Alleged illegal arrests by a cult-run police force have spurred a new federal lawsuit against two polygamous towns on the Arizona-Utah border.
Three businessmen who are former members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints allege in a federal complaint filed on Wednesday (see below) that officials in the rural towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, violated their constitutional rights. They claim the officers with the Colorado City/Hildale marshal's office arrested two of them for trespassing on land they were leasing, that the marshal's office failed to investigate reports of vandalism on the leased land, and that Colorado City officials refused to provide water and garbage services to the property.
The violations are the result of a conspiracy between the FLDS church and the towns' officials "to punish, discriminate against and attempt to drive out of Colorado City and Hildale persons who were not believers in the FLDS faith," the complaint states. (The FLDS is not to be confused with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a.k.a. the Mormon Church.)
The two towns, located in a remote area known as Short Creek, are the FLDS's home base, where teen girls have been forced into polygamous marriages — raped, under state law — for decades without much interference from authorities. The cult's grip has loosened somewhat since the mid-2000s, following hard-hitting stories by former New Times writer John Dougherty.
The United Effort Plan (UEP) trust, which holds the deed to most of the land in the towns, was wrested from the FLDS in 2005 and put under the control of court-appointed lawyers. FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was arrested in 2007 for the sexual assault of children and is serving a life sentence in Texas. But despite increased attention from authorities, American-style government has been slow in coming to the towns because FLDS members control the police and most official town positions.
Recently, though, the cult's control over the area has weathered serious blows: In 2014, the towns lost a multimillion-dollar lawsuit by non-FLDS members who were refused town services. In February of this year, 11 FLDS leaders were arrested and charged with food-stamp fraud. A month later, a federal jury verdict found that the cult had discriminated against non-FLDS members, resulting in a settlement of more than $1.4 million.
The latest legal challenge to the FLDS began with a report to the marshal's office of vandalism on the site of Colorado City's former zoo. The UEP trust owns the property and had leased the land to Prairie Farms, LLC, which planned to use it for cattle. On October 13, 2015, Isaac Wyler, a UEP agent handling the lease deal and eviction of several people who had been living on the 12-acre site, told the towns' police that someone had inflicted thousands of dollars in damage on the property.
An officer identified as "D. Barlow" responded and said he'd been told by Chief Jerry Darger of the marshal's office that one resident was still living on the old zoo property: Chad Johnson. Wyler and two of the three owners of Prairie Farms, Andrew Chatwin and Patrick Pipkin, told Barlow that Johnson was a squatter and that the UEP lease gave Prairie Farms clear rights to use the land.
Barlow got on the phone to Johnson, who told the officer that Pipkin could stay, but that he didn't want Chatwin on the property. The scene grew tense as a Mohave County Sheriff's Office deputy arrived to back up Wyler and the businessmen, while Chief Darger and another marshal's office cop showed up as well.
Darger informed the group that until Johnson was properly evicted, he had sole rights to the property, and Wyler, Pipkin, and Chatwin had to clear out. The deputy countered that the law was on the side of the businessmen. Wyler left, but Pipkin and Chatwin stood their ground and were arrested by the marshal's office. According to the complaint, Darger "deliberately and maliciously shoved" Pipkin during the arrest.
Colorado City's town prosecutor charged the two men with first-degree trespassing and released them from jail. Two days later, they went to the property with their other partner, Claude Seth Cooke. Over Cooke's protests, Pipkin and Chatwin were again arrested by the marshal's office.
The marshal's office took no action against Johnson, though the complaint alleges that he was trespassing and "illegally conducting an herb farm business on the zoo property." Apparently, no investigation was ever undertaken regarding the alleged vandalism.
On top of everything, when Prairie Farms tried to obtain garbage and water services from Colorado City beginning in October 2015, the company paid a $500 deposit, only to be told that service would not be initiated until the previous registrant gave his permission. Red Jessop, the previous registrant, has been dead for several years.
The trespassing charges were dropped in late January, but according to the complaint, the defendants were informed that "the investigation is continuing."
The men allege that their First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated, and they seek unspecified damages and reimbursement for the attorneys they had to hire. They claim their inability to access the property during past year's severe floods, which killed more than 16 people in Colorado City, also resulted in expensive damage they want the towns to cover.
This isn't the first time the three businessmen and Wyler, who all quit the FLDS years ago but remained in the Short Creek area, have accused the FLDS of harassing them and other nonbelievers.
Cooke and his brother got former Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard to file a lawsuit in 2010 against Colorado City for failing to connect water services to their property. Goddard also sued a Colorado City restaurant and candy shop for refusing to serve Chatwin and Wyler.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Wyler and Chatwin also claim that in 2012, FLDS members trying to intimidate Wyler buried a cat alive on Wyler's property.
In 2006, Pipkin successfully beat back an attempt by the FLDS to evict him from his home, which was owned by the trust.