Fundamentalist Mormon prophet Warren Jeffs came close to getting arrested over the last year because the Utah Attorney General's Office believed he wanted disobedient teenager Vanessa Rohbock sacrificed to the Lord in a religious ritual called Blood Atonement.
Based upon the teachings of Mormon Church patriarch Brigham Young, Jeffs professed that Vanessa's soul could be saved from eternal hell only if her blood were spilled, sources say.
Young had preached that death was the only redemption for certain sins -- including adultery.
"Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant," Young was quoted as saying in an 1857 sermon delivered in Salt Lake City and memorialized in the primary fundamentalist Mormon document Purity in the New and Everlasting Covenant of Marriage, compiled by Jeffs' father and former fundamentalist Prophet Rulon Jeffs.
Vanessa had committed the most vile of sins in the fundamentalist Mormon world: She had taken a boyfriend of her own choosing instead of marrying the man Warren Jeffs had chosen for her.
For that transgression, she was to die.
"Warren wanted Vanessa blood-atoned," says Ron Barton, a criminal investigator in Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's office.
What Jeffs wants, he usually gets.
The 48-year-old recluse dictates life in the isolated communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, along the artificial boundary between the two states, where more than 6,000 members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) believe that men must have at least three wives to reach heaven's highest echelon.
To violate a command by Jeffs -- seen by devotees as God's earthly representative and the ultimate authority on assignments into polygamous marriages -- is an unpardonable transgression that can lead to severe punishment.
Jeffs, according to Barton and others familiar with the matter, ordered Vanessa's father to retrieve her from Canada, where she had found safe haven with Jeffs' rival, fundamentalist Mormon polygamist leader Winston Blackmore.
Vanessa refused to go back with her father, Ron Rohbock, who at the time was one of Jeffs' bodyguards. Rohbock made several trips to Canada to pick up his daughter, but he could not persuade the girl to go back to Colorado City.
On one of the trips, Rohbock told Blackmore that Jeffs had decreed that there was nothing left for Vanessa to do but return home and face the ultimate punishment, death, according to the Utah AG's Office.
In an interview with Utah investigators, Blackmore said he and the girl's father had been instructed by Jeffs to pray day and night for Vanessa's destruction.
Testament to the power Jeffs has over fundamentalist Mormons, Vanessa eventually returned to Colorado City and was spared when she agreed to marry the man the prophet had selected.
"Everyone was concerned about [Vanessa Rohbock's] welfare, including law enforcement agencies on both sides of the [U.S.-Canadian] border," Blackmore tells New Times.
Vanessa is no longer in danger, Blackmore attests. "I think she was the safest girl in the nation by the time that she went back to Colorado City," he says wryly.
The Utah Attorney General's Office, Barton says, was considering charging Jeffs with conspiracy to commit murder for issuing the blood-atonement order on Vanessa. But with Vanessa back in the FLDS fold, whether of her own volition or not, the case was shelved in favor of what the AG's Office hopes will be more prosecutable crimes by the prophet.
Jeffs could not be reached for comment. His Salt Lake City attorney, Rodney Parker, said the AG's investigation into Jeffs' blood-atonement order is "insane" and doesn't "justify a comment."
"They are idiots up there," Parker said about AG's personnel. "At least they are acting like they are."
Jeffs, who lives in Hildale, which blends seamlessly with Colorado City, houses at least a dozen women he calls wives in a guarded compound featuring several homes the size of hotels. State laws allow individuals only one spouse, so any "wife" beyond that isn't legally attached to the perceived husband. Longtime FLDS observers say Jeffs has more than 30 such "spiritual" spouses, but no one knows for sure.
According to Utah birth certificates, Jeffs fathered children with at least two girls who were 17 at the time they were impregnated and were not his legal wives -- a class-three felony in Utah.
Warren Jeffs may have avoided criminal charges for now, but Utah and Arizona prosecutors are stepping up their investigations of the FLDS under Jeffs' leadership.
Utah is continuing to probe Jeffs' activities with the goal of building a comprehensive criminal case that includes not only sexual-misconduct crimes but financial misdeeds stemming from the prophet's control over property and businesses in the community estimated to be worth more than $100 million.
In Arizona, Attorney General Terry Goddard's office has started a wide-ranging probe of the polygamist enclave, which his predecessors had largely ignored for 50 years. In addition to beginning to seriously investigate girls getting forced into underage marriages, Goddard's office is probing alleged fraud in the Colorado City public school system.
The seriousness of these problems was discovered during a yearlong examination of the polygamist community by New Times and reported in the "Polygamy in Arizona" series, of which this article is a part.
"Our major focus at this time is to pursue child-molestation and child-abuse cases," Goddard tells New Times.
Utah officials, led by Attorney General Shurtleff, say they are confident that they will eventually obtain enough evidence to arrest Jeffs.
"When we get a good, solid case, we will go after him," Shurtleff says. "But we are not there yet."
When that time comes, taking Jeffs into custody might be a formidable task. There is serious concern among investigators on both sides of the state line that Jeffs' supporters will put up strong resistance to any move to arrest the religious leader.
Utah authorities confirm that Jeffs' followers are armed with concealed weapons and say his bodyguards -- known as the "God Squad" -- have assembled an arsenal of weapons cached somewhere in the Colorado City-Hildale area.
Storming Jeffs' compound in Hildale, where many women and children are living, raises the specter of a Waco-like encounter. In April 1993, federal agents and devout members of the Branch Davidians engaged in a violent confrontation that left more than 80 men, women and children dead. It was a botched attempt to arrest another entrancing religious leader, David Koresh, who engaged in sexual relations with teenage girls as a part of his religion.
There are also increasing concerns among former FLDS members that Jeffs may order his flock to commit a Jonestown-style mass suicide.
"A lot of people are worried that Warren will tell [his followers] to drink the Kool-Aid," says a woman whose sister is still a member of the FLDS.
Longtime FLDS observers, including Colorado City historian Ben Bistline, believe that a significant percentage of FLDS members would follow any order by Jeffs -- whether it were to violently resist the prophet's arrest or to take their own lives in protest of what they see as religious persecution.
Bistline is among a cadre of church expatriates who compare the fanaticism of FLDS followers to that of the stalwarts who drank cyanide-laced punch at Jim Jones' behest.
If any of this seems far-fetched, consider that FLDS leadership has repeatedly warned followers that the end of the world is near. On several occasions, FLDS faithful were gathered in a field for a mass ascension into the sky. Elders stated that the faithful would be swept up as Armageddon engulfed the planet. When what was known in the community as the "liftoff" didn't occur, the elders told the flock that they weren't yet pure enough to enter heaven and that the end of the world had been delayed.
Attorney General Shurtleff declined to discuss the logistics of arresting Jeffs, other than to affirm that the procedure is "probably going to be difficult."
Paramount in any operation, Shurtleff says, will be protecting lives. "Officer safety is going to be key."
Not only did Jeffs fail to return phone calls seeking comment, so did Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, who serves as spokesman for the fundamentalist Mormon society.
In addition to the criminal investigation of Jeffs, authorities are taking the following specific steps toward addressing the ongoing sexual and governmental abuses in the Colorado City-Hildale area:
In an unprecedented action, Arizona and Mohave County education officials are seeking ways to remove polygamists from control of the Colorado City Unified School District, which is on the brink of bankruptcy. The district is the largest single employer in the community and is heavily relied upon to provide jobs. The move to dislodge the school board comes at the same time the state Auditor General's Office has expanded its probe into the school district's gross misspending of public money that was triggered directly by a New Times report ("Profits of Polygamy," July 10).
Utah AG Shurtleff is pushing to have members of the Colorado City Police Department -- which has jurisdiction in Colorado City and Hildale -- stripped of police certification for marrying underage girls and failing to perform police duties. New evidence reveals that a second Colorado City policeman, Winford Johnson Barlow, has taken an underage girl as a second church-sanctioned wife. Last August, former police officer Rodney Holm was convicted of felony bigamy and sexual-misconduct charges in Utah stemming from his spiritual marriage to 16-year-old Ruth Stubbs ("Utah Targets Polyg Prophet," August 21).
Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano and AG Goddard have pledged to staff an office in Colorado City that would provide services to women and children seeking to leave or avoid polygamous marriages and to monitor millions of dollars in welfare payments pouring into the community. The office, which will also include a Mohave County sheriff's substation, will be the first government facility opened in the area outside the direct control of fundamental Mormon polygamists. An AG's investigator will be assigned to the facility to help develop cases against sex-abusers.
Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett and House Speaker Jake Flake recently informed New Times they support changing Arizona's bigamy statute to make it easier to prosecute polygamists who enter into spiritual marriages. Pressure by these two officials -- both members of the Salt Lake City-based mainstream Mormon church (which has disavowed the fundamentalist sect) -- could close a glaring loophole: The Arizona Constitution bans polygamy, but the Legislature has never passed a corresponding criminal statute addressing the issue of religious marriages. The omission allows polygamists to hold elected office and public-service jobs despite being in violation of their oath to uphold the state Constitution ("Bound by Fear," March 13). "There is a real opportunity in this next legislative session [beginning in January] to tighten the state's laws on bigamy and polygamy," Goddard says.
As significant as the recent ground swell of action by Utah and Arizona authorities may appear, it would be naive to think that the initiatives will force Jeffs and the fundamentalist Mormons he controls to abandon polygamy, the very bedrock of their religion.
While the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints officially backed away from polygamy in 1890 -- and says it now excommunicates members who continue the practice -- fundamentalist Mormons believe that polygamy is the only route to salvation.
The recent moves by Utah and Arizona authorities are viewed by FLDS faithful as yet another round of persecutions to be endured. In fact, the only aggressive state action against polygamists -- an ill-fated 1953 raid on the community by Arizona Governor Howard Pyle -- has been used by FLDS leaders to rally the faithful around their prophet ("Polygamy's Odyssey," March 13).
Sources say Jeffs' followers are building a secret compound -- possibly along the Arizona-Mexico border -- where stalwarts could retreat if authorities descend on Colorado City and Hildale. At the same time, Jeffs has ordered workers to fortify the perimeter of his Hildale compound with an eight-foot-high block wall.
"It appears he's digging in," Utah AG Shurtleff says.
An interesting aside is that while Utah AG Shurtleff, a mainstream Mormon, has been particularly aggressive in putting pressure on the fundamentalist enclave to, among other things, stop underage marriages, his office has announced it will not prosecute polygamists who enter into spiritual unions with adult females. The stance has come despite a state law declaring polygamy of any sort a felony.
Consequently, the Utah Judicial Conduct Commission decided in October to allow polygamist Walter Steed to continue serving as judge of the Hildale Justice Court, even though he has three wives and is violating the felony statute. Records show that Steed entered into one civil marriage and two subsequent spiritual unions.
