Federal trial opens rare window on two polygamous US towns

The former head of security for a polygamous church explained how he protected the sect's leader Warren Jeffs while he was a federal fugitive and explained how two towns in Arizona and Utah took orders from the church.

(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Willie Jessop, a former spokesperson and head of security of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints before leaving the sect in 2011, leaves the Sandra Day O'Connor United States District Court after a day of testifying during a federal civil rights trial against two polygamous towns on the Arizona-Utah line, Tuesday, Jan. 26, 2016, in Phoenix.

The former head of security for a polygamous church rattled off a list of elaborate steps used to assist the sect's leader while he was a fugitive a decade ago and explained how towns in Arizona and Utah took orders from the church.

Willie Jessop, who left the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 2011, said those who assisted church leader Warren Jeffs used disposable cellphones and encrypted radios to communicate. They drove 40 miles to make calls out of fear that authorities were monitoring their phones.

Jessop is a key witness at a trial in Phoenix in which the federal government alleges that Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, served as an enforcement arm of the sect.

The former security chief said he would fly to places around the country to serve as a decoy and throw law enforcement off the trail while Jeffs was being moved to a new hiding place.

Jeffs, who was on the run from charges of arranging marriages between girls and older men, was captured during a 2006 traffic stop outside Las Vegas in an SUV with $50,000, cellphones, a police scanner and wigs. He is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting one of the 24 underage brides.

The towns are accused of discriminating against nonbelievers by denying them housing, water services and police protection. The communities deny the allegations and say religion isn't a motivating factor in their decisions.

Jessop told jurors that residents must have church approval to serve in government in the towns.

He said a turning point occurred in 2004 when 20 men were booted from the church. "It changed from a church to a cartel," he said.

Lawyers for the towns pressed Jessop on why he remained in the church for seven more years.

Jessop said he turned against church leaders after Texas authorities played him an audio tape in which Jeffs raped a 12-year-old girl. Jessop said he later reviewed another recording in which Jeffs confessed to a rape.

Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton objected to Jessop's testimony about the allegations against Jeffs.

"This is not the criminal trial of Warren Jeffs," Hamilton said.

Outside court, Colorado City attorney Jeff Matura said: "The testimony about Warren Jeffs and his criminal conduct is heartbreaking, especially with respect to this treatment of children, but it's not part of the allegations of this case."

Federal investigators say Colorado City officers claimed to have no information on Jeffs' whereabouts while he was a fugitive, even though it was later discovered that some of them had written letters to the church leader during that time.

When the trial began a week ago, federal lawyers said that the two polygamous towns in Arizona and Utah are corrupt communities where people are spied on and routinely denied basic services as a way to root out non-believers.

An attorney for one of the towns, Colorado City, Arizona, countered that the case was filed because the government finds the dominant religion in the towns to be distasteful and wants it eradicated.

"Who is discriminating against who?" attorney Jeff Matura asked jurors.

The case marks one of the boldest efforts by the government to confront what critics have said is a corrupt regime in Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, where the dominant religion is the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

The sect broke away from mainstream Mormonism when the religion disavowed polygamy more than 100 years ago.

Federal prosecutors charge that the towns systematically denied housing, water services and police protection to people who do not adhere to polygamous-driven beliefs.

U.S. Justice Department lawyers contended in their opening statement on Jan. 20 that both towns remain beholden to sect leader Warren Jeffs.

The lawyers also depicted the church's security operation and local police as paranoid entities that work in lockstep and violate the civil rights of non-believers.

Attorney Jessica Clark described how security officers have spied on people with cameras placed around Colorado City and Hildale, and staff members have been positioned on the outskirts of the towns to keep an eye on people arriving.

She said the city cites a water shortage while denying building permits to non-believers but allows other buildings to be constructed for believers.

"All the entities work together seemingly for the benefits of FLDS and its leaders," Clark said of the church.

The communities deny the allegations and say religion isn't a motivating factor in decisions.

Lawyers for the towns tried unsuccessfully to get a judge to bar evidence of polygamy, underage marriage and church teachings.

Jeffs is not in the courtroom, but his presence loomed over the proceedings. The government says city officials assisted him while he was a fugitive and still follow his directives. A judge has said the Justice Department has evidence suggesting officers dropped off packages, letters and other items for Jeffs while he was a fugitive.

"His control of the cities and police continues today," Clark said.

Matura told jurors the U.S. Justice Department case was based on the false assumptions that religious people can't function properly in government jobs and that everyone who works for the towns is a member of the sect.

Experts believe the trial will provide a rare glimpse into towns that for decades have been shrouded in secrecy and are distrustful of government and outsiders.

Some witnesses are expected to invoke their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, as they did during depositions.

The federal government wants a ruling that the towns have violated a fair housing law, and it seeks unspecified changes to prevent discrimination.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.