FLDS continues abusive polygamist practices in Utah and Arizona

  • Handcuffed and flanked by Las Vegas SWAT officers, FLDS leader Warren Jeffs appears before a Las Vegas judge in 2006, shortly after his arrest on a Nevada highway. He was extradited to Utah to face charges related to rape.

    Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune
  • Jeffs is photographed in a series of poses with one of his child "brides," the 12-year-old daughter of FLDS bishop Fredrick Merril Jessop.

    Texas 51st Judicial District
  • TV shows like Sister Wives and major magazines have romanticized polygamy -- in stark contrast to what is revealed in the courtroom trials of FLDS leaders.

    Sister Wives photo courtesy TLC/Kyle Christy
  • The mugshots of Allan Eugene Keate, Abram Jeffs, Fredrick Merril Jessop and Leroy Johnson Steed, who -- along with the seven men pictured on the cover -- were convicted in Texas of either sexual abuse of a child, or bigamy or related crimes, in the last three years.

    Eldorado Success
  • Non-FLDS Utah polygamist Tom Green at his sentencing in 2002. Brought to trial after he flaunted his views on such shows as Dateline and The Jerry Springer Show, Green was convicted of bigamy and child rape. He served five years in prison.

    GEORGE FREY/AFP/Getty Images
  • FLDS women and children are escorted by Texas Child Protective Services workers to waiting buses after they were removed from the sect's YFZ Ranch compound in April 2008.

    Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune
  • FLDS members head toward the federal courthouse in downtown Salt Lake City in November 2008 to attend a hearing related to the sect's UEP land and trust.

    Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune
  • Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff -- a devout Mormon who has polygamists in his family tree -- has been hesitant to prosecute people who engage in that "lifestyle choice."

    Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune
  • Picturesque cliffs loom over Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. -- the traditional FLDS headquarters, known locally as Short Creek.

    Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune
  • The FLDS' Yearning For Zion ranch compound, near Eldorado, Texas, was the scene of some of the polygamy-related crimes for which Warren Jeffs and other sect leaders were convicted.

    Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune
  • A truck with heavily tinted windows follows Mohave County investigator Gary Engels through Colorado City in March 2006 -- in what appears to be an FLDS intimidation tactic.

    Trent Nelson/The Salt Lake Tribune

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."

By the time Marshal Holm was arrested, the FLDS had about 10,000 members, most of them still in Short Creek. They raked in millions of dollars from construction, manufacturing, agriculture, logging and other church-owned businesses. Despite the sect's wealth, more than 80 percent of the people in its tribe-sized families received various forms of federal and state assistance.

The sect was soaking Arizona taxpayers alone for an estimated $33 million a year to support its school system, police and fire departments, city government and utilities -- money that went directly into FLDS coffers, according to the HOPE Organization, a nonprofit in St. George that helps victims of polygamy. FLDS had also learned the art of federal grants. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) gave $1.8 million for street improvements, and more than $2.8 million to help develop an airport to "encourage tourism." The Department of Homeland Security provided $350,000 to combat terrorism.

Nearly all the property in Short Creek -- with a total value of $110 million -- was owned by an FLDS trust called the United Effort Plan, or UEP, which was controlled by the sect's "prophet." By 2002, that prophet was Warren Jeffs. Jeffs had wielded increasing power for years, while his father, Rulon Jeffs, was ostensibly in charge. Eventually, according to court documents, Warren Jeffs controlled every aspect of his followers' lives, down to the number and colors of crayons allowed in each house in Short Creek. And like his father, he used young girls as currency to reward his most loyal followers, assigning each of them up to 30 wives. He himself had an estimated 90 wives, including 27 of his father's, whom he married within weeks of the old man's death. He "plucked," as he called it, younger and younger girls from the FLDS ranks. Jeffs ended all formal education for FLDS members in 2002. But before that, he'd removed all fifth-grade-age girls from school, so they could be readied for marriage.

Jeffs also manipulated Short Creek's gender balance to make sure there were enough unattached women and girls to serve the loyal men. He excommunicated less-loyal husbands, sometimes dozens at once, "reassigning" their wives, children and property to those he thought he could trust. No matter how many men Jeffs expelled, it didn't solve the sect's math problem, so he began banishing boys as young as 12, ordering their parents to drop them off in the desert or the streets of Las Vegas. They were already damned, he said -- dead to their families. Hundreds were cast out, so many that the media coined a term for them: the Lost Boys.

Short Creek's polygamy also encouraged inbreeding that apparently caused a number of genetic disorders. In 2006, for instance, the community had 25 known cases of Fumarase Deficiency, one of the rarest and most severe forms of mental retardation -- more than half of the known cases in the world.