In an October 27 ruling, the commission said it would not strip Steed of his position because his wives were adults when they entered into the marriages. In its decision, the commission cited statements by Shurtleff's office that it would prosecute no polygamy case that didn't involve an underage spouse.
The commission's support of Steed sends a powerful signal to other polygamists holding pubic office in Hildale that, unless they take child brides, they need not worry about losing their positions for violating state law and the Utah Constitution (which, like Arizona's, bans polygamy).
"The police department is polygamist. The town council is polygamist. The judge is polygamist. It's unbelievable," says Douglas White, attorney for the anti-polygamy activist group Tapestry Against Polygamy. "Is that a breakdown of the Constitution or not?"
Steed, a truck driver who has served as a judge since 1981, was reappointed last month by the Hildale town council to another four-year term. A spokesman for the Judicial Conduct Commission declined to comment, saying its proceedings are confidential.
Utah -- the home to the largest Mormon population in the nation, whether they be mainstream or fundamentalist -- traditionally has been hard on women who flee polygamous marriages with their children.
Late last month, a Utah court stripped Tamara Phelps of custody of her three children and gave them to Amy Black, one of her former sister wives in a polygamous marriage.
The court -- in a decision Shurtleff says he was stunned by -- issued the order even though Amy Black is legally married to polygamist Orson William Black, a fugitive who fled to Mexico last spring to avoid arrest by Arizona law enforcement on five felony counts of sexual misconduct with minors ("Polygamists Probed," May 1).
Phelps, who admits to having had emotional problems handling her transition out of polygamy, wanted to keep the children, or, at the very least, have them adopted by her brother or sister, who aren't polygamists. Instead, the court agreed with Utah child welfare officials, and the children, including two teenage girls, were put back in the polygamous home. Though Orson Black reportedly is still in Mexico, and the court ordered Amy Black to have no contact with him, Phelps believes her children are still in danger.
"That just blows me away," Shurtleff says of the custody decision. He vows to see if his office can legally intervene in the case.
Bleeding the Beast
Prophet Warren Jeffs "seems to need a steady supply of young virgins," claims Deloy Bateman, a former FLDS member who left the church several years ago after leaders tried unsuccessfully to remove four children by his second wife from his care.
A source in the Utah Attorney General's Office says authorities are investigating reports from former FLDS members concerning Jeffs' penchant for exploiting young girls who have little understanding of their sexuality.
"Warren Jeffs is an evil, evil man," maintains the source, who is very familiar with the case Shurtleff's office is working up against Jeffs.
It's no exaggeration to say that FLDS families must at least pretend that they would be honored to have a daughter become one of Warren Jeffs' plural wives. A marriage into the Jeffs household increases a family's social status and, more important, enhances the family patriarch's chances of obtaining additional wives -- since it is Jeffs who rules on which girls and women go where.
It's not unusual for Jeffs to declare that a man has offended the church and reassign his wives and children to another man in the community.
Such reassignments are seen as a bonanza for a favored male, since he is also allowed to spiritually marry the daughters of his newly assigned wife or wives.
When a husband dies, Jeffs immediately assigns grieving widows to new families. "No tears are shed for the dead," Bateman says, "before women are given to other men."
Jeffs, who once served as principal of a private FLDS school near Salt Lake City when his father, Rulon, was prophet, strictly controls education. In 2000, he ordered the faithful to withdraw their children from the town's public school and enroll them in private church schools.
Few FLDS students graduate from high school, and only a handful go to college. Religious indoctrination in the church schools is used to train women from birth to accept marriage assignments without question. Men, meanwhile, are instructed during years of "priesthood" training to refrain from displays of passion and expressions of love for their wives.
"That's considered childish," Bateman says.
In a society where there are only a smattering of low-wage construction and trucking jobs outside the public sector, families keep themselves afloat by systematically tapping into the welfare system. The FLDS' push for households to sign up for food stamps, medical care and housing assistance, and for local governmental institutions to request highway- and airport-improvement funds and public school assistance, is known as "bleeding the beast."
And the beast has been bled successfully over the years.
Tens of millions of dollars a year in welfare and other government funds are directed into a community controlled almost exclusively by the church. The Colorado City and Hildale town councils, the public school board and all other key positions of authority are beholden to Jeffs. In addition to the unknown portion of public money that goes toward supporting Jeffs' personal lifestyle, critics believe he will be the recipient of funds derived from a $1,000-a-week-per-family tithing requirement he recently instituted.
Jeffs assumed control of the FLDS last year after his father, Rulon, died in September 2002. The elder Jeffs had been the spiritual husband to as many as 70 wives, some of whom his son inherited.
As FLDS president and the community's prophet, Warren Jeffs controls a trust called the United Effort Plan that owns nearly all the property in Colorado City and Hildale and has a stake in many of the town's private businesses. Any man who crosses Jeffs therefore risks losing not only his wives and children, but his home and job.
Of frail stature and pale complexion, Jeffs is rarely seen in public. Last August, he suspended church services and stopped performing polygamous marriages of the faithful in the wake of evidence-seeking incursions by Utah authorities.
The ban on multiple marriages he instituted for the rest of the society hasn't extended to himself. Sources say he has taken on at least one additional teenage wife in the last month.
Jeffs' autocratic leadership style is patterned after that of his father, a former accountant, who reigned for 16 years.
Some in the community remember when things were different. They say LeRoy Johnson, who led the FLDS until his death in 1986, was a kind and mild-mannered leader.
Known as Uncle Roy to the faithful, Johnson was a Mormon prophet in the image of church founders Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, says Blackmore, the leader of the fundamentalist sect in Canada.
"Uncle Roy was the example of Mormonism," says Jeffs' bitter rival. "[He was] forgiving, sociable, determined to keep alive our fundamental principles, and opposed to priest craft."
Warren Jeffs, Blackmore says, is a protégé of mid-20th-century fundamentalist Mormon leader Guy Musser, who played a major role in preserving Mormon polygamist movements in Salt Lake City and later in the Colorado City area.
Jeffs grew up under Musser's influence, regularly attending lavish luncheons at Musser's palatial home outside Salt Lake City. Elite members of the fundamentalist Mormon church were always there, Blackmore says.
Musser was a gifted orator, and so controlling, Blackmore says, that he dictated to his own sons when they could engage in sexual relations.
Not only has Warren Jeffs adopted Musser's dictatorial ruling philosophy, Blackmore says, he has embraced the lavish lifestyle his mentor enjoyed.
"Musser had a walled-in city block of seven or eight houses and was entirely supported by the people," the rival leader says. "He did not work, or allow his children to work."
How marriages are handled is perhaps the most notable difference between the regime of LeRoy Johnson and those of Rulon and Warren Jeffs. In a polygamous society where it is believed that a man must obtain at least three wives to enter the "celestial kingdom," nothing is more important than the ritual of wedlock.
Musser joined a man with his wives in secret, and so does Warren Jeffs.
Under Johnson, it was a very different story, Blackmore recalls. "Marriages were a joyous public event for Uncle Roy."
Schools Cashed Out
The top administrators of the Colorado City Unified School District walked briskly toward the district's $220,000 airplane parked at the Kingman Municipal Airport on December 1.
School Superintendent Alvin Barlow and his top aides had just finished an emergency meeting with Mohave County School Superintendent Mike File and were preparing to fly back to Colorado City.
Though critics have questioned how one of the poorest school districts in Arizona can justify buying a plane, the Cessna 210 had come in handy on this day.
Barlow and his supporting cast had been forced to fly 140 miles to the county seat after File had notified them that he was withholding paychecks for the district's 100 employees because of school officials' malfeasance.
The one-school district with 350 students had run out of money five months into the academic year. Plus, it had exhausted a $1 million line of credit with Wells Fargo Bank. It appeared that if the district were to make its payroll, it would have to borrow $178,000 from Mohave County.
File wanted some answers. He had had enough of the district's wanton spending -- on everything from the Cessna to a fleet of expensive SUVs commandeered by administrators for personal use to unnecessary out-of-town travel by district employees to thousands of dollars' worth of personal purchases by Barlow and other employees on district credit cards.
File told Barlow he wouldn't release county funds to the district until it came up with a plan to reduce expenses.
During a heated meeting that included an assistant Mohave County attorney, Barlow agreed to come up with a plan that must be approved by county and state education officials, and File agreed to cut loose the payroll checks.
"They are in real bad shape financially," File told New Times later.
Whatever plan Barlow and the Colorado City school board come up with, File thinks drastic changes must be made.
In a letter to Attorney General Goddard, File asked if he has the legal authority to remove school board members.
"This board does not represent the people, or children of the district," he wrote, "and in my professional opinion [members are] acting in total disregard of the Arizona Constitution."
For years, the school district has been the largest single employer in Colorado City. Superintendent Barlow, a member of the FLDS and a polygamist, employs 100 workers at the district's 350-student kindergarten-through-12th-grade school. The 3.5-students-to-one-employee ratio is much lower than the 26-students-per-employee ratio of other Mohave County schools.
The inordinately high number of employees has put considerable strain on the district's $5.2 million annual budget. But, from the FLDS' perspective, the district provides scores of desperately needed jobs to church faithful, who work primarily as administrators, principals, janitors and bus drivers.
In a bizarre twist, the district employees loyal to the FLDS, including Superintendent Barlow, don't even allow their own children to attend the public school. Along with other church loyalists, they removed their kids from the school in July 2000, after the order by Jeffs.
Almost all of the students left attending the public school are from a small fundamentalist Mormon community in next-door Centennial Park, Arizona, that split with the FLDS in the mid-1980s.
At the same time Jeffs ordered FLDS members to pull their children from the public school, he directed FLDS followers to have no contact with the people from the Second Ward, whom he labeled "apostates."
So even if district finances were squarely in the black, it would be bad enough that Barlow and his crew are paid with public funds to tend to a school whose students they believe are evil traitors, and whom they are not allowed to converse with.
But the district's books have been in shambles for a long time. New Times uncovered gross misspending of public funds last spring during a review of district expenditures ("The Wages of Sin," April 10). The paper's examination and subsequent story triggered a joint investigation of the district by the state Auditor General and Attorney General's offices.
Arizona's investigation, which initially focused on the December 2002 purchase of the aircraft, was expanded in September to include the district's relationship with businesses controlled by the FLDS.
Of particular interest to the state has been the district's termination of prepaid leases on three school buildings owned by the church-controlled Colorado City Improvement Association. By walking away from the leases, the district benefited the FLDS by leaving more than $330,000 in bond funds in church coffers.
Barlow and the school board justified ending the leases early after the Arizona School Facilities Board agreed to contribute $6 million toward a new $7.5 million school building in town. The superintendent and board members ignored pleas from non-FLDS teachers that the leased buildings -- especially since they had been paid for in advance -- be retained to guard against overcrowding.
Instead, the structures were almost immediately converted into FLDS schools, where the district employees loyal to the FLDS now send their kids.
Earlier this month, New Times reviewed district records requested under the Arizona Public Records Law and found that the Colorado City Unified School District is now acknowledging that its new school is already overcrowded and will ask the state to build a second public school in town.
Superintendent Barlow declined to discuss anything pertaining to the school district with New Times -- particularly why he and the board gave back school buildings to the FLDS at a substantial loss to taxpayers that the community now desperately needs.
Because its investigators suspect that district employees are helping out fellow church and family members, the Auditor General's Office has demanded that school district officials complete conflict-of-interest-disclosure forms. So far, however, Barlow and the others haven't complied.
The Auditor General's Office has asked the district to "identify all district officials and governing board members who have or whose relatives have or have had a substantial interest in any contract, sale, purchase or service to the district."
When and if school officials comply, it's likely to be a long and complicated list, since practically everybody in the Colorado City area is related through the tangled web of polygamous marriages.
Conflict-of-interest violations discovered by New Times include: The school board president's son is paid to pilot the district's Cessna, and a school board member has a contract with the district to perform maintenance services.
In an attempt to offset what the state might find, the school district has hired its own auditing firm to examine its books. But, in a draft report prepared by Tucson's Heinfeld, Meech & Co., a number of serious problems are noted: improper use of credit cards, missing financial statements for the district's employee-benefits trust fund and a practice of creating purchase orders after money is already spent.
The latter problem -- depending on the size and nature of the unapproved purchases -- could lead to felony charges, says a Phoenix attorney familiar with school finances.
While File has given the school district time to get its house in order, he says it is doubtful that Barlow and the school board will be able to come up with sufficient funds to pay bills for the remainder of the school year.
File is waiting to see if state officials approve the district's appeal of a request for an emergency advance of more than $1 million that was turned down earlier this month by the Arizona Department of Education.
On December 2, state schools finance director Lyle Friesen notified the district that no state funds can be advanced until the district provides detailed information about its past spending and coughs up projected expenses for the rest of the year.
Asked if a school district has ever run out of money before the end of an academic year, Friesen says, "We have never had that situation come up before."
Even without the alleged malfeasance by district officials, state education officials would be wondering how the Colorado City school district got itself into this mess, since the district has received more than $4.3 million in extra state funds over the last three years. The money was paid under the state's "rapid-decline" formula, which is designed to protect school systems from financial collapse when unforeseen circumstances force a mass withdrawal of students.
In Colorado City's case, the rapid decline occurred when Warren Jeffs ordered the 650 fundamentalist students withdrawn from the public school three years ago.
As for whether Mohave County School Superintendent File can legally remove five members of the Colorado City school board, the Attorney General's Office is reviewing the matter.
But state schools superintendent Tom Horne says it's unlikely that either File or the Arizona education department can forcibly remove elected school board members.
"If a district stops operating and becomes totally dysfunctional, somebody has to step in and do something," Horne admits. "But there is apparently no statute allowing such action."
Horne says he plans to ask the Legislature to pass a law that would allow the state to intercede when school districts, such as Colorado City's, have severe financial and operational problems.
That would be great, File says, but it won't solve the immediate problem.
"Colorado City is never going to change," he says, "unless the state goes in there and takes over the school, or the state allows me to replace the school board members with people who represent the children who go to that school."
File is not the first to call for a new school board in the polygamist enclave. Last year, a group of angry students submitted a petition to the Colorado City board demanding that members resign en masse.
Cops Take Child Brides
Colorado City police officer Winford Johnson Barlow married his second wife, Margaret Jessop, in a spiritual ceremony sometime before her 18th birthday on July 6, 2002.
Seven months after Jessop turned 18, she delivered a healthy, seven-pound, 14-ounce baby girl at the Hildale Maternity Home on January 29, 2003. Winford Barlow is listed as the girl's father on a Utah birth certificate obtained by New Times.
By all indications, Barlow, 36 at the time, had sexual intercourse with a 17-year-old girl who was not his legal wife sometime in the spring of 2002.
A Hildale resident, Barlow apparently committed a class-three felony in Utah, which outlaws such sexual encounters between a legally unmarried minor and a much older adult. No charges, however, have been filed. Barlow could not be reached for comment.
Barlow already had a large family before Jessop was brought into the fold. He legally married his first wife, Carolena Holm, in October 1986 when he was 21 and she was 19. Like all dutiful FLDS wives, Holm began bearing children -- her ninth baby was born last September.
If Utah records are accurate and the Jessop girl went through a normal gestation period, Winford Barlow is the second Colorado City police officer discovered to have spiritually married and impregnated an underage girl.
Last August, Officer Rodney Holm was convicted of bigamy and sexual misconduct for spiritually marrying a 16-year-old girl as his third wife. The girl bore Holm two children before she turned 18. Holm was sentenced to one year in the Washington County, Utah, jail and stripped of his police officer certification in Utah and Arizona.
Utah AG Shurtleff says the Rodney Holm case -- along with evidence indicating that other Colorado City police officers, including Winford Barlow, have engaged in unlawful acts -- has spurred his office to launch an investigation of the entire town police department, which has jurisdiction on both sides of the state line.
Shurtleff says his goal is to strip Utah police certification from as many Colorado City police officers as possible, which would set up the possibility that the Washington County Sheriff's Office would take over policing in the area.
"We are going beyond just the fact that they are living in polygamy," Shurtleff says. "We are also trying to document cases where they have been uncooperative with law enforcement efforts and haven't been doing their jobs."
The fate of many in the Colorado City department, made up of more than a dozen cops, could be determined next month when the Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board, which certifies law enforcement personnel in the state, holds its next meeting.
Arizona officials, meanwhile, say they are closely monitoring Utah's upcoming certification hearings.
"If the grounds for revocation in Utah are also grounds for action in Arizona, then cases could be opened," says Tom Hammarstrom, executive director of Arizona's POST.
Like Utah, Arizona does not certify police departments, but individual officers. Under current state law, Arizona's POST cannot revoke a certification just on the grounds that an officer is a polygamist, even though officers must pledge to uphold the state Constitution, which bans polygamy.
Arizona tried unsuccessfully to decertify former Colorado City assistant police chief Sam Barlow in the late 1980s because he is a polygamist. A hearing officer ruled that since the Arizona Legislature has never passed a law criminalizing polygamy, there were no grounds to strip Barlow of his certification.
Because legal issues regarding polygamy are murky in both Arizona and Utah (there have been no enforced legal restrictions against men marrying as many wives as they please), the fundamentalist Mormon community straddling the border between the two states has been able to rapidly expand. Fifty years ago, there were fewer than 500 polygamists in the area. Now, there are more than 6,000.
Utah has passed a series of laws attempting to stop polygamy, including a felony bigamy statute that makes it illegal for a married person to "purport" to be married to another person or to cohabit with another person. But the statute has been rarely enforced because it is difficult for authorities to find plural wives willing to testify against men. The Rodney Holm case was the rare exception where an estranged spiritual wife served as a witness for the prosecution.
Arizona, meanwhile, has no specific statute banning polygamy. Arizona's bigamy law is only effective against a person who knowingly enters into two civil marriages. Polygamists have gotten around this prohibition by conducting spiritual unions.
Arizona Senate President Ken Bennett says he will support legislation that would stop polygamists from abusing the welfare system and from holding public office. The most direct way to do that, he says, is to make all multiple marriages illegal, regardless of whether they are spiritual in the eyes of fundamentalists.
Bennett, a mainstream Mormon, says he has no plans to personally introduce such a bill. But if another lawmaker does, he says he will hold hearings and make sure the bill comes to a vote during the upcoming legislative session.
"I imagine it would be successful," Bennett says.
House Speaker Jake Flake, a mainstream Mormon whose great-grandfather was a polygamist, also supports hearings next session to address Arizona's lack of a criminal statute banning polygamy, says aide Jake Logan.
All this is good news to state Senator Linda Binder, the Lake Havasu Republican who for years has been pushing the Legislature to enact laws banning what she calls "sham marriages."
"I think [Bennett and Flake] are finally realizing that they have to get on board," says Binder, who has been the most outspoken of a handful of legislators calling for reforms that would protect young girls in the state's polygamist society from sexual abuse.
Arizona AG Goddard says he heartily welcomes the possibility of legislation making it a felony for a person to enter into a multiple marriage with a minor, spiritual or otherwise.
"That law," Goddard says, "would give us some real prosecutorial clout."
Arizona Moving In
As legislators talk about getting tough on fundamentalist Mormons, and state agencies investigate polygamists' sexual abuses and highly questionable public policies, one thing seems certain:
Arizona will open a multi-agency government office in Colorado City early next year that will assist women seeking to avoid or escape polygamous marriages.
And the office won't just be a social service agency. Police and state and county investigators will be on hand to probe complaints of criminal wrongdoing, particularly sexual abuse of minors.
The office will mark the first time Arizona has placed a regulatory and law enforcement facility in Colorado City independent of the fundamental Mormon polygamists who control the town.
When the multi-agency facility was first proposed last August, some anti-polygamy activists denounced the plan, suspecting it would quickly fall under the control of the fundamentalist political machine.
But Arizona AG Goddard promises that the facility will be independent of local leaders.
"If somebody wants to step up and say there is a problem, we want to make sure help is available," Goddard says. "[That help] will not be compromised by local contacts and [will be] truly independent."
The office will offer important welfare and law enforcement services, the AG says. A representative from Child Protective Services will be on hand to protect children. And Goddard says he will staff the office with an investigator to look into issues reported to CPS and other agencies involving child abuse, underage marriages and welfare benefits.
Almost since Goddard took over as AG this year, he has contended that the state is stymied in making prosecutions against statutory rapists in Colorado City because witnesses, in the throes of the polygamist society, are afraid to come forward. He sees the center as a way to provide protection to women and children, who could later assist the state in prosecutions.
Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who initiated a grand jury investigation into Colorado City in 2000 while she was attorney general, has also endorsed the plan to open the office and has pledged that the state Department of Economic Security will provide long-term staffing.
"It's definitely moving forward," Napolitano spokesman Paul Allvin says about the center. "The governor wants something up there . . . possibly in the early spring."
Help the Child Brides, a St. George, Utah, anti-polygamy activist group, hailed the decision to open the multi-agency facility.
"It's what we have been hoping and praying for," says Bob Curran, director of the volunteer group that operates an information and outreach center in St. George.
Curran says he is particularly pleased that Arizona is making a commitment that the office will be independent of the Mormon polygamists who control the town.
"Any involvement by them would have doomed the project, as no citizens would have dared to avail themselves of the services," Curran says.
Utah is also moving forward with plans to establish a permanent presence in the area, possibly in conjunction with Arizona or in a separate facility.
"We are absolutely committed to first of all having a law enforcement presence in the area," says Utah AG Shurtleff.
For starters, Shurtleff plans to get a billboard erected in Colorado City with the 800 number of a law enforcement agency outside the control of the fundamentalist hierarchy.
The multi-agency center in Arizona will be staffed with at least two DES workers, says Director David Bern. The employees will be cross-trained to handle Child Protective Services issues as well as welfare benefits.
Bern says the DES will assist any person who seeks help, whether the issue is child abuse, an underage marriage, welfare benefits or assistance to those with developmental disabilities.
Bern says he will work with Utah officials to ensure that welfare recipients aren't getting benefits from both states, which officials suspect is going on in many cases.
Bern says the DES office will be designed mainly to respond to complaints rather than initiate investigations.
"This is a way," he says, "to offer expanded services to the population there."
The goal is to build trust, particularly among abuse victims, that the government can provide beneficial services, Bern says.
Underage girls and women fleeing pending marriages into polygamy, he stresses, will find safety at the DES office.
In the past, girls fleeing Colorado City continually have been returned by state authorities to families attempting to force them into polygamous unions. Bern says this will no longer be the case.
"It would be a violation of our ethics and policy," he says. "I would expect our staff to do a comprehensive assessment of what's going on."
If it appears that returning an underage girl to her family would place her in an "inappropriate or illegal" situation, Bern says, "we would want to be involved not only through CPS but through a coordinated approach with law enforcement."
Mohave County Attorney Bill Ekstrom says his office will lend a sexual assault victims' advocate to the Colorado City facility on a part-time basis.
If that seems like very little, note that Ekstrom won an outstanding leadership award last month at a statewide sexual-assault conference sponsored by Napolitano and Goddard's offices.
Ironically, while Ekstrom has aggressively provided services to sexual-assault victims in southern Mohave County, he has given no assistance to victims from Colorado City.
Ekstrom, who is resigning as county attorney on January 1, is on record as viewing FLDS-controlled Colorado City as an idyllic, family-oriented town. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he has been publicly skeptical that underage girls are being forced into polygamous marriages routinely.
During the 24 years he has headed the Mohave County Attorney's Office, sexual-assault cases out of Colorado City have typically ended in plea bargains, or with sentences of less than one year in jail -- no matter how grievous the crime.
Indeed, Ekstrom's office has never prosecuted anyone for having sexual relations with an underage girl who is the spiritual wife of a polygamist.
Last year, Ekstrom's office agreed to a plea bargain that resulted in a sentence of 13 days in jail for the son of Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow. Dan Barlow Jr. had been charged with sexually molesting his five daughters repeatedly over the years.
If Ekstrom has his way, the multi-agency office won't be set up to pry into what is going on inside polygamous households. For action to be taken, victims would have to come forward.
"This is not for the purpose of catching anybody," he insists, "but for the purpose of providing resources to the community."
Little is likely to change in the Mohave County Attorney's Office when Ekstrom leaves. He announced his resignation effective in January, he says, to give his hand-picked successor, assistant county attorney Matthew Smith, time to prepare for the 2004 election. Smith was the prosecutor in the Junior Barlow case.
Though his office hasn't been aggressive in investigating underage marriages in the past, Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan says he is now ready to go after men who sexually abuse females in spiritual marriages. Sheahan says he will assign six officers to the new Colorado City office to investigate victims' complaints.
"We will help [sexual-assault victims] and get them to safety," he promises.
Sheahan says he and his counterpart across the state line, Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith, are discussing the possibility of sharing space in the new facility. Both sheriffs, he says, want to have their officers cross-deputized so they have legal authority in Utah and Arizona.
Sheahan says his office is prepared to assume law enforcement duties in Colorado City, if Arizona and Utah authorities take action that effectively shuts down the town police force. His office already has jurisdiction in unincorporated areas of Mohave County, including the Second Ward district of Centennial Park.
The Mohave County Board of Supervisors is expected to rubber-stamp the project once County Manager Ron Walker finishes an analysis of what size facility is needed. "I would like to get this done as quickly as possible," Walker says.
The favored location for the office is on land in Colorado City owned by the Mohave County Community College. The location is also within walking distance for residents of Hildale and Centennial Park.
Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson says he supports putting the multi-agency facility in the community, but he stresses that it isn't enough.
Johnson recommends aggressively arresting everyone who is obviously engaged in sexual relations with underage girls.
"There's been lots of talk [about getting tough on statutory rapists], but not action," says Johnson, a former sheriff's deputy in Los Angeles County, California.
Women who have left Colorado City to escape polygamous marriages predict that the state office will be quietly welcomed among women in the community. If authorities are true to their word and remain independent of local polygamist leaders, victims will start to flock to the facility, they say.
"It's going to have to be there for a little while to build trust," says Penny Petersen, who left the community as a teenager 16 years ago and now lives in Phoenix. "The women are going to have to see the workers around town a little bit. That will build trust."
Polygs Get Mom's Kids
Such trust will surely have to be won, because a combination of factors make it extremely difficult for females to leave the closed society they were born into.
Consider what happened to Tammy Phelps, now 33, and her three children once the former polygamist wife got tangled up in the Utah court system.
