Rapture & Rupture

On September 15, certain citizens of Arizona expect to be lifted bodily into the air and swept into heaven. If it doesn't happen, there could be hell to pay.

To prepare for this "lifting up," leaders of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints in Colorado City, Arizona, have ordered parents to keep their children out of the public schools and sanctioned the last-minute snatching of child brides.

The secretive FLDS church, led by Warren Jeffs, is the largest remaining sect of an estimated 30,000 polygamists in North America. It has about 5,000 members in the immediate community, which includes the town of Hildale on the Utah side of the state line. Warren is the son of Rulon T. Jeffs, 92, the church's ailing prophet who is also the father of 60 children and the husband of 19 wives who keep his photo by their bedsides.

Neither Warren Jeffs nor anyone else in the church leadership, including their lawyers in Salt Lake City, will speak publicly about the lifting up, but former members and dissenters in Colorado City are worried, they say, because the younger Jeffs has recently begun to preach the doctrine of "blood atonement."

According to one former member of the Jeffs band, that means, in some cases, "it's better to kill somebody than to let them sin." Some dissidents are frightened that if the lifting up fizzles, the FLDS leadership will turn on the "impure" elements in the community as scapegoats.

Dee Bateman is not one of those residents who fears violence if the heavens do not open on September 15. The science teacher at the local high school describes himself as a step-grandson of LeRoy Johnson, the prophet who chose the remote area to found the renegade polygamist colony in 1935. Bateman is hardly an opponent of polygamy. He describes followers of "The Principle" -- as polygamy is anciently referred to in Utah -- as "some of the most moral and decent people I've ever met, and I have poured years and years into educating their wives . . ."

One of Bateman's daughters married into the Jeffs ruling group -- he says she recently was forbidden any further contact with her father.

While he doesn't fear for his safety, Bateman believes Warren Jeffs is serious about his "lifting up" teachings. He cites the church leadership's order that as many as 500 children from polygamous families stay home from public schools and that loyalists sever contacts with even mild dissenters like him.

"They are trying," Bateman says, "to get rid of any influence that might keep them here [on Earth]."

One dissenter is tougher on the new policy. She calls it a form of "ethnic cleansing."

If Lenore Holm has more bitterness against the Jeffses than other dissidents, it's because of her 16-year-old daughter, Nichole.

The mother alleges that Nichole -- a straight-A student who wanted to study medicine, a pretty blonde who had always been close to her mother -- was turned against her in a single night.

Lenore Holm claims that after Wynn Jessop, a 39-year-old married father of 10 children, had laid some carpeting for Warren Jeffs, the son of the prophet awarded him Nichole as a second wife in lieu of payment, and that Jessop had "hypnotized" Nichole in a single session.

Lenore Holm says that until she objected to the way her daughter was taken from her a few months ago, she had been a loyal member of FLDS. After she started to fight to get Nichole back, the financial arm of the church tried to throw her and her family (there are 10 children at home under 12 years of age) out of the home they have lived in for 24 years without paying them for it. (Lenore Holm says she and her husband do not practice The Principle.)

Like virtually all of the homes in the community, Holm's sits on church trust land. There have been many evictions in the past, but in 1998 the Utah Supreme Court ruled that the church could no longer seize homes without paying for them under the doctrine of "unjust enrichment." It is far from clear whether the Utah decision has any effect on Arizona law; in Holm's case, it appears that the church is proceeding as though it has none.

When Holm refused to comply with the eviction, the church went to court, where Holm's own uncle, Truman Barlow, a trust official, argued that she should be evicted because she and her family were not "in harmony" with the teachings of the FLDS, according to an August 23 Salt Lake Tribune report on a hearing in justice court.

"What does 'harmony' mean?" Holm challenged her uncle.

"Those not in harmony with the leaders of the trust can be asked to leave," Barlow responded.

"Are you aware of why we were asked to leave the church?" Holm asked.

"I would have to speculate," Barlow answered. "But a person is out of harmony when they contest the leaders of the trust -- argue or rebel."

It is not only members of Lenore Holm's own family who have declined to help her. She has called the Mohave County Attorney's Office in Kingman "over and over and over," she said, for assistance fighting the eviction and for help in reclaiming custody of her minor daughter, but no one wants to get involved. She called the FBI in St. George, Utah, hoping to get the agency interested in a kidnapping case, but they told her there was no evidence of a crime. A call to Attorney General Janet Napolitano's office in Phoenix was turned aside with a recommendation that she call state Child Protective Services. Someone at CPS said they couldn't help.

Finally, a sympathetic woman in Governor Jane Hull's constituent services office told Holm her office might be able to help, but Hull spokeswoman Francie Noyes says only that the Governor's Office "is looking into it."

The frustrated mother said her next step will be to call the American Civil Liberties Union.

The reluctance of Arizona officials to get involved in Colorado City goes back to 1953, when Governor John Howard Pyle, in part as an election stunt, ordered a raid on the community. Children were taken from polygamous homes and put in the care of the state. Pyle was subsequently unseated at the polls.

But Arizona politicians may no longer have the luxury of treating problems in Colorado City as though they belonged to a different state and another world.

If the true souls of the FLDS do not float above the clouds next month, Arizona's public officials may have a litany of problems on their hands, including the legality of uncompensated evictions from trust land, the taking of underage plural wives from parents newly willing to resist church authorities, virtually empty public schools, and the consequences for dissenters if the prophecies of a religious autocrat die on the winds of mid-September.

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Dave Wagner