Blasphemous Backlash

COLORADO CITY -- With his wife and six children clustered behind him on the front porch of his modest home, Ross Chatwin did what no resident of this isolated, fundamentalist Mormon town has ever done.

Chatwin, 35, publicly denounced the religious leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) before more than two dozen reporters from across the country. It was the first news conference in the closed polygamous society's 70-year history and the first time so much press, including network television and the New York Times, had descended on the town in Mohave County.

Raised in a culture where absolute obedience to the FLDS is the church's first commandment, Chatwin ignored thinly veiled death threats circulating through town and harshly criticized the iron-fisted rule of Prophet Warren Jeffs, against whom Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is pursuing charges. Shurtleff maintains that Jeffs has cohabited with underage girls and has arranged the cohabitations of many other men in his congregation with girls younger than the age of legal consent.

Indeed, armed law enforcement was present en masse for the Chatwin event in Colorado City, since it was feared by Utah investigators that armed members of the "God Squad," a group of zealots that protects the prophet, might attempt to intervene.

"This Hitler-like dictator has got to be stopped before he ruins us all and this beautiful town," said Chatwin, holding up a copy of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

Rather than submit to Jeffs' demands that he turn over his 32-year-old wife, Lori, and their children to the church for reassignment to another man and then leave town, Chatwin called for other members of the community to join him and rebel.

"We want to make a firm stand that we are not leaving and we are going to stand up to Warren," Chatwin said. "We need your help and support to stop Warren Jeffs from destroying families [and] kicking us out of our homes."

It's uncertain how Chatwin's call for rebellion will resonate in this secretive community where outsiders are considered wicked. An FLDS attorney says Chatwin was asked to leave town because he had asked two underage girls to marry him. According to FLDS doctrine, only the prophet can decide which females go to which men.

And disobeying the prophet apparently is the problem. Chatwin acknowledges that he made marriage overtures to 15- and 17-year-old sisters last year. But in a society where, Utah investigators say, Jeffs himself has impregnated two underage girls, why would this constitute a violation of church doctrine?

Since all the publicity surrounding polygamy in Arizona and Utah has opened his eyes (New Times kicked off its series on the fundamentalist church in March of last year), Chatwin said he has changed his mind about the practice and does "not plan on pursuing polygamy" again.

In the last few years, more than 100 men have been stripped of their families and homes and ordered by Jeffs to leave town. Save for the men in favor with the church who receive what skeptics in the town call "new breeding stock," the reassignments are devastating to all concerned -- especially young girls who face coerced cohabitation with their new stepfathers (these men frequently are betrothed in church ceremonies to mothers and their daughters in such situations).

"Children and women are being taken from their husbands," said Ron Barton, an investigator for the Utah Attorney General's Office. "That's about the worst kind of violence that we can expect in America."

Earlier this month, Jeffs ordered 21 men to abandon their families and leave town. Among those excommunicated was Colorado City Mayor Dan Barlow, who quickly complied with Jeffs' command and resigned the post he has held since the town was incorporated in 1985. It appears that most, if not all, of the excommunicated men have obeyed Jeffs' order.

The mayor's sudden departure illustrates the Prophet's absolute control over all aspects of public and private life in Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah. And it makes it all the more remarkable that Chatwin had the nerve to speak out.

Another public official, Joseph Barlow, resigned his position on the Hildale City Council under Jeffs' excommunication order.

The FLDS owns most of the land in the two towns through a trust called the United Effort Plan. The trust, in turn, is controlled by Prophet Jeffs. Those who fall into disfavor with the church are routinely evicted from their homes. FLDS members believe Jeffs is God's only spokesman on Earth and that disobeying his commands will lead to eternal damnation.

"They believe that Warren Jeffs has control over their eternal salvation, and they are in fear of him condemning them to hell," said Ben Bistline, a former church member and the town's unofficial historian. "So that's why they don't dare do anything against him."

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty