Rumors swirled around the courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, last summer. Prosecutors had charged Warren Jeffs -- leader of the nation's most notorious polygamous sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints -- with sexually assaulting two underage girls in the group's Texas compound. For weeks, spectators whispered that the prosecutors possessed a vivid "rape tape" from 2006. When the audio recording was finally produced, however, no amount of preparation could buffer the shock.
Photographs projected on an enormous courtroom screen showed a freckle-faced, 12-year-old redhead, bundled head-to-toe in the trademark FLDS pioneer-style dress and caught in an awkwardly posed embrace with her 6-foot-4-inch, 50-year-old "husband." With her braids, she resembled the pre-teen heroine of the Pippi Longstocking books and movies. The jurors stared at the images, openly dreading what they were about to hear. Prosecutors handled the recording gingerly, as if they feared to touch it.
The sound quality was poor, but the packed courtroom hung on every word. Jeffs' voice drifted down from ceiling speakers like curling smoke. The FLDS "prophet" both threatened and reassured the girl, mumbling prayers that enjoined her to joyfully perform God's will. In the courtroom, hands involuntarily flew up to cover mouths as it became clear that the girl had been restrained on a sort of temple altar bed, while several of Jeffs' adult "wives" stood by to assist him in case the child panicked. Five minutes into the recording, Jeffs' droning prayers were accompanied by the sound of rustling clothing. Then came a rhythmic heavy breathing that no adult could misunderstand; it went on and on. At one point, Jeffs, panting, asked the girl if she "liked it." She answered in a small, squeaky voice: "I'm OK, sir."
Fifteen excruciating minutes later, several jurors were in tears; others gripped their chairs in white-knuckled disbelief. The jury sentenced Jeffs to life in a Texas prison, adding another 20 years as a kind of exclamation point. That day, it seemed like the head had been cut off the FLDS snake.
Yet since Jeffs' conviction last August, FLDS leaders have continued many of their extreme practices -- especially in the sect's longtime headquarters on the Utah-Arizona border, called "Short Creek," the local nickname for the neighboring towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. For more than a decade, the Short Creek community had been roiled by accusations of systematic child abuse, rape, incest and massive fraud. Although those crimes seem less common now, bizarre allegations continue: involuntary "reassignments" of women to new husbands, the intimidation of children, book burnings, assaults and kidnappings by "God squads" composed of religious vigilantes and Short Creek's state-certified police force, and so on.
And following a well-established pattern, most authorities in Utah, the state with the longest relationship with the sect, have responded with tolerance rather than prosecutions. Arizona's stance is only slightly tougher. Neither state is anywhere near as aggressive as Texas, whose lawmen took on the FLDS bigtime. The questions are impossible to avoid: How has Utah and Arizona's cultural acceptance of the illegal practice of polygamy created a habitat for the much more serious crimes of the most extreme polygamists? And will it ever be possible to dismantle this sect, or any others like it that might arise in its wake, unless those two states finally crack down?
In February 2010, a beautifully illustrated cover story in National Geographic magazine profiled the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Short Creek. The polygamist families were shown in a romanticized, golden light: the wives in old-fashioned prairie dresses, the healthy-looking children frolicking. Few photos showed the men in charge, and any mention of crimes or court battles was outweighed by positive spin. People magazine had treated the sect similarly in a 2009 cover story. TV viewers nationwide enjoyed Big Love -- a humorous HBO series about a polygamist family in a Salt Lake City suburb that ran from 2006 to 2011. A reality-TV show called Sister Wives -- which chronicled the lives of Nehi, Utah, polygamist Kody Brown, his four wives and their 17 children -- has also been popular since its 2010 debut; recently that group moved to Nevada, but they're still doing their thing.
Evangelical Christian groups across the country, and the Salt Lake City-headquartered Mormon Church, are waging a fierce political war against another unconventional form of marriage -- pushing states to ban gay marriage and even urging constitutional amendments against it. They don't, however, have much to say about polygamy.
The most widely accepted estimate -- made by Kathryn Daynes, a Brigham Young University professor, and other experts -- is that the U.S. has between 30,000 and 50,000 polygamists. Most live in Utah, where the general attitude toward polygamy stems from the Mormon Church, whose formal name is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or LDS. That church's founder, Joseph Smith, had 27 known wives and many overs, some reportedly as young as 13, when he inspired the church's rapid initial growth in the early 1800s in the Midwest. After Smith was murdered by an Illinois mob in 1844, his successor, Brigham Young, escaped U.S. laws by moving the Mormon Church's headquarters to the Salt Lake Valley, which at that time belonged to Mexico. Young established a powerful theocracy he called "Deseret," and later became the first governor of the federally recognized Utah Territory. He took more than 50 wives and proclaimed that "any man who denied plural marriage was damned."
The federal government forced the Mormon Church to publicly abandon polygamy in the 1890s, passing laws that threatened the church's power and refusing to grant Utah statehood unless polygamy was abandoned. But the Mormon Church has never removed Smith's polygamy directive from its "sacred covenants," and polygamy is still a part of the religion's concept of the afterlife. Today, more than 65 percent of Utah's residents are Mormons, and they pretty much run the state government, as well as most of the local governments that allow organized polygamous sects and so-called "independent" polygamists to live openly. The Associated Press recently found that Utah had prosecuted only two polygamists in the past 50 years in cases where no other crimes were involved. Three other news operations, including USA Today, uncovered just one such prosecution or none at all. The idea is treated so casually that Utah brewpubs sell Polygamy Porter, a popular dark ale.
The prevailing attitude in Arizona, where nearly 6 percent of the residents are Mormon (three times the national average), is similar. The independent polygamists are often adults freely engaging in "plural marriage," and many Utah and Arizona authorities simply regard it as a "lifestyle choice." Yet there's ample evidence that some polygamists -- particularly those organized in fundamentalist Mormon sects like the FLDS, which began as a few dirt farmers in Short Creek in the 1930s -- engage in underage marriage, rape and even incest.
The most aggressive action either state ever took against polygamists occurred back in 1953, when Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle denounced FLDS leaders in Short Creek as "white slavers" and dispatched more than 100 county deputies, state troopers and National Guardsmen, who removed 263 FLDS children and arrested dozens of men. Three busloads of accompanying journalists framed the story differently, describing it as a heavy-handed government separating devout adults from wailing children in cardboard shoes. Most of those children and adults simply returned to Short Creek later, and the bad publicity ended many of the anti-polygamists' careers, along with Pyle's ambitions for the presidency.
Little action has been taken since then. The most famous modern non-FLDS polygamist, Tom Green, ruled over a collection of dilapidated trailers in western Utah. For years, local authorities, including Juab County Attorney David Leavitt, knew about Green -- but they ignored him until he appeared on national TV shows like Dateline and The Jerry Springer Show to talk about his 10 wives (one of whom was a 13-year-old stepdaughter), his 25 to 30 kids, and the wily system he'd devised to defraud taxpayers into supporting his family. Green was finally arrested in 2001, and Leavitt recruited Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff to help with the case. Both Shurtleff and Leavitt -- like most of the police, judges and prosecutors who deal with polygamy in Utah -- are devout Mormons descended from polygamists; both had attended school with polygamists or knew some personally; and both hesitated to prosecute a "lifestyle choice."
Both of those prosecutors concluded that the child brides and welfare fraud made the Green case impossible to ignore. They spent $100,000 nailing Green, and convicted him of bigamy in 2001 and child rape in 2002. But Juab District Court Judge Donald Eyre said he was impressed by the "devotion" of one of Green's wives, and Green served only five years in prison. And David Leavitt -- whose brother, Michael, served as Utah's governor from 1993 to 2003 -- lost his 2002 re-election bid for county prosecutor; he said later the case "cost me my job."
Utah's first noteworthy prosecution of an FLDS polygamist occurred around that time. Rod Holm, a Short Creek marshal -- badged in both Hildale and Colorado City -- already had two wives and 18 children when he "married" 16-year-old Ruth Stubbs in 1998. Stubbs later described a lifestyle that echoed the accounts of other FLDS women who escaped. Ordered to marry Holm, she had to ask permission to do the simplest errands. She was forced to work 14-hour unpaid shifts in FLDS businesses, knowing that her own children were often smacked around at home by other family members. FLDS women, who were often kept pregnant for as long as they were fertile, sometimes had more than a dozen kids each. In 2001, Stubbs, who was pregnant at the time, fled to Phoenix, Ariz., with her two toddlers.
When the FLDS went to court in Utah to get custody of Stubbs' children -- a common tactic that intimidates women into returning to the sect, or prevents them from fleeing in the first place -- Stubbs received pro bono help from Tucson attorney Bill Walker. Walker was alarmed by the sympathetic statements that a Utah state court judge -- James Shumate in St. George, the city nearest to Short Creek -- issued from the bench: gratuitous, folksy homilies about family honor that implied that Stubbs was unbalanced, rather than Holm. Although Walker had informed Utah state prosecutors about Holm, they didn't indict him on criminal charges until after Walker allowed Phoenix TV reporter Mike Watkiss to interview Stubbs. The painfully graphic interviews were carried by TV stations from Denver to Los Angeles.
A St. George jury convicted Holm of unlawful sexual conduct and bigamy in 2003, but his sentence was even lighter than Green's: one year of work release that allowed him to leave jail during the daytime, handed down by Utah State Court Judge G. Rand Beacham. Judge Beacham was openly sympathetic, stating from the bench that no sentence was likely to change a man's religious convictions, nor should any government agency try to do so. That prompted Utah Assistant Attorney General Kristine Knowlton's blunt acknowledgment: "Polygamy is not on trial. Mr. Holm is on trial."