Her story reveals that it's not only difficult for a woman to flee polygamy, it's nearly impossible for her to take her children with her.
Mothers who leave polygamy are generally portrayed by their husbands as wayward or mentally unstable, and even children can be indoctrinated to believe that their mothers are evil for daring to leave a situation endorsed by God and the church.
Coping with an outside world that is strange to them is problematic enough (most have seldom traveled outside the polygamist enclave, where many books are banned and watching TV and movies is discouraged), but leaving is made even more difficult because husbands often launch FLDS-financed custody battles to trap children in the polygamist culture.
Phelps, like many girls growing up in Colorado City, says she was forced into polygamy just after her 17th birthday. That's when her parents and then-Prophet Rulon Jeffs decided she would marry Orson William Black.
"My mom told me growing up that I had to do whatever the prophet said," Phelps recalls. "I had no choice."
Phelps wanted to run away when she got the news regarding Black, but her parents wouldn't let her out of the house. Eventually, she says, Black came over and, after a few minutes, grabbed her forcefully.
"He told me I couldn't get away," she says. "I was his wife now."
Black then drove her to Rulon Jeffs' home.
"[The prophet] told us to stand up and then said, You're married.'"
The date was July 27, 1987. Her new husband, she says, didn't so much as give her a ring.
"I didn't know what I was getting into. It was just horrible."
Life got worse from there, she says.
Phelps says she knew nothing about sex, but was about to find out.
"He took me home, threw me on the floor and he raped me," she says of her wedding night and the loss of her virginity. She was more than 11 months away from her 18th birthday.
Phelps says she had three children in the first five years of the marriage.
About Black, she says, "He was just going on talking real strange. He started telling everyone that he was the prophet. That God was talking to him."
Phelps says she finally left because of mental and physical abuse. Since she wasn't sure of her future, she had to leave the children behind.
Phelps, who was forced to drop out of school in the 11th grade, lived with her mother in town for several years, finally leaving Colorado City in 2000. After getting intimidated into signing over the children to Black, she was allowed to see them for four hours every other weekend.
Last March, Arizona filed five felony charges against Black, alleging he sexually assaulted two teenage sisters whom he had purportedly married in spiritual ceremonies. Black fled to Mexico before he could be arrested.
Phelps immediately regained temporary custody of her three children -- an 11-year-old boy and two daughters, ages 15 and 13. Though she alleges that her daughters were also abused by Black, they were not the girls listed in the legal complaint against the polygamist. She moved her kids to her home in Cedar City, Utah. But Amy Black, who had raised the children after Phelps had moved out, petitioned to regain custody.
Phelps acknowledges she was having a difficult time controlling the children, the oldest of whom was particularly belligerent. The girl was upset because her wedding plans had been derailed. She had been preparing to marry her stepbrother, Dave Barlow, with whom she had lived in the Black household for the previous eight years, says Penny Petersen, who aided Phelps in her custody case.
Before he was forced to flee, William Orson Black had planned to perform the marriage ceremony involving his stepson (from his fourth wife) to his and Phelps' daughter Natalie.
Despite the unusual circumstances surrounding her regaining custody of her children, Phelps says she was helping them make the difficult transition into life outside the strict confines of Colorado City.
It was slow going, she admits. She lacked parenting skills, and the children did not view her as their mother, court records show.
"They had all this anger," Phelps says about the children, whom she sent to detention centers on a few occasions. "And then Amy started calling them on the phone, and that just made them more angry."
The custody battle soon turned in favor of Amy Black, as the court-appointed guardian for the children supported returning the kids to her rather than keeping them with their natural mother.
A Utah CPS worker interviewed the children on at least three occasions, and they contradicted Phelps' assertion that they had been abused by their father.
"I found them to be angry and defiant on each of the occasions," CPS worker Mary Beam stated in a letter to the court. "They adamantly denied that they had ever been physically or sexually abused by their father or any other family member, with the exception of their mother. The children wanted it to appear as though Tamara Phelps is the abusive parent."
Phelps says her court-appointed lawyers told her that if she didn't agree to Amy Black getting custody, she could lose all visitation rights to her children.
And, Phelps says, she was told that if she insisted on placing the children in foster care, she would be forced to pay child support even though she is indigent.
By late October, Phelps was emotionally and physically drained from the ordeal. Her options bleak, she turned over legal custody of her children to Amy Black, her former sister wife and the only legal spouse of fugitive Orson William Black.
Phelps is allowed to see her children every other weekend and six weeks in summers under an agreement approved by Utah Fifth District Juvenile Court Judge Hans Q. Chamberlain.
The guardianship orders issued by Chamberlain had some unusual stipulations, especially since Amy Black is currently one of at least five women betrothed to Orson Black.
The judge ordered Amy Black not to take the children outside the area and that she should have no contact with her husband. And he ordered Amy not to let any of the children marry before they turn 18. But he also decreed, "Polygamy shall not be taught to the children, nor lived or practiced in the home of Amy Black."
Though some of Orson Black's spouses are reportedly in Mexico with him, Phelps fears that these stipulations will not be followed.
"The children could be raped, forced into marriage or end up in Mexico," she says, contending that fundamentalist Mormons follow the dictates of the church, not the state.
"Those polygamists are just bad people," Phelps says. "They were constantly telling the kids that I'm the devil, that I'm the evil one. "
E-mail email@example.com, or call 602-229-8445.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.