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Polygamy Puzzle

Antipolygamy activists Jay Beswick, Linda Walker and Flora Jessop hold a press conference to urge enforcement action by state officials.
Emily Piraino

The author of a purported Attorney General's Office memo describing widespread criminal activity in the polygamous community of Colorado City remains unknown more than two weeks after it surfaced.

The state Department of Public Safety has begun an investigation requested by Attorney General Janet Napolitano to determine who prepared the document that depicts dangerous conditions in Colorado City and alludes to efforts by the Attorney General to avoid taking action.

Napolitano says the document -- which appears to be written by a special investigations supervisor -- is fraudulent.

"We actually have opened an investigation on that particular memo to determine the authenticity," says DPS spokesman Frank Valenzuela. The department's special-investigation unit is handling the case.

Colorado City is controlled by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints -- an offshoot of the mainstream Mormon Church. The FLDS has long practiced polygamy and strongly encourages -- some say it forces -- teenage girls to marry much older men who already have multiple wives. The teenage marriages have become the focus of intense criticism from child advocates and women's rights groups.

The three-page memo was accompanied by a letter and supporting affidavit from a woman claiming to have been raped in Colorado City. The information detailed in the memo, as well as in the letter and affidavit, presents a perplexing situation: The Attorney General's Office acknowledges that most of the information in the memo is accurate and addresses legitimate concerns, including long-standing allegations of widespread rape, incest, molestation, underage marriages, weapons violations and welfare fraud.

Nevertheless, several key aspects of the document remain unconfirmed, and the AG's Office points to these as evidence that the memo didn't come from within.

The most troubling is the April 16 letter to Napolitano and accompanying affidavit by a woman named Stephanie Lynn Olsen. Olsen claims in the letter and affidavit that she was beaten and raped in Colorado City after she reported the rape of her 15-year-old cousin to the Mohave County Sheriff's Office.

Attorney General spokeswoman Pati Urias says the office has never received any correspondence from Stephanie Lynn Olsen.

The Mohave County Sheriff's Office does not have any record of Olsen reporting the rapes -- although officials with the office say it is very likely that no written report would have been made, since the crime occurred within Colorado City and would have been under the jurisdiction of the town's police department.

Colorado City officials say the memo, letter and affidavit are frauds and that no one named in the affidavit lives in the town.

New Times' efforts to locate Stephanie Lynn Olsen also have been unsuccessful.

Prior to publishing a story based on the memorandum ("Cover-Up," October 3), New Times interviewed Dennis Burke, Napolitano's chief deputy, about the document. During that lengthy interview, Burke stated that, while he had not seen the document and that it was unusual, he assumed it to be true.

He confirmed that the criminal allegations raised in the memo, including rape, incest, molestations, weapons violations and welfare fraud, were under investigation by the Attorney General.

"I will substantiate the investigative aspects of it," Burke said of the memo.

He said the only specific allegation in the document that surprised him was a statement that the FLDS members had grenade launchers.

"I wasn't aware of the grenade launchers," he said.

The only parts of the memo that seemed strange, according to the aide, were references to press coverage by out-of-state newspapers and a statement that the local press could be controlled.

"It's a weird memo," Burke said.

The detailed information contained in the memo makes it clear that it was prepared by someone with intimate knowledge of the situation in Colorado City and of the Attorney General's two-year investigation of activities in the small town, which hugs the Utah border and is virtually closed to outsiders.

There is also no doubt that there is widespread concern with the slow pace of the Attorney General's investigation and with the fact that no indictments have resulted.

The lack of substantial progress by the Attorney General's Office, combined with the upcoming election in which Napolitano is the Democratic nominee for governor, made it prime time for someone -- perhaps an antipolygamist activist, an angry official in the Attorney General's Office or a political opponent -- to prepare and/or send such an explosive memo to the press.

The most damaging parts of the memo are statements indicating that Napolitano is not aggressively pursuing the Colorado City investigation. Any significant prosecution would trigger a contentious battle over religious rights, particularly if the Attorney General indicted FLDS members on sexual abuse charges.

AG officials say the case has moved slowly because it has been very difficult to find credible witnesses willing to testify that they were sexually assaulted and forced into underage marriages.

 

"We've had our investigators go up there five times," says Burke. "This is not something we have been sitting on. This is something we have been struggling with so goddamned hard to get primary witnesses."

Others -- particularly antipolygamist activists and their political supporters -- say there have been several clear cases in which the Attorney General could have sought indictments in the last two years, but failed to act.

They point to the case of Ruth Stubbs, who was ceremonially married to Colorado City police deputy Rodney H. Holm when she was 16 and had two children before she turned 18. This case was first presented to the Department of Public Safety and Napolitano's office more than two years ago by antipolygamy groups. Stubbs was Holm's third wife. The couple was married in a non-civil ceremony on December 11, 1998, officiated by an FLDS leader.

Utah law enforcement officials finally indicted the 36-year-old Holm earlier this month on charges of bigamy and unlawful sex with a minor. Holm lives in Hildale, Utah, a small town adjacent to Colorado City that also is controlled by the FLDS.

Arizona, however, has not pressed charges in the case, despite evidence showing that Holm had sex with Stubbs in Arizona when she was under 18, notes antipolygamy activist Flora Jessop.

Antipolygamy activists also say it is important for the state to move aggressively because prosecutors in Mohave County are failing to aggressively prosecute child abuse cases coming out of Colorado City.

Earlier this year, 51-year-old Daniel Barlow Jr. pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse and was sentenced to 120 days in jail by Mohave County Superior Court Judge Richard Weiss. Weiss suspended the sentence, granting credit for 13 days Barlow had already spent in jail. Barlow is the son of longtime Colorado City mayor Daniel Barlow Sr.

A Colorado City police report states that Barlow "admitted" that he had sexually molested his five daughters over a period of several years. He admitted to police that he would feel their breasts, rub their vaginas and have his daughters massage his penis. He also admitted that the activities began when the girls were as young as 12 and continued for many years.

"Most of the girls told me he used the I am father, trust me' on them to get his way with them," Colorado City police officer Samuel Roundy states in a December 24, 2001, police report.

Despite the admissions to police, Mohave County prosecutors last April accepted a guilty plea of one count of child abuse after two daughters said they didn't want to testify.

Mohave County prosecutor Matt Smith is quoted as saying that Barlow "probably deserves to go to prison; there's no question about that."

Smith says the county had a strong case and could have proved convictions that would have resulted in mandatory prison time. However, Barlow received strong support from Colorado City leaders, and his victims had written letters asking that he not be sentenced to prison.

Smith, according to news reports, said he crafted the plea agreement based on what the community and victims desired.

The lack of indictments by the Attorney General and leniency by county prosecutors in child abuse cases is angering several Mohave County elected officials.

"It is very frustrating that we can't seem to get very much done," says state Representative Linda Binder, R-Lake Havasu.

Binder has been pressing the legislature and Napolitano's office for nearly two years to take action to stop what she calls "sham marriages" in Colorado City and to put a clamp on the resulting massive amounts of welfare payments that flow into the town to support the large families.

The state Department of Economic Security reports that 283 Colorado City families with 2,592 individuals receive a total of $172,310 a month in food stamp benefits. Slightly more than 77 percent of the town's 3,334 people (according to the 2000 Census) receive food stamps.

Binder gained the support of the American Association of University Women in early 2001. The statewide group with 1,800 members put Colorado City at the top of its agenda and began a letter-writing campaign to Napolitano's office in February 2001, demanding that she take immediate action to stop child abuse and other crimes.

"It is impossible for us, as citizens, and you as Attorney General, to ignore this issue any longer," states a February 27, 2001, letter to Napolitano from AAUW member Joyce M. Strothmann. "It is an outrage to continue to allow the suffering of women and children in the name of religion.'"

 

AAUW state board member Mary Carol O'Malley says her organization "deluged Janet Napolitano's office with letters demanding that you need to do something."

O'Malley says Napolitano's office has been unresponsive to AAUW's demands that she take action to protect the women and children living in polygamous societies. O'Malley says she has personally pressed Napolitano on several occasions in the last year on the status of the investigation and whether indictments could be expected.

"She [Napolitano] just rolls her eyes as if to say It's going.' I don't know if it is going ahead, or just going away," O'Malley says.

Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson also has taken a leading role in applying pressure on Napolitano's office and is also unhappy with the pace of the Attorney General's investigation and the lack of indictments.

"I would like to have seen things move a lot faster," says Johnson, a retired Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy.

Criticism of the lack of progress in Napolitano's Colorado City investigation is not warmly received by her closest advisers.

In an unusual outburst that reflects the emotion of the issue this close to the election, Burke lashed out at Johnson the day after New Times broke the story about the memo. Burke left an unsolicited voice-mail message at New Times noting that Johnson had been a source in the feature story before adding that Johnson is "under criminal investigation."

Burke's statement that Johnson is under criminal investigation runs counter to the Attorney General's Office policy to neither confirm nor deny criminal probes on any matter, and it could be seen as a bare-knuckled attempt to discredit Johnson.

"I find it rather shocking," says Johnson.

Johnson says no one has informed him that he is the target of a criminal probe on any matter, and he's not been questioned about any crime.


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