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."