Jeffs fled Short Creek -- and steered the FLDS to establish a new settlement on a 1,700-acre ranch in rural west Texas -- only when Utah and Arizona finally went after him for various sex and bigamy offenses. Arizona's crackdown came first, in 2005, led by Mohave County authorities, based in Kingman, across the Grand Canyon from Short Creek. Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, a former Los Angeles cop, and Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith attempted repeated actions against Jeffs and other FLDS men. In 2005, Smith persuaded a grand jury to file the first criminal charges against Jeffs, saying that Jeffs had facilitated the rape of a 14-year-old girl, Elissa Wall, by forcing her to marry her cousin.

In Utah, once again a civilian attorney nudged a prosecutor into taking action. Roger Hoole -- representing Elissa Wall, who had escaped Short Creek with a tale of rapes, beatings, miscarriages and suicide attempts -- was pressing a lawsuit against Jeffs and the sect's UEP trust. Hoole persuaded Wall to tell Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap in St. George how Jeffs had pressured her to marry her cousin. In 2006, Belnap filed rape facilitation charges against Jeffs. Although the Arizona case fell apart when a key witness refused to testify, St. George's Judge Shumate was finally fed up; he presided over Jeffs' conviction in a 2007 trial.

But, in a contortionist's move, the Utah Supreme Court threw out that conviction in 2010, saying that the trial judge had improperly instructed the jury. That didn't free Jeffs, who was extradited to Texas to face charges there, but it did seem like another indication of Utah's continued unwillingness to tackle polygamy. CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin called the Utah Supreme Court ruling "outrageous." It was "a terrible decision for Utah," Hoole said. "It makes us look like we really aren't serious about child rape or abandonment, let alone polygamy." Four of the five Supreme Court justices who made the ruling were Mormon. "What (Jeffs) did has nothing to do with religion," Hoole said, "and yet, I think that somewhere in the justices' subconscious, they thought it did."

People who hesitate to criticize the authorities often argue that the worst polygamy-related crimes are nearly impossible to prosecute. Members of polygamous families are reluctant to testify against their relatives. The FLDS is further protected by its isolation and by generations of brainwashing and secrecy. Believers are convinced that if they stray, they'll be damned for eternity -- perhaps even slaughtered. And many FLDS members insist they're happy, or at least they accept the terms.

But the pro bono attorneys representing victims in Utah and Arizona, and activist groups composed of former members, say there is no shortage of individuals willing to testify. They harness those witnesses in lawsuit after lawsuit on behalf of the "Lost Boys," women who escaped and men who fall out of favor with the leadership. And there is a wealth of evidence in public records. Investigative journalist and regular HCN contributor John Dougherty proved that the FLDS has long been hiding in plain sight. From 2003 to 2009, Dougherty pounded the sect in the Phoenix New Times weekly newspaper, exposing, for instance, widespread corruption and misuse of public funds by the FLDS-run Colorado City School District. Dougherty's work provided the blueprint Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard used to disband that school system in 2005.

The Mormon Church excommunicates members who are publicly revealed as polygamists. But it has refused to condemn the FLDS, even though its spokesmen have often been asked to do so. Polygamy essentially rests on the power of men over women, and whether or not it's directly relevant to the issue, the Mormon Church still does not allow women to obtain the "priesthood" status automatically conferred on every Mormon man after a series of rituals, let alone any positions of substantial power in the church. (Roman Catholic, Orthodox and other Christian denominations, as well as stricter forms of Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Orthodox Judaism and even New Age cults, have also traditionally excluded women from the most powerful positions.) No matter how devout Mormon women are, the religion's doctrine says that they must still rely upon their husbands to admit them to the afterlife.

On the secular side, Utah has the nation's lowest ratio of women in elected political offices, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Only 12 of the 104 seats in the Utah Legislature are held by women, and there are no women in Utah's statewide elected offices or the Congressional delegation (other states have better ratios in their legislatures or the other offices). Utah's imbalance is chronic. Since it became a territory in 1850, Utah has had 31 governors; only one was a woman -- Olene Walker, who held the post for only 14 months and was simply promoted from lieutenant governor when Gov. Leavitt agreed to run George W. Bush's Environmental Protection Agency in 2003.

Utah's newspaper of record, The Salt Lake Tribune, was openly sympathetic to the FLDS until 2010. It employed a full-time polygamy reporter whose blog, The Plural Life, supported the "lifestyle choice" view of polygamy.

Utah Attorney General Shurtleff, a moderate conservative by Utah standards, seems to be all over the map in his approach to the issue. Until the early 2000s, "I turned a blind eye to (polygamy)," Shurtleff admitted in a 2006 meeting at the University of Utah, according to the Deseret News. "In Utah and Arizona for decades, we turned a blind eye." (That meeting  -- organized to help victims of sects like the FLDS -- was protested by polygamists wearing "Bigger Love" buttons.)

