Utah Targets Polyg Prophet

"We are under attack," declared fundamentalist Mormon Prophet Warren Jeffs from his pulpit in Colorado City during an August 10 sermon.

"We need the Lord's protection," he warned members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS).

Utah authorities are investigating Jeffs for allegedly having sex with underage girls he "married" in polygamous ceremonies, as well as with performing such marriages for members of his community. Jeffs used his 70-minute sermon to announce a series of drastic measures.

The most startling were the suspension of church services for the first time in 50 years and the suspension of all future polygamous marriages. The last time the FLDS canceled religious services was under a court order in the wake of the infamous 1953 police raid on the remote town that straddles the Utah border north of the Grand Canyon.

Jeffs told the congregation that services were canceled until further notice because he had received a "revelation" from the Lord.

There was no mention of the threat by outside authorities. Instead, Jeffs said, "Until this people honor the word of God, this privilege [marrying into polygamy] is withdrawn from them."

The prophet's sermon was secretly recorded by a member of Jeffs' congregation and a copy provided to New Times.

Some observers say Jeffs took the action to undermine opposition to his theocratic rule over the fundamentalist border area that also includes Hildale, Utah. But the more likely explanation, others speculate, is that he is preparing to flee the area ahead of Utah authorities.

Repeated attempts by New Times to reach Jeffs for comment about this and several previous articles on polygamy in Arizona have been unsuccessful.

"This is a totally unexpected change in events -- no question about it," former FLDS member and Colorado City schoolteacher Deloy Bateman said about Jeffs' edicts.

Observed former church member and Colorado City historian Benjamin Bistline, "He's running scared."

They said Jeffs knows he's a prime target in Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff's aggressive prosecution of polygamists who marry underage girls.

Shurtleff told New Times, "Once we establish the case and have the evidence, we will charge him."

Utah birth certificates show that Jeffs, 47, conceived children with at least two girls under the age of 18 -- making him vulnerable to felony sexual-misconduct-with-a-minor charges.

Not only does Jeffs exert enormous influence over the daily lives of FLDS members living in the area, he also controls most of the property in both Colorado City and Hildale through a trust called the United Effort Plan. The UEP's holdings in the two towns are estimated to be worth more than $100 million.

Jeffs' surprising announcement came four days before the FLDS received another blow to its cherished practice of coercing underage girls into polygamous marriages with much older men.

Colorado City police officer Rodney Holm was convicted on August 14 of three felony counts of bigamy and sexual misconduct with a minor in nearby St. George, Utah.

The conviction marks the first time Utah has successfully prosecuted an FLDS member on such charges since the mid-1940s. A five-woman, four-man jury deliberated for only 90 minutes before convicting Holm, who lives in Hildale.

Prosecutors said the fact that the conviction was by a jury selected from St. George -- a historic Mormon town where many are descended from polygamous families -- demonstrates that civil law trumps religious doctrine in the minds of citizens.

"If you marry underage girls," said Kristine Knowlton, lead prosecutor in the case, "we are going to come after you. It's child abuse."

Holm's conviction also raises serious questions about the conduct of the Colorado City Police Department, which also serves Hildale.

Holm's illegal underage marriage was well known in the community, yet his fellow officers -- some of whom are polygamists -- took no action to protect the 16-year-old victim who lived with Holm, two other wives and 20 children.

In addition, Utah state police records reveal that many, if not all, of Colorado City's cops have failed for more than a decade to complete Utah's required annual continuing education courses. Failure to complete a minimum of 40 hours a year of continuing education automatically suspends an officer's certification in the state, Shurtleff said.

"That is a huge concern for me," Shurtleff said.

With or without the continuing education, the AG said, the certification of the entire department should be terminated based on the officers knowing that Holm had committed crimes and failing to do anything about it.

The lack of a legitimate police force in Colorado City-Hildale is raising concerns among critics of the community that an armed vigilante group loyal to Jeffs might seek revenge against those who have resisted his authority. Known locally as the "God squad," the group is said to number up to 50 men.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty