Bound by Fear: Polygamy in Arizona

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A month later, Ruth met with state AG's investigators, telling them she would cooperate with prosecutors and testify against Rodney Holm if criminal charges were filed.

But her main goal, she said, was to gain custody of her children.

She anxiously told investigators, "I do not want my kids to go back there."

Blood Atonement

Craig Chatwin has had a ringside seat in Colorado City. He was raised in a polygamous family; he is one of 30 children from three mothers. He is the third child of the second mother and the seventh child overall.

Articulate and outspoken, Chatwin parted with the church a few years ago after his first marriage ended. He has since carefully analyzed the political, economic and religious forces that keep the community together.

The religion teaches that righteous men will become gods and rule over many planets. The gods will have many, many women to use for bringing spirits forth to populate the planets.

"The woman's greatest achievement is if she can become a goddess and help her husband with the preparation of these worlds," says Chatwin, who attended many church sessions for men, called Priesthood meetings, while growing up in Colorado City.

"The only way a woman can get there is to be perfectly obedient to her husband," Chatwin says. "The only way a man get there is to be perfectly obedient to the next layer of organization in the priesthood, which in Colorado City is the Prophet."

If doubt creeps in to a fundamentalist's mind, he is taught to believe that the devil is at play and to ignore the thoughts. "Put it on the shelf," is the way the church puts it.

Time and time again, various Prophets have declared that the end of the world is certain.

Leaders claim that the righteous will be "lifted up" to the sky to hover above the town as the Lord comes through and destroys the wicked. They will then return to Earth and resume the "work" of building the kingdom of God.

When the liftoff fails to happen on schedule, the leaders explain that God has given followers more time to achieve righteousness.

Predictions of the end of the world trigger widespread fear in the community -- particularly among the young, unmarried women.

"The fear of death made me want to stay," says Jenny Kesselring, who remembers the end of the world predictions in 1997. At the time, Kesselring was a teenager struggling to decide whether to move to Salt Lake City to live with a cousin.

Many of the faithful are convinced their leaders have supernatural powers. It is generally believed that Prophets will live forever. Even as Rulon Jeffs was clearly fading from a series of strokes, religious leaders kept telling the congregation that he would soon rebound. When Jeffs finally died at 92, there was widespread shock in town.

Because he believed himself immortal, Rulon never bothered to anoint a successor Prophet. Though outwardly stunned that his father had died, Warren Jeffs kept a clear enough head to issue an edict of utmost importance:

"Don't put your hands on any of my father's women," Warren is said to have ordered in a prayer meeting before Rulon's body was cold. According to local lore, the about 70 wives were later divided among FLDS hierarchy, with Warren getting first pick as the new Prophet. Supporting Warren -- who refused to be interviewed for this story -- is said to be powerful FLDS bishop Fred Jessop, 95, who himself has about 30 wives.

Though Warren has assumed the mantle of power, he apparently isn't ready to let go of his father's coattails. During sermons, the faithful report, he sometimes pauses, acting as if he is listening to his father speak from the great beyond. Perhaps the younger Jeffs is keeping in such close touch with his father's ghost to quell a growing rebellion in town to his strict leadership style.

Though it may seem to the outside world like comparing prison to jail, a number of previously stalwart families in Colorado City have bolted to Canada in the last few months to join Prophet Winston Blackmore's less restrictive polygamous program.

"Warren Jeffs' philosophy of family doesn't exist," Chatwin claims. "He believes in a group commune."

Chatwin says Jeffs has told the community, "These children that you are having don't belong to you, they belong to me.' That's verbatim."

Several sources have independently recounted stories where men have confessed to Jeffs a relationship prior to marriage, or some other infraction, that has resulted in the Prophet stripping the husbands and fathers of their wives and children. In fact, more than 50 families have been busted apart, with wives and children reassigned to other men, in the last few years, records compiled by former FLDS members and turned over to the AG's Office show.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty