


Prosecutors in Arizona and Utah are hoping that recently excommunicated men will contact them with evidence that would make the filing of criminal charges against Jeffs and other FLDS leaders easier.

So far, investigators say, most of the fearful excommunicated men have refused to assist authorities.

Utah investigators have held discussions with Canadian polygamist Winston Blackmore, who leads a fundamentalist Mormon sect that was once closely aligned with the FLDS in Colorado City and Hildale. Over the last year, several polygamists in the Arizona-Utah community have left to join Blackmore's group in Creston, British Columbia.

 

Blackmore is so reviled by Warren Jeffs that, during a recent visit to Colorado City to attend a funeral, he received law enforcement protection from agents of the Arizona AG, the Utah AG and the Utah Bureau of Homeland Security.

Blackmore denied reports that he has been offered immunity by Utah authorities in exchange for his testimony concerning FLDS operations in Colorado City and Hildale.

"I have made no deals, but I don't have anything to hide from them," Blackmore told New Times.

Blackmore, who offers fundamental Mormon polygamists a far more liberal climate in which to practice their religion, said he doesn't consider himself a rival to Jeffs.

"I simply have no interest in him," Blackmore said. "I have no ax to grind with him, nor am I interested in being a challenge to him."

At the same time, Blackmore hinted that he won't protect Jeffs in future discussions with authorities.

"If I was asked about an issue, I would certainly tell the truth about it as I knew it," he stressed.

Meanwhile, the Arizona investigation into the operations of the Colorado City school district continues as financial problems at the district's K-12 school grow increasingly more dire every day.

The Arizona probe of the office was triggered by a New Times article that uncovered a number of financial abuses, including the misuse of district credit cards by Superintendent Alvin Barlow and other administrators.

The district's unrestrained spending has forced it to borrow more than $880,000 from a $1 million line of credit with Wells Fargo Bank and another $300,000 from Mohave County to cover inordinately high operating expenses.

Last November, the 330-student Colorado City district asked the state Department of Education for an emergency advance of $1 million in state aid to cover ongoing expenses. The state refused, and asked the district to provide additional information concerning its expenses. The school district provided more details on December 15, lowering its request for an advance to $970,000.

In a request for information, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne asked Mohave County Superintendent Mike File, who has jurisdiction over the Colorado City district, if the small school system has misused public funds. File skirted the question, but he did say that Alvin Barlow and his school board have made "no effort to reduce spending" and that Colorado City's request for an emergency advance "should be denied."

On January 2, the state DOE formally rejected Barlow's and the board's request for the advance funding. In a letter to the district, the department noted that Colorado City is employing twice as many workers as other public school districts with a similar number of students.

The DOE warned Colorado City that the district is in imminent danger of violating state law by exceeding its approved budget and needs to take immediate steps to reduce spending.

As of mid-January, it had taken no steps to reduce employment in the public school system, which, File said, is likely to run out of money and be forced to close this spring.

State officials believe that the district may be padding its employee roster with relatives of district officials and/or favored FLDS members. Along those lines, the state has asked district officials to disclose if they or a family member has a financial interest in companies that do business with the district, but only three have complied so far.

Oliver Barlow, the district's business manager, disclosed that he is an officer in Streamline Automotive, a Hildale automobile repair shop that provides extensive service and maintenance for a fleet of school vehicles, including the 1994 Suburban issued to him.

Oliver Barlow also disclosed that his architect brother, Edmund, was awarded a contract related to the construction of the new $7 million K-12 school built by the state last year.

School board president F. Lee Bistline Sr. said his son Ladell has a district contract to pilot and maintain the district's Cessna 210. Another son, Lee Jr., has been hired by the district to provide accounting and technical services.

Board member William Meldrum said he's the owner of a fire-safety equipment company awarded a contract by the district last year to service fire extinguishers.

The conflicts come as no surprise to longtime residents of the community who contend that they have seen school officials take state vehicles on family vacations.

A teacher and some parents of students say the FLDS is conducting church business out of a $500,000 vocational building built along with the school last year. The two-story structure, they say, is never used by students. Non-district personnel are routinely seen entering the computer-equipped facility.

 

School supplies are regularly pilfered by church members who have unfettered access to the school in the evenings and on weekends, these sources say.

"I'm guessing," a well-connected parent alleges, "that CCUSD is acting as a supply warehouse for the FLDS schools to stock their shelves."


Key anti-polygamy activists, who are thrilled with the dissension within the fundamentalist Mormon church, are at the same time at each other's throats.

The dispute, which already has shut down a key outreach facility in St. George, Utah, centers on how to best help underage children wanting to leave Colorado City and Hildale.

One faction, led by Phoenix resident Flora Jessop and California child-welfare advocate Jay Beswick, endorses the use of direct intervention to transport juveniles out of the area and into secret locations often hundreds of miles away.

While this tactic can be effective in removing kids from the polygamous community at least temporarily, it runs a high risk of violating state and federal laws.

Activists such as Bob Curran of the shut-down Help the Child Brides center in St. George and Vicky Prunty of Salt Lake City-based Tapestry Against Polygamy discourage such rogue actions.

Any minor fleeing the area, they say, should be turned over to Child Protective Services in Arizona and Utah as soon as possible to ensure that both the minors' and their parents' legal rights are protected.

The downside of this approach is that Arizona and Utah have in the past returned minors seeking to leave Colorado City and Hildale to their parents unless a juvenile court finds that the children have been abused or neglected.

The fact that the minors may run away from a community where polygamy is the norm is not enough to sever parental rights. Child protective services officials in both states, however, say they will not return any underage female to a family if the girl believes she is facing a forced marriage.

"Every case has to be treated individually," said Carol Cisco, spokeswoman for Utah's Division of Child and Family Services. "If a child is about to be abused . . . we would not send them back."

Last week, the anti-polygamy activists' longtime simmering debate on how to handle underage minors leaving the polygamous society erupted into a nasty dispute played out over e-mail and in the press.

Two 16-year-old girls fled Colorado City with the help of some former FLDS members who had quit the church and moved to nearby towns. The girls were in a safe house and were in no immediate danger of being returned to their parents.

Flora Jessop learned that the girls had escaped to a location in southern Utah and set off to find them with two Phoenix television news stations in tow. Jessop persuaded the girls to return with her to Phoenix, where she appeared with them during several television interviews. She also appeared in a recent front-page photograph with the girls in the East Valley Tribune and was quoted in both Tribune and Arizona Republic stories in January.

The Arizona AG's Office soon intervened and placed the children in a foster home pending the outcome of juvenile court hearings.

Prunty criticizes Jessop for using the girls as photo-ops and for transporting them to a location more than 400 miles from their homes.

"We do not advocate exploiting minors," Prunty said.

Curran said he is outraged that Jessop would move the girls when they were already in a safe place.

"I had called Flora and told her the girls were safe, but she came up here anyway," Curran said.

Curran said he's afraid Flora Jessop's action could result in kidnapping charges and place Help the Child Brides -- a nonprofit organization he founded and directed until he was kicked out by Jessop and two other board members recently -- in further jeopardy. He's contesting his removal and hopes to reopen the facility.

Jessop's actions have also drawn criticism from Utah AG Shurtleff, who said, "We don't want to encourage vigilantism, we don't want to encourage kidnappings."

Ironically, the bitter infighting among the anti-polygamy stalwarts comes at a time when state officials in Arizona and Utah and the national press are listening to them.

Jessop's action has "undermined the work that we are doing," said Prunty, who fled a polygamous marriage. "It uses the same [exploitation] tactics as our [FLDS] violators" and could hugely set back efforts to assist those wanting to escape polygamy.

 

E-mail john.dougherty@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8445.


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