Under Siege

Fundamentalist Mormon polygamists along the Arizona-Utah border are steeling themselves against law enforcement agencies coming at them from several fronts.

Formidable eight-foot walls -- built from blocks, wood and steel, and occasionally mounted with surveillance cameras -- are under construction around the homes of many of the followers of Warren Jeffs, the self-proclaimed prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who has landed on the FBI's most-wanted list.

The 49-year-old Jeffs has instructed disciples to refuse to communicate with outsiders, especially authorities who are bearing down on community members for misuse of public funds and sex with underage girls.

"Tell them nothing!" is the order Jeffs delivered to the FLDS faithful.

The man whom fundamentalists consider their only spiritual link to God has been in hiding for two years and is believed to be overseeing the construction of a new enclave in El Dorado, Texas.

Hundreds of Jeffs' most trusted followers are rapidly building the new community that includes a fortress-like temple on 1,600 acres of rural Texas ranch land. The El Dorado compound is closed to outsiders, and an imposing block wall is under construction around a massive nine-story temple, which was erected at breakneck speed in less than nine months.

Authorities consider the El Dorado project a strong indication that most of the about 10,000 Mormon polygamists will eventually abandon the dusty, windswept communities of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, and head to Texas.

But the barricades and a proliferation of no-trespassing signs are evidence that no mass exodus will happen unless Prophet Jeffs orders his flock to leave the twin towns tucked beneath the stunning Vermillion Cliffs.

Not only does it appear that the FLDS is digging in for a possible confrontation with authorities, concerns are increasing that FLDS members may not pay $1 million in Mohave County, Arizona, and Washington County, Utah, property taxes due later this fall.

Most of the land in the two towns is owned by the United Effort Plan trust, created by fundamentalist Mormons in 1942. The trust holds more than $100 million in real estate. For decades, FLDS leaders have collected money from church members to pay the property taxes.

That arrangement has suddenly changed.

Earlier this year, Jeffs and other FLDS leaders were removed as UEP trustees by a Utah state court, and control of the trust was turned over to a special fiduciary, Salt Lake City accountant Bruce R. Wisan.

When that happened, FLDS members were ordered by Jeffs not to cooperate with Wisan, and that is one reason authorities fear that a standoff could result.

"I have not found any FLDS individuals who will discuss property taxes with me," Wisan says.

"I would hope in the end that reason will emerge victoriously," he says, and taxpayers in the fundamentalist towns will pay up.

The possible tax revolt, the disappearance of FLDS leader Jeffs, the erection of walls around polygamist homes and the construction of the Texas temple have come after New Times published 17 articles on illegalities in the community over the past two and a half years that set the stage (see "Polygamy in Arizona") for authorities to mount pressure on the sect from several directions:

• Earlier this summer, Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith got nine Colorado City men, including Warren Jeffs, indicted by a grand jury on sexual-conduct-with-a-minor charges. Eight of the men were arrested or surrendered to authorities and are now awaiting trial in Kingman. Jeffs, meanwhile, was placed on the FBI's most-wanted list in August.

• The embattled Colorado City Unified School District -- the community's largest single employer -- is expected to be placed in receivership next month at the request of the Arizona Attorney General's Office. The tiny, 300-student school district is more than $1.4 million in debt, and its three top administrators -- all FLDS members -- are under criminal investigation for misuse of school funds.

• Two civil suits alleging sexual, physical and mental abuse were filed last year by former FLDS men against Warren Jeffs in Salt Lake City. This is what led to the removal of Jeffs and the other FLDS leaders as trustees of the United Effort Plan. A power struggle over control of the trust's real estate assets is triggering heated confrontations between FLDS members and former church members.

• Following Utah's lead, Arizona moved recently to strip police certification from two Colorado City police officers for illegally practicing polygamy. The Colorado City police force has come under fire for failing to arrest men -- including a fellow police officer -- who have taken underage girls as plural wives.

It has been half a century since fundamentalist Mormon polygamists have faced such intense government pressure.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty