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.