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Bound by Fear: Polygamy in Arizona

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The more blessings a man has, the greater his prestige and power in the community. A minimum of three wives is required to enter the highest levels of the complex heaven called the Celestial Kingdom.

Women, according to the religion, can't reach the Celestial Kingdom unless their husband first achieves the lofty height and then agrees to bring his concubines into paradise. The chase for plural wives dominates earthly pursuits.

"If the men don't do what the Prophet says, then [they don't] get more wives," affirmed town historian Benjamin Bistline, who has self-published a book about the town titled The Polygamists, A History of Colorado City. "It's extortion."

Warren Jeffs, the 46-year-old current Prophet and son of Rulon Jeffs (who died in September 2002), rarely makes a public appearance other than to preach Sunday sermons at the massive Leroy S. Johnson Meeting Hall. Jeffs did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The fundamentalist religion holds that the end of the world is near, while at the same time warning young girls who rarely finish high school that they won't get to heaven without the Prophet sealing them into a cohabitation.

Outsiders are considered wicked, and anyone who leaves the religion after learning its gospel is branded an "apostate" and consigned to hellfire.

The FLDS practices racism against black people that was first espoused by the early Mormon Church. They believe blacks are an inferior race descended from Cain, who was cursed by God for killing his brother.

Religious indoctrination begins at birth and never stops. Those who manage to break away from the community often do so with little or no financial support. Few are emotionally capable of living outside of the community, and many who do leave particularly the women soon return.

"It's a shitty place to come from," says Pennie Peterson, Ruth Stubbs' older sister who fled 15 years ago fearing for her life. "It messes with your mind."

Domestic War

Ruth Stubbs soon found herself trapped in Rodney Holm's spacious home at the mouth of Maxwell Canyon in Hildale.

The two-story, barn-styled house appears to be well above the financial means of a man who earns $29,000 a year as a Colorado City cop.

Mortgages, however, aren't something Colorado City residents worry about. Their homes are built piecemeal and paid for with cash. The land is owned by the church-controlled United Effort Plan. Residents pay only property taxes and utility bills.

But the cost of living cheap is extracted in other ways.

Soon after Ruth moved in, whatever limited freedoms she had as a single teenager were revoked. Ruth had to ask her husband for permission to leave the house, to spend money, to even eat some sugar or drink a cup of coffee.

"I couldn't do anything without asking," Ruth told AG's investigators.

Any money she earned working a $6-an-hour job at the gas station/mini-mart had to be turned over to her husband, right down to the last dime.

Her living quarters were little more than a jail cell. Ruth was consigned to a bedroom that was a converted office.

"I just had a little bed on the floor and, and [the room] had a bathroom hooked to it," she said.

It was the only place she could find respite from the ongoing power struggle between her sister, Suzie, and the second wife, Wendy Holm.

Things were already complicated in the household before Ruth arrived. Wendy had been married to Rodney Holm's brother. When that marriage ended in divorce, the Prophet gave Wendy to Rodney. Consequently, all three of Rodney's wives were sisters-in-law.

Yet this entanglement is nothing by Colorado City standards. One young woman who left the area several years ago said she figured out her family tree and found she was related to more than 1,000 people in the Colorado City area.

The Holm household was anything but content.

Wendy and Suzie had hated each other from the moment Wendy entered the home eight years earlier. Naive Ruth soon found herself a foot solider in Suzie's war.

"Suzie pitted me against Wendy," Ruth said.

The bitterness extended to the children.

"I know Suzie hits Wendy's kids sometimes, you know, when she feels like it or whatever," Ruth said to investigators. She said babies and toddlers among the 20 children in the home were sometimes left in the care of 6-year-old kids.

Ruth said Rodney Holm, meanwhile, stayed aloof from the fray, telling her to "love" her sister wives.

He spent much of his time in a laundry- and bathroom-equipped shop behind the house. He often slept in the out building, summoning whichever wife he chose to the quarters to spend the night. The wives generally followed a three-night rotation and would get hugely upset if Rodney favored one of the others on an assigned evening.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty