Longform

Bound by Fear: Polygamy in Arizona

Page 13 of 17

Many in the community were shocked. Eventually, 21 people filed a class-action lawsuit seeking to retain title to the homes they had paid for and built on the land.

Led by a handful of activists, including Ben Bistline, the suit cost plaintiffs more than a million dollars and dragged on for more than a decade. A Utah state court judge finally ruled that the UEP could not evict plaintiffs from their homes, unless they paid fair market value for them. Once the homeowner died, the judge ruled, the land and home would revert to the UEP.

After the suit was settled, the UEP tightened language in its charter and resumed evictions against anyone who was not in "harmony" with the Prophet.

Lenore Holm quickly found herself out of favor in August 2000, when she protested the planned spiritual marriage of her 16-year-old daughter, Nicole, to a 39-year-old man as his second wife.

The UEP immediately sought to evict Holm and her children from the Colorado City home that she and her husband, Milton, were building. The 39-year-old Lenore has 14 children nine were still in the parents' care.

Rather than turning over the property, which most people do when it is demanded by the UEP, Lenore Holm chose to fight the eviction in Mohave County Superior Court. The case is pending, and the Holms remain in the house. But Lenore's 16-year-old moved in with the man, and the couple were married soon after she turned 18.

As for the elderly Thomas, who is divorced and was not a plaintiff in the lawsuit, she wound up getting evicted from the home she had paid for and built.

"They gave me three days' notice to leave," she said.

The UEP then bulldozed her house, and the property was given to a member of the powerful Barlow family.

"I've been a good girl, and they abused me," Thomas said.

But unlike many who have had to leave town upon eviction, the elderly Thomas was lucky. She didn't have to move far. She converted an old garage on a relative's private land into a small home for less than $1,000. There, she's replanted her herb garden and counsels young FLDS women who call on her for advice despite her status as an apostate.

For a while after she was driven out, she wondered if the FLDS would come looking for her. "I was afraid for my life," she said. "But God was with me."

Supported by Taxes

At the same time the United Effort Plan was kicking what it considers homeowner dissidents including elderly women and widows off its property, church leaders were encouraging the faithful to tap welfare programs to support huge FLDS families.

Like nearly every family in Colorado City, the Rodney Holm household relied heavily on food stamps to purchase groceries.

By late 2001, the Rodney Holm clan included 20 children along with the three wives. The family's food stamp benefit was worth about $2,016 a month based on the Arizona Department of Economic Security food stamp rate of $84 a person.

According to DES, more than half the roughly 4,000 people living in the Colorado City area in Arizona are receiving food stamps worth about $172,000 a month or $2.1 million a year.

Federal and state welfare regulations do not prohibit families in polygamous marriages from receiving welfare benefits.

Food stamp eligibility is determined by income and the number of people living together in a household which is defined as a group of people who purchase food and eat meals together.

"It doesn't matter whether you are blood-related or not," says Vincent Wood, state DES director for benefits and medical eligibility.

So it's very easy to qualify for benefits. So easy that Ruth Stubbs said she never directly applied for food stamps or medical insurance through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state agency that administers Medicare benefits. Stubbs said she and her children were enrolled by her sister, Suzie. That, too, is legal, as long as the person submitting the application has the authorization of the person receiving the benefits.

Taxpayer-supported AHCCCS provides the bulk of the medical insurance for residents in Colorado City and the surrounding area.

The state reports that 4,138 Colorado City-area residents are enrolled in the program, costing the state about $8 million a year in premium payments.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty