COLORADO CITY - There is no shortage of horror stories about the neighboring polygamist communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.
Former members speak of subjugation, mental torture, rape, incest and child abuse. Antipolygamy activists rail against government inaction and promise a haven for women and children who flee the tight-knit society.
"Now I know what a cult is . . . If they were told to take cyanide I think they’d do it," said Pam Black, who left the sect five years ago with her 14 children. "Some light has got to shine on this dark corner of the world."
In recent days, rumors have been as plentiful as the breathtaking vistas in this pristine redrock country on the Arizona Strip.
At least three teenage girls have run away this month saying they would be forced to become one of several "spiritual" wives to much older men.
More runaways, including boys and a mother with her children, were rumored to be in nearby St. George, Utah. Arizona authorities met with Utah counterparts in law enforcement and domestic violence to prepare for a mass exodus that, so far, hasn’t happened.
Underlying it all is a schism within the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose members split from Mormons to create the country’s largest polygamist community in 1890 when Mormons banned plural marriages.
Prophet Warren Jeffs earlier this month excommunicated 20 of the sect’s most powerful members — including longtime Colorado City mayor and polygamy’s public face, Dan Barlow, and three of his brothers — stripping them of their wives, children and homes. The women and children are to be "reassigned" to other men. Nearly all of the property in the two towns is owned by the United Effort Plan, a foundation administered by a handful of church elite.
On Friday, one of the excommunicated men, Ross Chatwin, held a news conference in front of his Colorado City home. Chatwin compared Jeffs to Hitler and said he "has to be stopped before he ruins all of us." Chatwin has refused to leave the town and encouraged the others to do the same.
Jeffs, who may have as many as 30 wives and more than 100 children, is rumored to be building a compound in Mexico, Utah law enforcement officials said. He hasn’t been seen outside his brickwalled Hildale compound in months, area residents said.
"He’s either going to go to Mexico, or he’s going to go to jail," said Benjamin Bistline, a Colorado City historian and former sect member.
Bistline predicts that another splinter group will break off and form a third ward under the Barlows, following a similar path taken years ago by sect members who now live in nearby Centennial Park, Ariz., and are known as the 2nd Ward. Many there still practice polygamy but typically have more freedom in their dress and other activities.
Politicians and law officers are under increasing pressure to do something. There is wide disagreement, however, about what to do and whether it will make any difference.
Arizona legislators are drafting a "child bigamy" law similar to Utah’s, making it illegal to cohabitate with girls under 16. County sheriffs on both sides of the state line stepped up patrols in the towns this past week, as Colorado City and Hildale residents are known to be well-armed and zealous.
But the towns have remained quiet, and state and local officials were downplaying any threat.
"This has been blown way out of proportion," Bistline said. "There’s no danger of any Waco."
Still, Bistline and others hope that women and children find a way out of the sect that critics say is based on subservience to men. An educational campaign, including leaflets and billboards, is being drafted to help women and teens who want to leave.
For many of the 8,000 people in the hilltop towns, however, it will be a hard sell. As they see it, they would be trading eternal salvation for hell.
WARY OF OUTSIDERS
"This is my life and I love it," said one resident, who asked only to be identified by her first name, Marlene. She is in a plural marriage. Her father had five wives.
"We care for our children. We care for each other," she told the Tribune during a brief interview in Colorado City. "If you were to take this away from me, you might as well stand me up and shoot me."
Other members of the community, who paused only briefly as they shopped in the town’s only grocery store or walked along the dusty streets, refused to give their names when approached by the Tribune. They’ve been taught their whole lives that outsiders are evil and are told not to speak with them.
"I think they should mind their own damn business," said one young woman with a toddler in tow, when asked about the recent attention. "I’m a stubborn person. It’s my choice, and I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be."
Marlene said child abuse or incest is no more prevalent in Colorado City and Hildale than anywhere else. Former sect members say otherwise.
"They’re forcing these young girls to marry older men," said Bistline, who years ago had hoped for more wives but was never granted them because he was out of favor with the sect’s leadership. "There’s quite a bit of incest."
Prosecuting the men in these cases has been difficult.
Victims generally refuse to testify or they recant. To avoid incriminating their husband, the wives of former Colorado City police officer Rodney Holm were prepared to testify that they impregnated themselves with a turkey baster, said Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith. A St. George jury convicted Holm last year of bigamy and sexual misconduct with a minor. He’s serving a year in jail on work release, and lives in Hildale down the canyon from Black.
"We hear the rumors, but it has yet to be backed up with any concrete evidence," Smith said. "From birth they are indoctrinated into their way of thinking."
SIMPLE, BUT COMPLICATED
Colorado City appears, at first glance, a quaint and gentle place. People are reminiscent of the Amish with their homespun clothing and simple ways. It’s as if time had stopped 100 years ago.
Girls and women are clothed from neck to toe, wearing pants or leggings underneath long, highcollared dresses. Their hair is styled neatly into long braids, with women sporting a wavy bouffant in front. Boys are dressed in long pants and long-sleeved shirts buttoned to the neck.
"We thought they were so cute. Then we found out," said Lupe Lenhof, who moved to St. George, Utah, from California two years ago and would see the women and children when they would travel the 35 miles to St. George to shop.
In Colorado City and Hildale, children stop and stare as visitors drive into town, women look up from watering their gardens. Bicycles and plastic playhouses litter the yards of enormous houses that look more like small hotels. Down the block are singlewide trailers and ramshackle homes in various stages of construction.
In fact, most houses in Colorado City look like they’re under construction. Authorities have said this is one way property owners attempt to skirt Arizona property tax levies.
The grocery store, Vermillion Restaurant and a gas station are the few businesses with signs out front. Other businesses, from huge industrial buildings to tiny one-room shops, are unmarked, but residents know what they are. Horse corrals, cow pastures and hay bales fill the expanses between houses.
Visitors, even deputy sheriffs, are eyed suspiciously and often followed through town. The "God Squad," a group of men on horseback who patrol the towns, have been known to harass outsiders. One girl in St. George told of being driven off the road a few years back when she and some friends drove up to see what was going on in the community the day the sect said the world would end.
"It’s such an uncomfortable place," said Laura Stokes, a deputy sheriff in Washington County, Utah, as she patrolled the streets. "I know that they don’t like me here."
Marlene said community members are distrustful for good reason.
It began with the infamous Short Creek Raid in 1953, when she was a baby. Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle ordered all the married men jailed on bigamy charges, their wives and children bused to foster homes in the Valley. The event triggered a political backlash against state officials. That fallout, some observers have said, is a key reason why authorities have been hesitant to take actions ever since.
But even after the men were released and the families reunited in the renamed Colorado City back in the 1950s, Marlene said, they were scorned and discriminated against.
"We have been mistreated. We have not been given our religious freedom," she said. "If (polygamy) is led properly, it is beautiful. If people saw the benefits — you have a support system that you don’t have anywhere else."
RELIGION AT ITS ROOTS
Polygamy is a central tenet of the fundamentalist religion, which holds that a man must have three wives in order to ascend to heaven. In a typical polygamist "marriage,’’ only one woman is legally bound to her husband. The rest are known as "spiritual’’ or "celestial’’ wives, an arrangement that avoids prosecution under traditional bigamy laws.
Women and children are taught to obey their husbands and fathers, and everyone obeys the prophet. Women who rebel may be given to another husband whom church leaders believe can better control her, Black said. The worst, she said, are institutionalized.
After Holm was convicted last August, his attorney said the man’s polygamous culture was his religion, the same heritage that many Mormons share.
Polygamy was a tenet of Mormonism for decades after its founding in the early 19th century. It eventually was renounced, a key concession that cleared the way for Utah to become a state. Mormon leaders today repeatedly stress the practice is no longer part of the Mormon religion.
"We don’t see our ancestors as immoral or wrong," Holm’s attorney, Rodney Parker, said after his client’s verdict. "We see them as victims of religious persecution."
In Colorado City and Hildale, church leaders routinely pair teenage girls with middle-aged men, and fathers offer their daughters to be married as a way to curry favor with leadership, former members said. Those in favor get the wives, the big houses and the jobs, they said. Those who are not wind up with nothing.
"All I wanted was to have some sister wives so my husband could go to heaven," Black said. But her husband, Martin, was never granted one. "I was angry at God. ‘Will you give this man another wife?’ "
Despite being born and raised in the polygamist community, with a deep fear of God and authority, Black was rebellious. At first the leaders tried to give her to another man. She refused, so they moved to divorce the couple and take her children.
"We loved each other, but we were totally controlled," she said.
Finally, Martin Black realized he would never have another wife, even if he divorced Pam, or a way to earn a living. He and Pam took their children and left the church and the only life they had known, becoming apostates, which in the sect is considered worse than the devil. They joined her parents on seven acres at the end of a rutted dirt road in red-walled Water Canyon, one of the few families in the towns to own their property.
One of her daughters remains in the sect — she is 33, one of two wives, with seven children and pregnant with twins.
"She’s angry. She feels like I’m hurting the people by speaking out," Black said. "But I have a statement to make: The women have rights."
YOUNG ON THE RUN
Boys are often shunned from the sect as they grow older because the polygamist system depends on more women than men, said Mohave County Supervisor Buster Johnson, a critic of the community. The teens may be excommunicated or just encouraged to leave, he said.
One man has taken the boys under his wing. A former sect member until his wife was taken from him two years ago, Douglas Cooke has taken in seven young men who left the church and given them jobs laying ceramic tile in St. George.
They are all over 18, so there would be no legal interference as is alleged in cases of younger teens. Underage runaways last weekend did spend the night at his home, he said, but left in the morning when he told them he could not "guarantee them they wouldn’t be locked up." That same day, a spokesman for the Utah Attorney General’s Office called to remind him that he could be on the wrong side of the law if he harbors the youngsters.
Cooke is part of an underground railroad that moves runaways out below the radar of state child welfare and law enforcement, maintaining that the children would not run if they had to face authorities.
"Since I’ve been out, I’ve had 20 to 25 people pass through here," he said. "We found them places. I just want to keep it discreet, because I’ll get shut down."
Relatives of Fawn Holm and Fawn Broadbent, both 16, came by his place with police after the girls ran away two weeks ago, he said. The girls’ parents also reportedly traveled to Phoenix, where the girls have been placed in a foster home.
Despite the high-profile attention given to the 16-yearolds, there is no mass exodus from the twin towns nestled between the state highway and the breathtaking sandstone cliffs that lead eventually to Zion National Park.
Stories in the Tribune touched off the most recent media deluge, after antipolygamy activist and former sect member Flora Jessop brought Holm and Broadbent from Colorado City to Phoenix. Several days later, a juvenile court judge agreed there was reason enough to place them in state custody. This occurred the same week that Barlow and the other men were ordered to leave.
It’s the first time a child from the sect has been placed in protective custody rather than returned to his or her parents, according to activists. It was followed days later by a similar ruling in Utah, after a 17-year-old ran to St. George’s Youth Crisis Center and said she was being forced to marry a man twice her age.
"The father of that girl was irate," Stokes said. "He was pounding on the door of the crisis center. She wouldn’t come out."
Jessop and others say these rulings, together with increased attention from the media and Arizona and Utah politicians, has given hope to women and children who want to leave.
"Somehow, the reality is being cracked by younger kids," said Mary Thompson, head of the governor’s Office for Women, who traveled to St. George a week ago to strategize with domestic violence and law enforcement officials. "They don’t see themselves as having any choice. We’re just trying to educate them and say, ‘yes, you do.’ "
There have long been runaways to crack the dome that seems to cover Colorado City and Hildale, and there probably always will be. But without evidence, witnesses or — in the case of polygamists who legally marry only one woman — even a crime, some doubt whether there will be much in the way of real change.
"For the most part, you have people out there who truly, honestly and deeply believe what they’re doing is right," said Smith. "They have a right, within the framework of the law, to practice their religion as they see fit."