Shurtleff almost jokingly remarks that Utah's 6,000 jail cells aren't nearly enough to hold the state's tens of thousands of practicing polygamists. He says he has no interest in prosecuting them if other crimes aren't involved, and maintains that he didn't know about the FLDS' more serious crimes until the 2003 Holm case. When his investigators encountered resistance around that time, he staged his own raid on Short Creek with a caravan of armed officers, who went in with sirens and flashing lights. Still, Shurtleff informed Mormon Church elders of his plan to arrest Holm, an action he hotly denies was a request for permission. "I told them what I was doing, and they said, ‘Fine,' " he says. "That's it!"

In 2005, Shurtleff spoke to the Texas Legislature in support of a bill to raise that state's legal marriage age from 14 to 16, a reaction to the FLDS move into Texas. Shurtleff began his speech humbly, saying he was "ashamed" of Utah's record of dealing with the FLDS. Then he changed course, boasting of triumphs like the Holm case, and launching a stirring discourse on human and civil rights spiced with quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. Some legislators interrupted him in midsentence.

"Is it true Utah returns escaping girls to the sect?" one demanded. As Shurtleff stammered out something about minors and parental rights, the floodgates opened. Questions poured out: Why didn't you go in there and just get that guy Jeffs? Is it true that people escaping this sect have no recourse in your system? What do these people do for a living besides welfare? Why don't you look at their taxes? Does Utah condone frauds upon the public? Is there some reason why these crimes can't be prosecuted in Utah?

The disgusted Texas legislators dismissed Shurtleff. In turn, he dismissed the confrontation as a non-event. "I went down there to talk to them, and I talked to them," he says. "They can make of it what they want."

The most relevant local lawman in Utah during the FLDS' rise -- Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith -- acted like a diplomat for the sect. In 2004, after Jeffs and at least several hundred followers relocated to the Texas compound, Sheriff Smith made a special trip to Eldorado, a small town near the compound, and assured the locals that the FLDS newcomers would be family-friendly, law-abiding neighbors. He said he'd had "very few problems" with the FLDS in Short Creek, according to Eldorado's newspaper. (Smith is no longer sheriff; he didn't run for re-election last November.)

By the time Smith made that trip, Texas journalists had begun investigating on their own; they traveled to Utah to interview ex-FLDS members, and urged Texas authorities to crack down. State police raided the Texas ranch in 2008 and temporarily removed more than 400 children. The telephoned complaint that triggered that raid turned out to be fraudulent, and a storm of bad publicity followed, similar to that caused by Arizona's 1953 raid on Short Creek. Despite that, Texas state prosecutors went ahead and pressed the criminal charges that resulted in Jeff's prison term.

While Utah and Arizona have shown varying degrees of tolerance for the FLDS, the federal government has ignored the issue -- perhaps still haunted by the violent end to its 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian sect's compound near Waco, Texas. The Justice Department and the FBI have never pressed criminal charges, despite the likelihood of various federal crimes, including civil-rights violations and transporting underage girls across state lines for sexual purposes. The sect is even expanding in Texas, as well as in Pringle, S.D., and Mancos, Colo.

The most threatening actions against the FLDS in Short Creek are still in civil court. Dozens of lawsuits swirl around the property held by the sect's UEP trust. Various Utah state judges have authorized a fiduciary -- hard-nosed Salt Lake City accountant Bruce Wisan -- to try to manage the trust's Short Creek properties to benefit those expelled from the sect as well as its members. Wisan is encouraging ex-FLDS members to occupy some of the trust's houses, a tactic that eventually might weaken the sect's hold on its core community. Other lawsuits, pressed by Walker, Hoole and the Arizona Attorney General's Office, allege civil rights violations, among other things.

The lawsuits drag on and on. Meanwhile, Warren Jeffs has turned 57 in prison. Several men have tried to assume leadership of the FLDS in his absence, but Jeffs' brother, Lyle, appears to be in charge, imposing directives that Jeffs issues from his Texas cell. Between 6,000 and 10,000 people remain in Short Creek, and 85 to 90 percent of them are still FLDS members in polygamous families, Wisan estimates. According to witness affidavits, most members aren't even aware that Warren Jeffs is behind bars. The orders have become even more extreme. In Short Creek, unmarried FLDS girls are now  confined to their homes. New rounds of boys and men have been expelled from the community. Popular recreational gear, such as trampolines, ATVs and kites, has been confiscated, and swimming and ball games are banned. There is no television, Internet or movies.

Walker, who is representing an ex-FLDS family in Short Creek that's had trouble getting essential services from the FLDS-controlled utilities, says, "If we win (this lawsuit), it will not destroy the FLDS but it will significantly impact their ability to discriminate against non-FLDS residents. We will establish the principle that the FLDS doesn't control who does or does not get water, electricity, and the right to live peacefully without fear."

Some ex-FLDS men who are trying to locate their children say they've been "disappeared" into so-called "safe houses." Hoole is representing three such men, who, in affidavits, express agonizing fear that their underage daughters are in danger of being raped by older "husbands."

In January 2011, "through FLDS Church leaders," Warren Jeffs ordered Lorin Holm to leave Short Creek immediately without his nine kids and two wives, according to an affidavit Holm filed last October. His kids were moved to a different house in Hildale, and since then, FLDS leaders have prevented him from having any contact with them, he said. "Over the last several months, Lyle Jeffs and other FLDS Church leaders have poisoned the minds of my Minor Children against me resulting in a situation that is intolerable ... I am very concerned that my Minor Children are in eminent (sic) danger -- my daughters are at high risk of being required to enter into underage marriages and sexual relations with spiritual husbands and my sons are at risk of being abused by financial exploitation and expulsion from their family."

Some FLDS leaders in April 2011 occupied a Short Creek building that had been leased to non-members who wanted to start a library; they burned thousands of books. Likewise, last December, FLDS members stormed and occupied a building leased to an excommunicated FLDS man who wanted to start a school. The local marshals stood by. After days of court action, Washington County Attorney Belnap was obliged to travel to Short Creek himself with a cadre of deputies to evict the intruders, but no arrests were made.

Witnesses, including journalists and other investigators, say that over the last year or so, visitors to Short Creek have been followed and harassed by the "God Squad" enforcers. The bulk of the violence is directed at ex-FLDS members living in their old homes. They are run off the road by black SUVs. Their property is vandalized. Mutilated animals are tossed into their living rooms. They are arrested on trumped-up charges such as trespassing.

Paul E Chute
Paul E Chute Subscriber
Jun 11, 2012 05:43 PM
It's even worse than I thought...
David Burlingame
David Burlingame Subscriber
Jun 13, 2012 08:49 AM
Excellent article. Odd, we are concerned about the Taliban persecution of young women yet we let a cult that promotes female subjugation to thrive in America.
Christine Vigil
Christine Vigil
Jun 13, 2012 11:12 AM
I am enormously proud of the High Country News for writing about this growing menace in the US. I know many Mormons who would argue that their Church is not part of this fundamentalist sect, but their Church turns a blind eye, hence are part of the problem. So many newspapers and tv shows pander to the Mormon Church thinking that playing neutral is fair for any religion. Thank you for writing this excellent article on child rape and incest within the Mormon church sects. To quote Dante: "The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who in time of crisis remain neutral". Thank goodness for Texas and High Country News!
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Jun 13, 2012 03:15 PM
What an excellent article exposing publicly funded religious abuse. There appear to be many ways to take down the FLDS if only the abuse were actually confronted and prosecuted by authorities in Utah and Arizona. Tolerance of this massive abuse and fraud does not make it go away, it encourages more criminal behavior. AZ and UT are failing miserably in this regard. Here's something I rarely have any basis for stating: kudos to the state of Texas!
Ginny Robbins
Ginny Robbins
Jun 13, 2012 05:25 PM
This article does a great job of clarifying some differences between LDS, FLDS, and non-FLDS polygamists. It also highlights some fascinating links between LDS, Utah government, and FLDS practices. Thanks for making all these different groups clear, separate, and so related! I meet so many Mormons who are offended that anyone might suggest that their church has links with polygamy and subjugation of women. Thanks for having a more compelling response to this than I've been able to come up with so far!
Crista Worthy
Crista Worthy Subscriber
Jun 14, 2012 11:05 AM
I would just love to hear Mitt Romney comment on how to stop the pervasive statutory rape, incest, child abandonment, lack of education, birth defects, welfare fraud, and corruption of law enforcement and judicial officials, all related to a sick need to have sex with and control groups of powerless young girls. This behavior is associated with Romney's religion. The Mormon Church isn't lifting a finger to stop it. Of course he would duck the issue and say it's a state issue, not a federal one. But I recall candidate Bill Clinton promising to add more police to crack down on crimes like murder, robbery, and rape, all state crimes. And the right wing had no trouble attacking John Kerry via his Catholic religion. Even Obama has publicly stood up and chastised black men who ditch the responsibility of properly raising and supporting their families.

