In 1986, residents of the Kingdom of God--better known as Colorado City, Arizona, the headquarters of a fundamentalist Mormon religious cult that practices polygamy--received disturbing news in the mail.
In a nutshell, a massive mailing from Rulan Jeffs, a cult leader, said that dissident cult members could get evicted--without compensation--from their homes.
The letters struck terror in the hearts of some residents of Colorado City, who had personally paid for the construction of dwellings large enough to house a guy and several wives and a dozen or so kids. They had built the homes on property owned by the cult because revered elders had promised them they could live in their homes for the rest of their lives.
Since the Kingdom of God also stretches into the neighboring village of Hildale, Utah, similar letters were sent to cult members in Utah.
The 1986 pre-eviction letters launched a hostile 12-year legal mano a mano over who, exactly, gets to live in the Kingdom of God.
But a ruling last month by the Utah Supreme Court marks the beginning of the end of the legal battle, and may well cause the unraveling of a religious hierarchy that has long been criticized for cruelly dominating the two towns, parceling out the most lucrative jobs, the best home sites and, some even go so far as to say, the finest young wives, to favored members of the cult.
Stung by the fact that most outsiders consider their lifestyle something of an oddity, members of the Kingdom of God don't much welcome visitors to their towns.
They never have.
Back in the late 19th century, some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints splintered off from the mainstream church because they would not let go of their religious belief in plural marriage, a tenet of early Mormonism.
When mainstream Mormons banned polygamy, leaders of one polygamous group formed the "Priesthood Work." In the 1930s, they established the Kingdom of God on the banks of Short Creek, in two communities that straddle the Arizona-Utah border. Today, a total of about 6,000 people live in the two communities.
Through the years, residents have learned that not even the isolated terrain could protect the residents from the never-ending curiosity of outsiders.
In the first place, residents of both towns adhere for sincere religious reasons to the outlawed practice of polygamy. They escape prosecution because husbands obtain marriage licenses only for the first wife. Subsequent "wives" are joined to the husband in church rites, but the marriages are not technically legal because they are not recorded with the state.
In the second place, all females, regardless of age, are a visual curiosity to outsiders. Their religion requires them to wear long-sleeved, high-collared, 19th-century-style long dresses and cotton knit full-body undergarments. They are not permitted to wear makeup or cut their hair.
Men have it a little easier--although prohibited from growing beards for religious reasons, the gents dress in long-sleeved shirts and long pants that can at least be purchased at a local Wal-Mart.
Residents of the Kingdom of God see no reason to explain their sartorial habits and polygamous lifestyles to outsiders, who barrage them with questions like: "How do you handle the sleeping arrangements?" or "Isn't this demeaning to women?"
But for the past 12 years, curious outsiders have gotten a glimpse into the real workings of the polygamous cult as members waged vicious legal battles in Utah courtrooms--battles that began with those 1986 pre-eviction letters.
On one side are 20 religious dissidents, including 12 Colorado City residents, who claimed in court they could not be evicted from their homes without compensation. Values of homes in Colorado City range from $20,000 to $500,000, dissidents say.
On the other side are trustees of the so-called United Effort Plan, the trust that owns most of the property in Colorado City and Hildale. The trustees, all members of the dominant religious group, claimed in court that the trust is religious in nature and therefore trustees can evict anyone at any time without paying them for their homes.
The Utah Supreme Court disagreed, ruling last month that a man and his wives can't get evicted from United Effort Plan property unless they're compensated for the house they've built.
But the court's ruling has done more than just ensure that the dissidents can't get kicked out without being compensated.
By determining that the United Effort Plan is simply a business trust and not a religious one, the court set the foundation for what could be the economic unraveling of the dominant religious group.
The Supreme Court's ruling gives the dissidents the right to demand a complete accounting of trust assets, and if dissidents can prove that fiduciary duty was breached by the cult honchos running the trust, the trust could be broken and properties distributed to individual homeowners.
The Supreme Court remanded the case to the lower court in Utah for such possible actions.
Reid Lambert, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the dissidents, says his clients have yet to decide what they're going to do next.
Scott Berry, the attorney for United Effort Plan, did not return phone calls to New Times.
Truman Barlow, the only trustee of the United Effort Plan who lives in Colorado City, did not return a telephone call seeking comment on the Supreme Court ruling.
These days, the Kingdom of God is icy.
The 12-year legal fight has not only divided the community, but it's split up marriages. Cyril Bradshaw, for instance, is no longer a polygamist. In fact, he's no longer a husband. The 76-year-old former school principal and Colorado City resident is one of the dissidents in the lawsuit. His first wife died, and his second wife left him to rejoin the dominant cult.
Bradshaw figures his personal sacrifice was worth it, now that the court has ruled in his favor.
Bradshaw's friend Ray Timpson, a 46-year-old Colorado City history teacher, is also a dissident named in the legal melee.
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!
Timpson, who says he lives in a 5,000-square-foot, $250,000 home with "a lot" of children and "a few" wives, is the son of Alma Timpson, who rankled the United Effort Plan honchos by helping found a different religious group, now called the Second Ward. The group still adheres to fundamentalist Mormon beliefs in plural marriage and dress laws, but has learned, by necessity, to be slightly more open to strangers.
Naturally, Ray Timpson and his brothers figured they would be among the first to be booted out of Colorado City without being paid for their homes if the Supreme Court had not ruled in their favor.
When news of the court's decision reached Colorado City, "We gave a big sigh of relief," says Ray Timpson.
Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at firstname.lastname@example.org