Phoenix Federal Court Verdict Could Cripple Abusive Polygamist Church Hierarchy on Arizona-Utah Border
If the federal government prevails in its lawsuit, FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs' power will be hugely diminished.
Douglas C. Pizac POOL/EPA/Newscom
UPDATE: A Phoenix U.S. District Court jury has found the towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale Utah guilty of discriminating against citizens who are not part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints, a polygamist sect..
The future of the long-tortured enclave of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, hinges on a Phoenix federal court verdict in the U.S. Department of Justice’s historic lawsuit alleging that a fundamentalist polygamous sect controls local governments and the community's police force.
A seven-week trial before U.S. District Court Judge H. Russel Holland concluded last week, and the case now is before a jury.
A guilty verdict affirming the DOJ’s allegations that the twin towns are controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and that the town governments are denying non-FLDS members housing, water services, and police protection would be hailed as moment of liberation by many long-suffering residents.
But if the jury accepts defense arguments that the federal government is abridging religious freedom, the outcome will be a major setback. If this happens, the barricades, paranoia, and commercial paralysis that have been hallmarks of the area, historically called Short Creek, will continue.
Former FLDS member Richard Holm is more than ready to proclaim the towns independent of the harsh fundamental Mormon theocracy that has dominated all aspects of life in this isolated area on the windswept Arizona Strip for more than a century.
Holm wants the adjacent towns of Colorado City and Hildale to be more like other small communities in America than the virtual prison they've been since FLDS Prophet Warren Jeffs assumed control of the church in 2002.
If the jury sides with the feds, he says, “I think there will be new city councils in both communities. There will be a chamber of commerce set up and a variety of pro-business and pro-freedom [philosophies] that will serve us,” he says, during an interview from his Hildale real estate office that offers a sweeping view of El Capitan, the dramatic peak that looms over area.
Richard Holm knows the terror of the FLDS: Jeffs reassigned Holm’s wives and children to Holm’s brother.
“There already is groundswell of that," he says, "and it is quite refreshing.”
What Holm envisions would be a big leap from the disheveled mess of scrap-metal clutter, half-built houses, massive walls lining streets, rail container cars scattered about, and angry stares from FLDS faithful that sear through any outsider who turns down a dusty side road and ventures into the heart of the community.
Many of the discrimination allegations brought up in the lawsuit — along with massive evidence of underage girls getting forced into polygamous unions — were exposed in a series of stories published by New Times in 2003 and 2004.
Colorado City and Hildale were tightly controlled by the FLDS through a trust called the United Effort Plan established in 1942. The UEP owns nearly all the real estate in both communities. Church members never owned their homes, even though they may have paid for construction.
At the same time, the FLDS controlled all wedlock in the town and routinely conducted “spiritual marriages” of underage girls to older men who already had plural wives. The sect's religious dogma requires that a man have three wives to reach the highest levels of heaven, and women must be married to gain eternal salvation.
“The religious leadership controlled the marriages and controlled the real estate in town,” Holm says. “It was the perfect storm, a dictatorship from hell.”
Holm knows the depth of the terror.
As a young, successful businessman, he was handpicked by former Prophet Leroy Johnson, who died at age 98 in 1984, to be one of the founding members of the Colorado City Town Council when the Arizona side of Short Creek was incorporated in 1985. He served on the council for 18 years. He was a loyal foot soldier for religious leaders — until one day in 2003 when his world was turned upside down.
Holm was among the first of a series of community leaders to be kicked out of the FLDS by current Prophet Warren Jeffs. Considered by the faithful to be God’s only “prophet on Earth,” Jeffs — now serving a life sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two minors — reassigned Holm’s wives and children to Holm’s brother.
Holm was devastated. His family, job, and he believed his eternal salvation had been ripped away.
“It took me a few months of swimming in turmoil and dealing with massive emotions. I went on a drive-a-thon. I drove 20,000 miles in one month,” he says “After four or five months, I knew I had to stand up to this mess and this monster [Jeffs].”
Holm met with the then-Utah and -Arizona attorneys general Mark Shurtleff and Terry Goddard in January 2004: “I asked for their help, and they said they would do what they could do.”
Goddard and Shurtleff worked together to gain control of the UEP trust from the FLDS, Holm says. After a series of complicated court cases, a Utah court in 2005 appointed Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan as special fiduciary over UEP operations.
This was the beginning of a painstaking legal process to create a viable real-estate market in Short Creek that slowly is dismantling the church’s grip on the community's thousands of people, many of whom are leaving the FLDS or have been kicked out by its leaders.
Under the guidance of a Utah state court, Wisan was charged with protecting the assets of the UEP trust and with providing housing and economic-development opportunities to the people who had contributed their money and labor to the trust when it was controlled by the FLDS.
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Wisan faced a daunting challenge. UEP property consisted of 40-acre tracts that included many individual houses.
“The trust could not deed out property to individuals because it was not subdivided,” he says.
It took nine years of legal challenges costing about $14 million before UEP property in Hildale finally was subdivided, Wisan says. The FLDS, he says, didn’t want the people to gain legal control of their houses and fought the trust every step of the way.
Wisan says the FLDS, acting through its control of the Hildale City Council, challenged the Wisan-operated UEP’s plans to subdivide the community in court. The case finally was decided by the Utah Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the UEP trust.
The June 2014 ruling cleared the way for the UEP to subdivide Hildale. By December 2014, the UEP was accepting applications from former church members to return to Hildale and begin the process of reclaiming their homes.
“Over 50 houses have been distributed, probably closer to 70,” he says.
The new owners have to pay a $100-a-month occupancy fee to the UEP and purchase the land at the rate of $6,500 an acre.
There are about 180 additional homes in Hildale, many of which are occupied by FLDS members who have refused to pay property taxes for years. Wisan says the UEP must go through a stressful and contentious eviction process for each home.
FLDS members are welcome to seek the title to their homes, as well, Wisan says. But none has done so.
“If you do that, you lose membership in the church, your wives; if they are loyal to the church, they will leave you. You lose your eternal salvation. There’s hell to pay for anybody dealing with the [UEP] trust,” Wisan says.
The UEP’s effort to subdivide Colorado City has been stymied so far by the Colorado City Town Council, Wisan says. The UEP filed its subdivision plats before Colorado City adopted a subdivision ordinance.
Rather than accept the UEP plats, the town council in early 2015 adopted a boilerplate subdivision ordinance with heavy restrictions modeled after a Scottsdale subdivision.
Most of the housing stock in Colorado City is decades old with many homes constructed under very lax building codes. There’s been no new construction since 2004, when Warren Jeffs ordered it to cease. The town’s adoption of the restrictive subdivision ordinance, Wisan says, is a way to greatly increase the UEP’s costs.
“Our plan was to subdivide as is,” he says. “The town council wanted it to look like Scottsdale. The trust
FLDS-imposed walls line community streets.
couldn’t afford to do that.”
This is where the federal lawsuit could play a major role in reforming the communities, Wisan says. If the jury rules in favor of the Justice Department, he says, the UEP has recommended that Judge Holland order Colorado City subdivided.
The UEP also has requested that the court disband the Colorado City Marshal’s Office [the community's police force], which according to Wisan and court testimony, has acted as an enforcement arm of the FLDS and repeatedly has blocked and arrested UEP employees trying to carry out evictions.
“I have information that the marshal’s office still is abusing its power even with the litigation going on,” he says.
The ongoing police abuses are no surprise to Hildale resident and former FLDS member Andrew Chatwin, a vocal opponent of the church for the last 12 years. “They have violated my civil rights many, many times,” Chatwin says during a recent tour of the community.
“My three goals are getting the rapes [of women forced into polygamy] stopped, getting homes back, and getting rid of the police department [marshal's office],” he says.
Chatwin says Warren Jeffs has tightened his grip on the community since his arrest in 2006 and subsequent continuous incarceration in Utah, Arizona, and Texas.
He says the FLDS has had parents sign over custody of their children to the church.
Sexual relations have been banned, as well, except for a select few men called "seed bearers." The chosen 15 men were picked by Jeffs to pursue a selective breeding program.
“The women are just vessels to produce children now for the church, and the church owns those children,” he says. “It’s not even a traditional family unit anymore. That’s what you have to wrap your brain around. To me, it’s satanic what’s going on.”
The DOJ lawsuit is pivotal for the community, he says: “We’re hoping to see big changes where the church[-controlled] police department doesn’t exist anymore. We’re hoping the federal court will change all that.”
As the federal trial was winding down last week, the FBI executed a raid on Colorado City and Hildale, along with an FLDS enclave in South Dakota. Eleven church leaders were arrested on accusations of food-stamp fraud and money laundering. Two of Warren Jeffs’ brothers, who had assumed church leadership positions after he was imprisoned, were among those taken into custody.
For Richard Holm, it’s another welcome sign that dominance by the Jeffs family of the community along the Arizona-Utah border slowly is coming to an end.
“If they are not able to come down here and rule over the flock," he says, "the flock is going to dwindle away pretty fast.”