Bound by Fear: Polygamy in Arizona

Sixteen-year-old Ruth Stubbs wanted to marry the boy down the street.

So she revealed her desire to a religious leader, a man held in the highest esteem in her rural, isolated community straddling the Arizona-Utah border.

On a December morning four years ago, Ruth sought the advice of the Prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 88-year-old Rulon Jeffs.

Ruth asked the stroke-ridden Jeffs for permission to marry Carl Cooke, a young man she had been seeing secretly for several months.

Jeffs pondered the question for a moment and then delivered a startling pronouncement.

"Well," Jeffs said, gesturing toward Rodney Holm, a police officer who had escorted Ruth to the meeting, "I feel she belongs to you."

Ruth was stunned, but not surprised. She barely knew Holm, but what she did know was disturbing.

At 32, Holm was twice her age.

And Rodney was already married to two women, one of whom (his first wife) is Ruth's sister, Suzie.

"Shocked, I was," Ruth told investigators from the Arizona Attorney General's Office, after relating the story of her meeting with Jeffs.

But Ruth knew such marriages were common among fundamentalist Mormons, particularly in the towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah.

In the dusty, unkempt hamlets north of the Grand Canyon and south of Zion National Park along the boundless Arizona Strip, life is controlled by a theocracy seemingly as impenetrable as the jagged El Capitan Peak that provides a dramatic backdrop for roughly 6,000 inhabitants.

The fundamentalists in control believe that their patriarchal society embracing polygamy ensures the people in their realm of reaching heaven's highest echelon. As incredible as it may seem to outsiders, they believe that men faithful to the religious doctrine will become gods and rule over a multitude of planets for eternity. Their wives if the husbands deem them worthy will join them in heaven as goddesses.

This fundamentalist theology is similar to that of the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The difference is that the Mormon Church publicly moved away from polygamy in 1890, although some of its leaders continued the practice into the 20th century. The mainstream church does, however, still believe in polygamy in the afterlife.

With only a sixth-grade education and little experience beyond her rural upbringing, Ruth already was deeply entrenched in polygamy. Her father had three wives, and she is one of 42 children.

Ruth also knew that most of the people in town believed the old man sitting in front of her was the most powerful man on Earth. The fundamentalist Mormons hold that their Prophet is God's only true representative.

No one dared question the decisions of the Prophet in Colorado City. To do so would bring swift ruin and eternal damnation.

Ruth quickly agreed to the sudden change in grooms.

"I just said, 'kay, you know, I'll, I'll do it," she told state investigators in January 2002 according to a 56-page transcript of the interview obtained by New Times. Ruth Stubbs declined to be interviewed for this article.

There was little time for Ruth to ponder the decision. Her wedding to a man she had never kissed, let alone dated, was scheduled for the next day, December 11, 1998.

"They didn't want me to think it over," she told state investigators.

This is not to say she didn't have second thoughts. She tried to postpone the wedding for several weeks, but her sister who wanted Ruth to join the family to help her in a power struggle with the other wife pressured Ruth to move forward.

"Suzie told me I was an asshole" for wanting to delay the marriage, Ruth said. "Suzie told me that the town, the whole town, already knew I was supposed to marry Rod."

To back out now would bring unbearable social repercussions in a community where the women are raised to obey men without question.

"I was afraid of the town," Ruth admitted.

The next day, with Carl sequestered by his family, Ruth went to the Prophet's massive home, which sheltered at least a dozen some say upward of 70 of his own wives. She was joined by Holm and his two wives.

Rodney Holm had already secured permission to marry Ruth from her polygamous father although her mother hated the idea. Neither parent was allowed at the wedding.

If they had been there, they would have seen their daughter in a delusional state.

"I felt when I got up there that it was going to be Carl instead of Rod," Ruth recounted to investigators. "'Cause I've watched movies like that. I was really dreamy."