Romney should be challenged to see if he would dare lead on this issue. I say he won't. He's got the backbone of a wet noodle.
John W Stephens
John W Stephens Subscriber
Jun 18, 2012 02:44 PM
I hope that staff will unmangle this for me: "Believers are convinced that if they stray, they'll be damned for eternity -- perhaps even slaughtered. And many FLDS members or at least they accept the terms."
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Jun 18, 2012 02:50 PM
Thanks John, somehow a few words got dropped online. The lines should have said "Believers are convinced that if they stray, they'll be damned for eternity -- perhaps even slaughtered. And many FLDS members insist they're happy, or at least they accept the terms." Thanks for the close reading! Sincerely, Jodi Peterson, Managing Editor
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Jun 18, 2012 03:58 PM
Just where does Mitt stand on child brides? He's got a lot of children himself and he's given millions to the LDS church. Is he a sympathizer?
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
Jun 19, 2012 06:05 PM
while there is some rogue aspects to the mormon religion (flds and its polygamy) the mormon lifestye should be an object of study for the rest of america who has greatly lost or nearly lost values that are part of daily mormon life. values like, hard work, self reliance, family, individuals helping one another, gardening and other home skills, etc
John W Stephens
John W Stephens Subscriber
Jun 19, 2012 06:39 PM
To The Taylors: It sounds like hard work and self reliance are not virtues of the Short Creek community. Do you have evidence that their corruption is not pervasive throughout the fundamentalist communities?
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
Jun 19, 2012 06:53 PM
john stephens, i would agree the short creek community is rogue in more ways than just polygamy. they are taking advantage of the welfare system too. &gov employment in general. but the non flds mormons is the "body" of mormonism i am describing. both older generations and still to a large xtent the modern mormons hold the old values i described. i live in mesa, az a "mormon" "town" and have alot of xperience with the mormons in the community. i am not a mormon, know little to nothing of their religion, but i respect and admire in general how they live daily life with values slowly eroding in the usa......
Christine Vigil
Christine Vigil
Jun 19, 2012 11:03 PM
@Taylors - We have become desensitized by popular tv shows and fooled by "proper" appearances in public – which mormon members are taught at a very early age to appear "proper". I find it surprising that even after reading this article, and any book written by ex-LDS members, you don't see the bigger issue - their top clergy controls every aspect of the church and REFUSES to publically admonish a child rapist and fully supports the Utah Supreme Court’s refusal to prosecute a child rapist. Is that's what you call an "object of study" for the rest of American – I hope you’re kidding! This church has become extremely wealthy and very powerful in several states and are moving into nearby states - and a lot of this has been paid on tax payer dollars, since each child is a tax revenue bonus and brings in more “required” payments to the church. The fact that ALL mormon women (all DAUGHTERS) will never be self-reliant and must depend on their husband's judgment to even enter the kingdom of Heaven - should be a telling sign as to their “values”. I believe the Taliban also touts that mantra as their claim over women. Is that what you would want for your daughters and granddaughters? If so, please be sure to take your family on a tour of the mormon temple. I've been there, they literally jump on you if they think you could be a new wealthy recruit. Good bye to womens rights and our Supreme Court system if Rommeny wins the race! It will be owned by LDS "values".
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Jun 20, 2012 11:39 AM
Public prosecutors in Utah are acting as accomplices to the crimes described in this article. Public servants have a sworn responsibility to uphold the laws of the state without regard to their own religious beliefs. They are failing.
Deb Dedon
Deb Dedon Subscriber
Jun 20, 2012 02:06 PM
I think Ponzi would have been proud to see his model of wealth accumulation applied through religion. But then, this church predates Mr. Ponzi. Perhaps they were his inspiration.

What I find particularly galling is the degree to which all levels of law enforcement have been compromised by a group of people using religion as an excuse to violate both the law and children.
Teri Patrick
Teri Patrick
Jun 21, 2012 11:44 AM
I want to know why Judge Shummate and Judge Dee Benson do not have a legal responsibility to protect children from sexual abuse. Both had access to the rape tape mentioned at the beginning of this article. That means both had solid evidence of a culture of sexual abuse of minors in the FLDS. Think about it: IF they had been kindergarten teachers they would be required to report the abuse to authorities - who would then be required to follow up to protect the children. What did they do instead? Judge Shummate ruled the tape was "too inflammatory" to use in the Ellisa Wall's trial. (Keep in mind that the question of whether or not Jeffs intended that the 14-year-old Walls have sex with the adult man he forced her to marry was key to the charge. The FLDS claimed straight faced that intimacy was not required in underage marriages until the girl was ready. The tape of Jeffs raping his own 12-year-old bride proved otherwise - but was inadmissible....)

Judge Benson kept the tape out of the hands of prosecutors in another case by agreeing with a defense motion that it was a "sacred religious document".

The rot goes pretty deep in this case...
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
Jun 21, 2012 02:27 PM
to christine vigil, as i mentioned i know little to nothing about mormon religion. and i have not read any writings about the workings of the religion nor any books written by runaway x-flds folk. maybe i see the glass half full and you see it half empty? all my comment was meant to say is from my xperience with mormons on a daily basis i see som positive "old school" values like hard work, self reliance, taking care of one another, etc. often, in my view, it is not belief/religion that is corruptive, it is the organizations behind the written word. seems humans manipulate good words into bad behavior. wonder why our infamous "toughest" sherrif in the usa hasn't jumped on this illegal issue? (sherrif joe arpaio)
William Stadwiser
William Stadwiser
Jun 22, 2012 07:41 AM
Wow. Great reporting. The federal government brought suit against the towns mentioned in this article just today. Here's the link to the article in the Salt Lake Trib:

Bart Vanden Plas
Bart Vanden Plas Subscriber
Jun 22, 2012 01:36 PM
Wow, and people think that there is little difference between the two parties and their candidates. I can imagine a USA where the current Republican Candidate gets elected and appoints 2 or 3 Supreme Court Justices that are sympathetic to the decisions made by the Utah Supreme Court. Scary.
michael Hamilton
michael Hamilton
Jun 26, 2012 10:26 AM
What I found most helpful in this article was Debra Weyermann's excavation of the hidden connections between the FLDS and the mainstream LDS culture. I wrote about this ambivalence and its reflection in the pages of the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News in a chapter for the book Saints Under Siege, published by NYU Press in 2011. Overall, the book is more sympathetic to the FLDS than Ms. Weyermannn and tends to differentiate between the rank-and-file and the Jeffs leadership. The thing that I found least helpful about this piece was in its implied conflation of all the polygamous groups. For example, the Browns of reality TV fame are part of a community, the Apostolic United Brethren, which has its own challenges but does not practice placement/under age marriage. I am not an advocate of legalization for polygamy. I've been conducting educational research in these communities and have been interested to see the diversity in the five polygamist groups I'm studying. As Weyermann points out, the FLDS are the most reclusive and have been the most difficult for me to contact and study since an initial interview and tour of the community in 2010.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring Subscriber
Jun 26, 2012 12:08 PM
Update: The feds have finally cracked down on the FLDS in Short Creek -- or, sort of. The U.S. Attorney General's troops have filed a lawsuit charging that Short Creek leaders and the town marshals have illegally discriminated against non-FLDS residents. No criminal charges, just the lawsuit. The Las Vegas Review-Journal has a good summation of the lawsuit -- http://www.lvrj.com/news/ju[…]gamous-towns-159922465.html -- and you can download the lawsuit PDF from the Salt Lake Tribune's story -- http://www.sltrib.com/[…]/town-attorney-arizona-colorado.html.csp -- Ray Ring, HCN senior editor
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jun 28, 2012 07:21 AM
Whatever people might think about polygamy, the idea of a 12 or 13 year child being "married" off is far beyond the pale and qualifies as sex abuse under different state and federal statutes. Please correct me if I wrong on that, my legal background is minimal.

What is very odd is the ready acquiescence of these many women to this.

A disturbing account of a woman's emergence from a Mormon family and sex abuse by her prominent theologian father is presented in chilling detail in "Leaving the Saints".
Lani Edghill
Lani Edghill
Jul 04, 2012 02:54 PM
This story and many others that are similar have been known to Utahn's for many years. It amazes me that nothing has been done about it. I first read about this back in 2003 in the book "Under the Banner of Heaven" by Jon Krakauer. I read this when I was living in Utah and had many open conversations with locals on the issue. It seemed that the first hand stories were all from child brides or wives who had escaped or lost boys who re excommunicated. This cannot be allowed to continue!
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Jul 04, 2012 11:45 PM
On the face of it, it appears that 70-80% of the other males have been removed from the community to allow the elders to shepherd the females into their harems. The story of what happened to those guys, young and old could bear some reporting.

I am in Ethiopia with the Tigray people, as devout Orthodox, I doubt they practice polygamy but it was not uncommon in Kenya, meaning 2 to 4 wives at most. For agricultural or pastoral people with a heavy labor burden, this can work out well for some older women. But the Utah story is another one entirely.
Ashley  Sanderson
Ashley Sanderson
Aug 14, 2012 10:14 AM
I agree that the polygamists occupying Short Creek and other areas of Utah and Arizona pose threat to the traditional family unit and should be apprehended for their charges of rape, incest, fraud, etc. Many legal authorities should wield their influence to: pass laws banning such practices and federal funding going to these communities, spreading awareness of the crimes occurring in these compounds, and providing support to its ex-members.
My primary qualm with this article is it's subtle ties of the "Mormon Church" to the FLDS group and allegations that it is turning a blind eye to polygamy.

Fist off, the article makes it sound as though the Mormon church does not publicly condone polygamy and that issues in Utah and Arizona with polygamy are somehow related to the population of Mormons in those states. Though polygamy was once practiced by Mormon church members, it was done so at a time when many young men with families were being called to war and not returning home, as a means to provide monetarily for their widows and families without land or means. Since the practice was abandoned in the early 1900s, it has been clearly denounced by the Mormon church, who excommunicates anyone with polygamist ties even. There are no records that the prophet Joseph Smith ever had sexual relationships with any of his wives besides the first, Emma Smith, nor that he assigned brides as a means of rewarding faithful members such as is the practice in the FLDS compounds. The FLDS church is a rogue sect that broke off years ago and believes (contrary to Mormon doctrine) that plural marriage may gain you greater exhalation after this life. The Mormon church does not support any group that allows for the rape or incest of women and children, fraud, or any other of the FLDS's radical practices and the population of Mormons in Utah and Arizona should therefore be seen as a deterrent to such practices and parties, not a support to the FLDS church or polygamy.

In addition, the Mormon church has been subtly connected to FLDS subjugation of women by this article. The Priesthood is not meant to subjugate women in the way that the FLDS community assigns families; women in the Mormon church hold callings equal to the rolls of priesthood leadership. As stated in the article, the Catholic church and many other religious groups operate similarly; this is not a new concept. Many women in the Mormon church also choose to work outside the home (they are not confined to it), take birth control (are not FORCED to stay pregnant for their childbearing years), and work in politics nationwide. The ratio of women serving in politics in Utah should not be viewed with an eye to Mormon doctrine subjugating women, but the fact that many mormon women culturally chose to work in the home and are never condemned by the Mormon church, but supported when running for political office. Many of them simply choose not to.
In addition, many of the prosecutors in these cases were not in fact Mormons, nor does the Mormon church endorse or propagate polygamy, or even remain neutral on the subject.

While this article frowns on the Mormon church for it's stance against homosexuality but apparent neutrality toward polygamy in political issues, the Mormon church does not support polygamy and any mormon operating in such a way that facilitates polygamy is not supported by the mormon church. It may appear neutral on certain issues because it is not customary for the Mormon church as a body to take political action; its members are simply encouraged to stand for justice and vote in a way that allows the values of the constitution to be upheld. It would be inconsistent to support upholding values of freedom and justice and at the same time turn a blind eye to polygamy.
It takes the same position against Gay marriage. The church is under political fire as of late for it's not allowing the practice of gay marriage by its members. The church does not support the "lifestyle choice" of plural marriage any more than the "lifestyle choice" of gay marriage. Gay marriage is simply a large current issue in that is being voted on nationwide. As also stated in the article, many of these polygamist cases are only recently coming to light in the public sphere, and so are not being addressed publicly by many sources, including the Mormon church.

As for there not being enough action against polygamy, the state processes are slow, I'll give you that. However, it is difficult to provide enough evidence to convict members of the sect as there are not enough witnesses or people willing to testify against their practices, and the issue is not being dealt with by the federal government. In fact, the federal government does not even recognize it as a pressing issue, and so why should state officials come under fire when everyone seems to be turning a blind eye? The best thing we can hope for is greater funding and allocation of resources to the state for investigation of these crimes, and that the nation will take action. As it is, more people should be under fire for watching those shows which promote it as a "lifestyle choice" without themselves taking action.
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Aug 14, 2012 02:46 PM
Nice rationalization for a cult invented by a huckster in upstate New York. Anyone believes in the nonsensical Book of Moromon is
either an idiot or delusional. It's an invented fairy tale that defies logic and common sense, not to mention scientific fact. Polygamy is the least of the problems with this cult.
Ashley  Sanderson
Ashley Sanderson
Aug 14, 2012 08:42 PM
“Attempting to debate with a person who has abandoned reason is like giving medicine to the dead.” -Thomas Paine
I will not argue with you except to ask, have you read it? Please realize that any moron can express an opinion, but that doesn't make others want to listen to you or become convinced of your point of view
Crista Worthy
Crista Worthy Subscriber
Aug 14, 2012 09:30 PM
Really, in the 21st century, I am amazed that anyone can truly believe what the Mormons believe. I am absolutely mortified to think we might end up with a President who believes that stuff. I find it just downright embarrassing.
Doug Smith
Doug Smith Subscriber
Aug 15, 2012 05:15 AM
I know all about Mormonism and I've read the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakuer, the the Mountain Meadow Massacre and polygamy. I suggest you do a little research on your own this cult. I defy any sane and educated human being with an IQ over 50 to call this made up scam masquerading as a religion anything but a cult. It only makes sense when compared to another scam like Scientology that's also filled with freaks, fruitcakes and nuts. By the way, New York Magazine just reported that books by L. Ron Hubbard is are part of Romney's reading list. Frightening and beyond belief.
Charles Fox
Charles Fox Subscriber
Aug 15, 2012 09:42 AM
You don't need to be a theologian or know all about Mormonism or any religion in order to recognize and reject the abuse you can clearly see. Is the Book of Mormon really any more baseless than The Bible or any other mainstream nonsense we happen to hear more frequently? What could possibly induce decent people to ignore or accept profound abuse whether it's 300 pound men raping 6 year old boys, herpetic old men sucking the blood from the mutilated penises of babies and transmitting lethal or sub-lethal herpes infections, or forced marriages and child abandonment? These are crimes and we often know exactly who the perpetrator is as well as the victim. Why and how does civil society exempt religion from basic human decency? There's really no excuse.
Greg Nagle
Greg Nagle Subscriber
Aug 15, 2012 10:04 AM
Having been raised Irish Catholic, I hesitate to jump too much on the Mormons since my own people and religion have their own sordid history. And it goes back much longer than the Mormons. Amazing to consider how common the child abuse was in Ireland, for centuries perhaps. How do a people deal with that, do they just choose to lie to themselves? I think that they do and in that we have a profound social problem with such lies permeating the lives of the victims and the people around them.

But one thing I have to say about the comment by Ms Sanderson, I think perhaps you are too ready to believe certain myths. Why in their migration from NY across the Midwest before their departure for Utah did the the men have to leave for "war". What wars were those exactly? None since 1812 I think. And I will offer that your belief that Joseph Smith never consumated his marriages to his multiple wives is wishful thinking at best.
The Taylors
The Taylors Subscriber
Aug 15, 2012 10:05 AM
wow, things are heating up. as i stated early on in this dialogue i know little to nothing about the mormon religion. i subscribe to the viewpoint of my maternal welch grandfather (1855-1956). he said all religion is "poppycock" and old word translated to bull-h-t for modern times. i still see the glass half full as far as mormons. that is, the religion is poppycock, but their lifestyle (in general) is admirable. at least here in arizona where i have lived all my life surrounded by mormons. they live a life of self reliance, hard work, community (helping one another), and so on....i wouldn't be a mormon simply because there's an xpectation to tithe 10%(maybe more now?) of your income to the church. and i do not like to see how churches spend their money on buildings instead of helping humanity. hypocrites to the max. we need to tax churches anymore.....they are getting welfare thru tax xemption
Johanna Reeves
Johanna Reeves
May 02, 2013 06:29 PM
This is very interesting...the FLDS claims to be Christian, but the depiction of the restraint and rape of the 12-year-old girl is quite reminiscent of some satanic horror stories I have heard. Could Warren Jeffs, in fact, be not just a madman, but a closet Satanist who is merely pretending to believe he is a man of God?
Greg Pearson
Greg Pearson
Jan 05, 2014 09:29 PM
I started reading this article under the false assumption that it would fall under the category of balanced reporting. It falsely claimed that the Mormon church or the state of utah still tolerate polygamy. It makes rational people angry to read such obnoxious articles as this one. If you read this and have anything good to say about it, you need to become better informed about real life.
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Jan 06, 2014 08:36 AM
Actually there's ample evidence that Utah continues to tolerate polygamy. On December 13, for instance, a federal judge in Utah ruled for the polygamous family that stars in the "Sister Wives" TV show, allowing the family to continue its practices. The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the ruling is "effectively decriminalizing polygamy" in Utah -- http://www.sltrib.com/[…]/utah-brown-family-sltrib.html.csp ... A related Tribune story reports that the polygamous communities in southern Utah, profiled in this HCN story, continue to do their thing openly, recently celebrating a new polygamous wedding -- http://www.sltrib.com/[…]/polygamy-ruling-amp-utah.html.csp ... The Wall Street Journal, in its report on the ruling, says that more than 40,000 people in Utah are now polygamists (a conservative estimate) -- http://online.wsj.com/[…]/SB10001424052702304858104579263973928369760 ... The Mormon Church and state authorities continue to issue pronouncements against polygamy while also continuing to allow many people to be obvious polygamists. - Ray Ring, High Country News senior editor
Greg Pearson
Greg Pearson
Jan 06, 2014 09:27 AM
Ray, if you are going to stick to such uninformed views, you should not comment of these boards. The Brown family moved from Utah because Utah was making it too hard for polygamists. Now that the Polygamy/Gay marriage crowd is slowly getting their way in court, I'm sure that both Polygamy AND gay marriage will be legal within a year or two. But, that is against the wishes of the church and the people of Utah. The Mormon church actively excommunicates anyone advocating the practice of polygamy. That has been the policy for over 100 years.