Too Little, Too Late

It's not every day that the governor of a state is faced with an open insurrection by thousands of religious zealots.

It's even rarer when the fanatics flout the state Constitution in a hell-bent pursuit of reaching heaven by coercing teenage girls into a life of subjugation, rape and breeding.

Even more unusual is the appalling fact that the rebellion is being funded by tens of millions of taxpayer dollars pouring into an incorporated town controlled by a theocracy -- a religious dictatorship that ignores the rule of law and prays for the destruction of this nation.

These are the facts of life in the remote town of Colorado City, located north of the Grand Canyon on the Arizona Strip. And these are precisely the type of outrageous actions in which government is supposed to intervene, by force if necessary, to protect its citizens from human rights and constitutional abuses.

This is the type of situation a governor with courage and conviction should immediately address. Unfortunately for Arizona and the thousands of children in Colorado City, Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano has exhibited neither of these characteristics when it comes to the horrendous situation in Colorado City.

Instead, Napolitano is doing nothing.

Colorado City, along with its twin community of Hildale, Utah, is the epicenter of a religious sect that split from the Salt Lake City-based Mormon Church more than 70 years ago. The 10,000-member cult continues to practice polygamy in defiance of Article XX of the Arizona state Constitution, which bans the practice.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is controlled by a single man -- the self-proclaimed prophet Warren Jeffs, who is believed by adherents to be God's only true spokesman on Earth. The central tenet of the religion is plural marriage -- a man must have at least three wives to reach heaven's highest realm.

Jeffs and his followers must rely on forcing underage girls to enter into plural "marriages" in order to sustain their religious beliefs. It matters little to Jeffs -- who has several dozen wives and who has impregnated at least two 17-year-old girls -- and the FLDS hierarchy that their religious practice stands in direct violation of the state Constitution, U.S. Supreme Court rulings and basic human rights conventions adhered to by all civilized countries.

But such grievous transgressions should be of huge concern to Arizona's elected leaders -- starting with Napolitano. This is an issue she knows all too well -- as a former U.S. Attorney, state Attorney General, and now as governor for the last 15 months.

Napolitano has pinned her political star on protecting children. Her support among feminist groups is broad and deep. Yet when faced with the ultimate degradation of women and children at the hands of religious fanatics, Napolitano meekly wrings her hands and whines that it's a "frustrating" situation.

Yes, it is frustrating -- especially when the state's top official fails to take action to send a powerful message to the FLDS leadership that their days of using our money to violate the state Constitution and raping teenage girls in the name of God are over.

Earlier this month, Napolitano had an opportunity to deliver a forceful message to Jeffs while giving words of encouragement to teenage girls and young women trapped in polygamous cohabitations where pregnancy is paramount. But Napolitano slinked over to Parker and Lake Havasu to tout the reforms she rammed through the Legislature last year to improve the dismal performance of the state's Child Protective Services agency.

Napolitano could have made a far more powerful statement by delivering that speech in the heart of Colorado City -- a town where hundreds, if not thousands, of teenage girls have been coerced into polygamous unions with much older men during the last 70 years.

But she didn't have the guts to go into a hostile environment and declare that she will use all of the state's resources necessary to protect the women and children that Jeffs considers to be nothing more than mere chattel to be swapped like cows at a market.

And speeches, wherever they are given, are not enough.

Napolitano needs to immediately address a glaring oversight in state law. While the Arizona Constitution clearly forbids polygamy, the state has never passed a corresponding criminal statute outlawing the practice.

This omission allows FLDS polygamists to secure positions on the Colorado City town council, the local school board and the police force -- despite violating their oath to uphold the state Constitution.

Former attorney general Grant Woods attempted to strip Colorado City police officer Sam Barlow of his police certification in the late 1980s. But the effort failed when a hearing officer ruled that the lack of a criminal statute banning polygamy made it impossible to remove Barlow's certification.

The decision was a green light to the FLDS polygamists who realized the state had no legal power to stop them from creating their sham political bodies and collect millions of taxpayer dollars.

While it may appear there is a democratic apparatus in Colorado City, the ultimate decision over how money is spent is clearly in the hands of Jeffs.

Where else in America can a religious leader not only demand, but expect, immediate compliance for the resignation of the so-called mayor of the town? Not only did Dan Barlow give up his seat as head of the Colorado Town Council -- a post he had held for 18 years -- he also agreed to Jeffs' demands that he move out of town and repent.

Dan Barlow left his many wives and children behind in Colorado City and has since moved to St. George, Utah. Jeffs has also kicked out longtime Colorado City councilman Richard Holm and removed Hildale council member Louis Barlow from his post.

As Jeffs makes a mockery of democracy and tramples civil rights, Napolitano ignores the mess.

The governor's spokeswomen, Jeanine L'Ecuyer, says the governor hasn't had time to address the issue.

"We can't fix every problem at once," she says.

Well, this isn't a minor problem that Napolitano can pigeonhole in one of her commissions to study endlessly. This is a major issue, which even L'Ecuyer admits.

"The question is a big one," L'Ecuyer says. "It's a broad one and it's a difficult one to answer."

Isn't addressing difficult questions and providing solutions the governor's job? If she can't come up with a plan to address the glaring abuse of women and children and flagrant violation of the state Constitution, she should look for other work -- perhaps a meaningless job like vice president.

The real question is why isn't the governor leading the charge to stamp out this abhorrent practice by an outlaw sect?

Fear is one reason. Rumors fly that the cultists will resort to violence if necessary to continue their way of life. The governor doesn't want a latter-day Waco on her résumé. But is this nebulous threat any reason to allow the wholesale rape of young teenagers to continue?

A more likely answer lies in the power of the Mormon Church, which first came up with the wacky idea that polygamy is the only ticket into heaven. The church remains silent on the criminal behavior unfolding in Colorado City, perhaps because it is precisely what it once preached.

The Mormon Church reluctantly abandoned polygamy in 1890 as a condition for Utah to obtain statehood. But many prominent Mormons continued the practice well into the 20th century. Officially, the Mormon Church excommunicates any person who practices polygamy today -- although polygamy remains in Mormon doctrine.

The current state Legislature is controlled by a handful of Mormon Republicans including Senate President Ken Bennett and Speaker of the House Jake Flake, who descends from a prominent polygamist patriarch who was jailed in the 1880s. Criminalizing polygamy today would cast a pall over many Mormon ancestors. This is not something a modern Mormon would want to do under almost any circumstance.

Thus, neither Napolitano nor the Legislature has had the courage or incentive to address the lack of a criminal statute banning polygamy, despite a promise by Flake's spokesman last summer that the speaker would support such legislation during the current session.

A bill is winding through the Legislature that would make it a felony for a married person to take an additional spouse under age 18.

But this will do nothing to strip the power of the Colorado City governing apparatus to collect millions of taxpayer dollars that are used to fund their unconstitutional religious practices.

While Napolitano and legislative leaders ignore the heart of the issue, there have been some positive developments in the last few months -- although these are coming at an excruciatingly slow pace.

The most important is the expected opening of a multi-agency justice center. The center is expected to start up in a double-wide trailer next to the Mohave County Community College campus in Colorado City.

The center is to include a Mohave County sheriff's substation and office space for Child Protective Services, the Mohave County Attorney's Office, a sexual abuse victims' advocate and a representative from the state Attorney General's Office. Officials hope the center will become a safe haven for those seeking to leave the community. The state is providing special training for employees so that they can properly address the unique issues of women and children fleeing FLDS polygamy.

But once again, the lack of government commitment is delaying the opening of the justice center, which was supposed to be operating by the end of this month. A $50,000 shortfall has delayed the project until at least late July, says Mohave County manager Ron Walker.

L'Ecuyer says the governor is trying to find a useable trailer somewhere in the state that can be immediately moved up to Colorado City. As far as scrounging up a lousy $50,000, forget it, she says.

"It's not, unfortunately, like snapping your fingers and coming up with $50,000," she says.

Come on! If the state was really serious about addressing this outrageous situation, the money would be on the table tomorrow. Fifty grand is nothing in a $7 billion state budget.

It is imperative that the justice center open sooner than later. Jeffs already is building a new compound near the small town of Eldorado, Texas. His FLDS minions have put up three large log buildings on a 1,300-acre ranch a Jeffs supporter purchased late last year.

Longtime anti-polygamy activist Pennie Peterson is very concerned that Jeffs is moving women and children to the Texas compound where he will be able to practice plural marriage with even less state oversight than now exists in Arizona.

"There's many girls at risk of being married off, and nobody seems to care," Peterson says.

The justice center is also needed now to allow women and children to leave Colorado City without having to rely on the overzealous and frequently misleading efforts of more radical anti-polygamy activists led by Flora Jessop.

An escapee from Colorado City in the 1980s, Flora Jessop has been a powerful force in raising awareness about the abuses in the FLDS stronghold. But her tactics, which center on manipulating the press and government officials with half-truths, have become increasingly reckless.

Jessop generated huge publicity earlier this year when she helped two teenage girls leave the community. Jessop brought the 16-year-olds to Phoenix and insisted that the Attorney General's Office put the girls in a foster home she personally selected.

But rather than focusing on getting the girls transitioned into school and society, Jessop used them as props in a media campaign that included prominent photographs of the teens and Jessop in newspapers, magazines and television.

The father of one of the girls asked a juvenile court judge to forbid Jessop from any contact with his daughter during ongoing dependency hearings. The court agreed, and issued a no-contact order on February 12.

Then, the girls, with the help of Jessop, fled from their foster home and have been in hiding since. Jessop says the girls left because they feared they were going to be returned to their families -- a fear that appears to be unjustified, according to court records and interviews.

Attorney General Terry Goddard tells me that was absolutely not the case at the time the girls took off.

Jessop, Goddard says, has destroyed her credibility and is risking contempt of court charges.

"She's really undermined the state," Goddard says.

The girls regularly contact Jessop, who occasionally arranges media interviews. Jessop claims she doesn't know the location of the girls. I don't believe her for a minute.

I asked her whether she is providing funds to the girls for their living expenses. "I would just as soon not answer that question," Jessop says. "But I will tell you, I will support any of these kids in getting free if that is what they want to do."

While Jessop's goal is noble, her demands to have control over someone else's children are becoming eerily similar to the dictatorial attitude of her sworn nemesis, Warren Jeffs. Perhaps it takes a fanatic like Flora Jessop to counter the unrestrained power of Jeffs.

But pursuing this course only leads to further manipulation of the young women and children of Colorado City, who already have been subjected to untold horrors and abuse.

Misguided and devious activists like Jessop thrive when the state fails to do its job.

It's time for Governor Janet Napolitano to finally step in, enforce the state Constitution and stop the "sanctified" rape of teenagers by FLDS polygamist creeps.

E-mail [email protected], or call 602-229-8445.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty