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.