When Marriage Is Illegal
Polygamy Is Notoriously Hard to Prosecute, but a Recent Legal Victory May Open the Door for More Cases
By Peta Owens-Liston
July 18, 2006
When Kelly Fischer drove by in his white pick-up with his teenage step-daughter seated between him and his legal wife, his neighbor Isaac Wyler knew something was up. Sure enough, the next time Wyler saw the girl, who was about 15 or 16 years old, she was pregnant. Wyler, an ex-member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ and Latter Day Saints (FLDS), was no stranger to the signs of polygamy. His suspicions proved true: Fischer had "spiritually" married his own step-daughter in a secret ceremony, a practice common among polygamists in the FLDS community in Colorado City, Ariz.
Testimony from Wyler and another former FLDS member, Richard Holm, coupled with birth certificates, swayed a Mohave County jury on July 7 to find Fischer guilty of sexual conduct with a minor and conspiracy to commit sexual conduct with a minor. Wyler and Holm testified in court on how polygamous marriages work and gave eyewitness accounts of Fischer and the girl's "flirtations behavior." But the verdict was unusual — and, to critics of the alleged abuses in polygamous marriages, especially significant — in that it came without the testimony of the alleged victims. In the FLDS community that populates the twin towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., finding victims willing to speak out is rare. "The nature of this community is opposed to the crimes themselves," explains Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff. "Victims have been taught from the cradle up not to cooperate with the outside or to disagree with their leaders."
The FLDS sect follows the original fundamental teachings of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, who advocated the practice of polygamy. But unlike other polygamy groups, FLDS members unquestionably follow the directives of a single leader or "prophet." Currently, that position is being held by Warren Jeffs, a fugitive wanted on the same charges as Fischer in Arizona and as a rape-as-an-accomplice charge in Utah. The estimated 6,000 to 11,000 FLDS members in the U.S. follow Jeff's "revelations," which dictate who should marry whom and when. A series of these "revelations" two years ago resulted in the exile of an estimated 200 "unworthy" men from the FLDS community; their wives and children were re-assigned to other men. Wyler and Holm, who testified against Fischer, were two of these men.
In the Fischer case, the under-age girl and her mother could not be found to testify. But Fischer's defense attorney Bruce Griffen hints that they may appear at Fischer's sentencing on Aug. 4. "This would show that they have an intact, happy family and that, except for the absence of a legal ceremony, they are like any other couple," he says. He adds that no victim had come forward to complain — that it was "speculation" from two "disgruntled" excommunicated FLDS members and pressure from the state which resulted in Fischer's verdict.
But with the success of the Fischer prosecution, Arizona and Utah authorities hope that other polygamy-abuse cases in the pipeline can be tried without victim testimony, including seven other men from the FLDS community scheduled to stand trial. This is the largest group to be prosecuted for crimes related to their polygamist lifestyle since the 1950s.
Some polygamists, however, worry that the legal action will turn into a kind of witch hunt. Polygamist Marlyne Hammon, who lives in Centennial Park — a community that split from the FLDS church about 20 years ago — fears that polygamists will be targeted while non-polygamist women can still marry young without worry. The authorities, she says, "don't apply the law across the board." There are many girls in Arizona who do not practice polygamy, she adds, but have children with men who are older. "What about those girls?" She also points out that some young polygamist women don't come forth to testify against their husbands because they are content with their lives.
Carolyn Jessop has a different view. "Nothing in this community is viewed as a crime if it is being directed by the prophet," she says. Three years ago, Jessop took her eight children and fled the home she shared with her husband and his six wives in the middle of the night. "You are culturally adapted to the abuse and if you come forward you will never fit into this society again — which is all you know." Jessop says she hopes that Fischer's conviction and others will empower women in the FLDS communities. "It sends a message that the outside world has a limit on what they will tolerate."
Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.