Arrest Marks Biggest Step against Polygamy in Decades

By Jacques Billeaud
The Associated Press, carried in Jackson Hole Star-Tribune
August 31, 2006

Phoenix -- The arrest of the fugitive leader of a polygamist sect marks the biggest milestone in battling plural marriages since a raid 53 years ago on polygamist communities in northern Arizona and southern Utah made it politically unattractive to crack down on the problem.

For decades, authorities had mostly turned a blind eye to polygamy in Colorado City, Ariz., and neighboring Hildale, Utah, until prosecutors began to put pressure about four years ago on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, a sect that practices polygamy and broke away from the main Mormon church.

Authorities alleged that church leader Warren Jeffs had arranged marriages between underage girls and older men. Colorado City's financially troubled school district was taken over by the state of Arizona. And a church trust, estimated to be worth $100 million in property, came under scrutiny from the Utah judicial system.

Until pressure was put on Jeffs, the political costs of the 1953 raid and the geographic isolation of both communities from population centers were cited as reasons for so little attention being paid to the polygamy problems.

"It seems like (authorities) just left them alone," said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, one of the prosecutors involved in the crackdown.

Other reasons for the long-festering problems included an unwillingness by underage wives to testify against their abusers and more benign leaders who preceded Jeffs.

Officials attribute the change in approach to a united front from three levels of law enforcement and two Arizona laws that led to more pressure on Jeffs and his leadership of the church.

Local, state and federal law enforcement are all focused on confronting the problems in Colorado City and Hildale, said U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton.

"Previously, as I said, I think that individuals and individual jurisdictions who were interested didn't have the kind of success that you are seeing now," said Charlton, whose office charged Jeffs with unlawful flight to avoid prosecution while the church leader was a fugitive.

One of the state laws cited by officials made it a felony for a married adult to marry a child and aimed to hold parents responsible for forced marriages of their children.

While the Arizona Constitution had already prohibited polygamy, the state's bigamy law had addressed only state-sanctioned marriages, not those recognized only by churches.

Another law led to the reorganization of the Colorado City Unified School District. State officials say students and taxpayers were harmed by financial mismanagement, including the purchase of an airplane and questionable dealings in hiring and contracts.

The district's newly appointed governing board has recently said the district hopes to emerge from the state supervision within a year.

The 1953 crackdown exacted huge political costs on then-Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle, whose defeat was blamed on his orders for police to raid Short Creek, now called Colorado City. The raid became a crisis for state officials after photos of weeping children being pulled from frantic women were published.

"I just don't think there has been much in (cracking down on polygamy) for politicians," said Bruce Merrill, an Arizona State University professor and pollster. "I think they left it alone."

The state's dynamics, though, have changed since the raid. The media now pays more attention to the problem of girls being turned into brides and has framed the issue as a matter of pedophilia, a subject that brings great disapproval from the public, Merrill said.

Another key difference from the past is that victims are more willing to testify against men who forced them into marriage when they were girls, said Flora Jessop, a former member of the church.

Prosecutors said getting victims of child sex crimes to testify is difficult because they are reluctant to testify and evidence is sometimes several years old.

The sexual assault trial in Kingman, Ariz., of a member of the sect was thrown into disarray Tuesday when the alleged victim refused to answer questions.

Jessop said the arrest of Jeffs was the biggest step taken against decades of abuse in the church, but was skeptical about whether things would change in Colorado City and Hildale, because the church leader who succeeds Jeffs will likely take the same approach.

"These people do not respect the law," Jessop said. "I was taught when I was growing up that law enforcement was our worst enemy. Those teachings have not changed. They have actually grown worse."


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.