Longform

Bound by Fear: Polygamy in Arizona

Page 10 of 17

Behind the veneer is a man who knows how to get down and dirty.

Fifty years ago, Barlow was among a posse who set off dynamite charges before dawn to alert the town of Governor Howard Pyle's ill-fated attempt to dislodge polygamists by sending in the state police and national guard to arrest most of the men in town.

The then-21-year-old Barlow already had three wives including 15-year-old Edith Black.

Barlow takes very seriously his job of protecting fundamentalist Mormons from intruders who might be prying into the town's secrets. As an interview with New Times began, he leaned across the table and said matter-of-factly:

"I want to have a tape of it because the liability of what you do is going to come back on you. I want to have the city in the position that we have some protection against the libelous and scurrilous writing."

After laying down the gauntlet, Barlow moved toward denial.

Ignoring even his personal experience, Barlow claimed he knows nothing about the scores of teenage girls married into polygamous relationships that the Attorney General's Office has discovered.

"The people you are listening to are not credible people," he said, referring to anti-polygamist activists. "I'm just amazed that you can't tell the difference between a neurotic person and a person who has real genuine information."

Pressed to comment about Utah's filing felony sexual abuse charges against Rodney Holm stemming from his plural marriage to teenager Ruth Stubbs, Barlow ducked.

"I'm not going to speak to it because it is in the courts," he said.

Setting teenage marriages aside, Barlow acknowledged that most of the town practices polygamy.

"It is part of the basis of the fundamentalist church that they believe in patriarchal marriage," he said.

Barlow's nonchalant tone suggested the unconstitutional practice is merely a footnote, rather than the cornerstone of his community. He launched into his public relations spiel that apparently has won over political leaders across the state.

"We feel like this is small-town America. It's a wonderful opportunity for young people as well as [for] everyone else," he said. "You may not understand our lifestyle, but it really isn't important to us that you understand."

What is important, Barlow said, is that the town simply be left alone to do as it sees fit.

"Our priority is to live according to our own functions and our own guidance," he said.

In other words, town leaders expect the state of Arizona to let Colorado City set its own regulations whether they are legal or not.

Barlow's statement cuts to the heart of the 1879 U.S. Supreme Court Reynolds warning of religious freedoms becoming superior to the law of the land: "Government could only exist in name under such circumstances."

In Colorado City, all the mechanisms of government are in place. There's the town council, which appoints various committees that report their actions during regularly scheduled and posted public meetings.

Lacking, however, is vibrant political debate or, for that matter, any debate.

The town council has the same seven members it had when the body was appointed in 1985, when the town was formed.

Six of the council members, including the mayor, are polygamists. Every member of the council swore to uphold the state constitution when he or she took office an oath each polygamist is violating.

Though there are elections every two years, none has ever been contested.

Barlow has never been challenged as mayor. He is routinely reappointed to the post by other members of the council.

The political vacuum, Barlow said, is a reflection of widespread satisfaction with the council.

"You don't have to quarrel in America," he said. "If people are satisfied with the town leadership, that's good."

Anyone can take out a petition to get on the ballot, he said, even though no one has in 18 years.

The reality is, hardly anyone bothers to vote at least in town council elections. In the May 2002 election, there were 86 votes for each of the four incumbents.

Minutes from the last two years show that not once did anyone raise an issue during the public-comment period at a council meeting.

To hear Mayor Barlow tell it, Colorado City is a Garden of Eden where every problem is solved.

But, in fact, the town is practically in rack and ruin financially and otherwise.

Most of its streets are unpaved and become a quagmire when it rains. There are few sidewalks, and streetlights are rare.

Lax building codes create a bizarre landscape of occupied, yet unfinished, mostly plywood houses in various stages of completion. A Phoenix building inspector would quickly drain a ballpoint pen writing citations for blatant and dangerous violations (such as second-floor doors opening onto unfenced balconies).

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty