Under Siege

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Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has vowed for more than two years that his office would bring criminal charges against Jeffs, whose last known residence was in Hildale, but Shurtleff let Jeffs slip away and that never happened.

The Utah AG's Office has birth records that show Jeffs fathered children with at least two girls who were under 18 years old at the time of conception. In an interview late last year, Shurtleff said he wanted to find stronger cases against Jeffs rather than convicting him on ones that might bring only a short jail sentence.

Shurtleff, like many public officials in Utah, is a member of the mainstream Mormon Church, which assiduously attempts to ignore the fundamentalist Mormons in Colorado City and Hildale. The Salt Lake City church's posture is that it has no connection to the fundamentalists and that it excommunicates anybody who practices polygamy.

Nevertheless, polygamy in Utah and Arizona has roots firmly planted in mainstream Mormon teachings. Mormon Church founder Joseph Smith initiated polygamy as a centerpiece of the theology in the early 19th century. The practice was widely encouraged after his death by his successor, Brigham Young. The Mormon Church banned polygamy in 1890, because the federal government was seeking to disincorporate the church; it was feared that Utah could not gain statehood if the church did not end the practice.

But polygamy continued among some in the mainstream church well into the 20th century. Fundamentalist Mormons embracing what they called "celestial marriage" eventually settled along the isolated Arizona-Utah border in the 1930s.

After Arizona's 1953 raid, the fundamentalists carefully nurtured a public image that family values were paramount in their community. At the same time, the FLDS prophet increased his political power because he could deliver a bloc of several thousand votes to favored politicians.

One politician who benefited from this arrangement was former Mohave County Attorney Bill Ekstrom, who ignored rumors of underage marriages during his 24 years in office. Ekstrom resigned in December 2003, and Smith was appointed in January 2004. Smith, a Republican, won his first term last November.

Smith says the problem of underage marriages in Colorado City was driven home to him by New Times' "Polygamy in Arizona" stories, the bulk of which were published in 2003, and by the best seller Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer published the same year. (New Times' stories are referenced in Krakauer's book.)

The Mohave County Attorney promises to press forward in his effort to stop the sexual assault of underage girls in Colorado City, even if he loses the current set of cases.

"I'm not going to back down or worry about politics or public opinion," he says. "It's my job, it's something that needs to be done. Let the chips fall where they may."

Only one parent showed up for the August 18 meeting of the Colorado City Unified School District's board of governors. It was a shockingly low turnout given that, less than a week earlier, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard had announced that he planned to place the district in receivership.

"The financial mismanagement of the Colorado City School District is egregious. It is time to put its finances in competent hands," Goddard said at an August 11 news conference where he revealed plans to use a new law passed last spring allowing the state to seize control of financially mismanaged school systems.

Because the district is $1.4 million in debt, teachers' paychecks bounced several times during the last school year. The school board has been accused by the attorney general of excessive spending for equipment and services -- including purchasing a $220,000 airplane -- and for misuse of state property.

Never before has Arizona sought such sweeping action against a school district. In most communities, such an announcement by the AG would bring an angry swarm of parents, teachers and students to the next school board meeting to demand answers. But not in Colorado City, a closed society where most parents and teachers are indoctrinated never to question the actions of all-powerful FLDS officials.

In addition, parents and teachers "don't feel that their opinions or them being present at a school board meeting is going to make any difference," says Michele Chatwin, the only parent who attended the board meeting.

Six weeks after Goddard's news conference, the school board continued to function as usual; the top administrators who wrecked the district's budget still had their jobs.

The Attorney General's Office is expected to formally request that the state Board of Education place the Colorado City school district into receivership at an education board meeting scheduled October 20.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty