States divided on approach to polygamous sect

Law officers in Arizona and Utah say their method of confronting the FLDS must differ from that of Texas.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Attorneys general: Mark Shurtleff of Utah and Terry Goddard of Arizona (not shown), the top law officers in their states, have taken a different approach from that of Texas concerning keeping tabs on the FLDS church.
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    Attorneys general: Mark Shurtleff of Utah (not shown) and Terry Goddard of Arizona, the top law officers in their states, have taken a different approach from that of Texas concerning keeping tabs on the FLDS church.
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It was a showdown, of sorts, over how far states should go to keep tabs on the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, the group known to endorse multiple wives for men and motherhood for underage girls. In a public spat, officials from Arizona and Utah squared off last week against a US senator who suggested that the two states, home to FLDS communities, should follow the more interventionist approach of Texas in cracking down on the breakaway Mormon sect.

At the end of it all, the wrangling may well result in federal involvement in investigating the FLDS, which numbers more than 10,000 and has compounds in several Western states, Canada, and Mexico. But it also underscores why Arizona and Utah have moved with caution in dealing with the FLDS, compared with Texas' decision last month to take temporary custody of all the children living at the group's Yearning for Zion ranch in the wake of abuse complaints.

The dispute began April 28 with a radio interview with Sen. Harry Reid (D) of Nevada, which drew an angry letter from the Arizona and Utah attorneys general.

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"I am a cheerleader for what Texas is doing," Senator Reid told the University of Utah's KUER RadioWest. "Texas is doing what Utah and Arizona should have done decades ago…." Reid, the majority leader and a Mormon, added that he has asked the US Justice Department to create a task force to investigate the FLDS.

Texas raided the 1,700-acre FLDS ranch in early April and took temporary custody of all 463 children, pending the state's voluminous investigation of child-abuse allegations. Arizona and Utah have not acted on that scale, at least not since 1953. But the two states did join forces about five years ago to "apply the rule of law" in the border towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, headquarters of the FLDS. They have prosecuted the FLDS leader as well as several other male members, removed much of the sect's financial underpinnings, and set up in those two towns social services and sheriff's offices that are operated by people from outside the FLDS group.

When Mark Shurtleff became Utah's attorney general in 2001, one investigator specifically worked cases in "closed communities" – code, he says, for polygamous communities. That investigator chased down Tom Green, later convicted of child rape, bigamy, and fraud. Several of Mr. Green's underage wives were from the FLDS towns on the Utah-Arizona border.

"My determination to do something started then," Mr. Shurtleff says in a phone interview. "We hadn't done anything in 50 years, and I said it's time we start investigating these cases."

Both Utah and Arizona had mostly ignored the FLDS since the infamous 1953 raid of Short Creek, the Arizona town that now goes by the name Colorado City. "In the inky darkness of an eclipsed moon," The Arizona Republic reported on July 27, 1953, "more than 100 Arizona peace officers yesterday seized virtually every man, woman, and child in this historically polygamous village," after a two-year investigation by the state of Arizona.

Some 36 men, 86 women, and 263 children were taken into custody. The state charged most of the men and several of the women with crimes ranging from rape and bigamy to violating corporation laws and misappropriating school funds. Many of the women and all of the children were placed in foster care.

But after two years of acrimonious hearings and public recriminations, the charges were dropped and the families all went back to Short Creek.

"Then what happened was a mutual withdrawal," says Terry Goddard, Arizona's attorney general. "Any contacts with the outside world that had begun ... were cut off by the devout, and the state decided, once burned, we'll just stay away."

It wasn't until 2003 that Attorney General Goddard joined forces with Shurtleff, his counterpart in Utah, to hold a "summit" with the FLDS communities in the Arizona-Utah border region. During 50 years of government absence, the two say, the sect had become more autocratic, much larger, and wealthier.

Both say their state laws differ from those in Texas, and they note that Texas officials responded to a complaint on a single piece of property – the ranch – whereas the FLDS-dominated communities within their borders are actual towns. A big difference, Goddard says, is that Arizona officials, upon receiving a call claiming abuse, must identify the actual victim and could probably take only that one child, or perhaps all children in the one home, if there are signs of abuse. They wouldn't be able to enter all homes in the city because of one abuse complaint.

But Goddard and Shurtleff say their renewed focus on the FLDS is what drove Warren Jeffs, the now-imprisoned FLDS leader, to move his select followers to the Texas ranch. The states have also prosecuted Mr. Jeffs and eight other men in the group. They've decertified six police officers in the two towns who refused to report cases of abuse. They removed one justice of the peace.

Both states have also acted to remove the FLDS's major financial supports. Arizona took control of public funding for local schools, which it says the sect's leaders misused. Utah gave a private administrator charge over a communal FLDS trust previously controlled by Jeffs.

"The FLDS was relying on a lot of state funds for sustenance – welfare funds as well as money from the school district, which they dominated," says Ira Ellman, an expert on family law at Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in Tempe. "The state took over the school system and, in effect, took a lot of their income away."

Shurtleff and Goddard have since talked with Reid, who has assured them that the Justice Department will get in touch with them, along with the attorney general of Nevada, to begin a federal investigation into FLDS activities and to see how the US government can help.

[Editor's note: The original version misidentified Mark Shurtleff in a photo caption.]

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