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.