Big Trouble in Polygamy Town

Budding dissent within the fundamentalist LDS sect of Colorado City, Arizona—defiance of the prophet, brides fleeing polygamous marriages—has focused national attention on the hamlet. Including ours; we sent staffers Richard Abowitz and Kate Silver to examine Colorado City’s current events, history and way of life.

Richard Abowitz

"The Prophet is a fool. The spiritual man is mad for the multitude of thine iniquity and the great hatred."

—Hosea 9:7 as quoted by the prophet Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes


I was asleep when the call came. But there was a message:

"Yes, uh, Richard, if you would go to the north side of the Warren Jeffs compound, on the northwest corner there is a couple of utility boxes, and there by those utility boxes, behind them, there is an envelope for you. I would like to talk to you in person, explain more and see if you have any questions. But I'll just have to leave it at this for now. Thanks."

Warren Jeffs is prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints (FLDS) and virtual ruler of Colorado City, Arizona, and neighboring Hilldale, Utah, hamlets largely noted for their widespread polygamous practices. The towns (160 miles from Las Vegas) and church have been the subject of a small media circus recently as divisions within the sect—marked by mass excommunications, young brides fleeing polygmous unions and unprecedented stirrings of defiance against the prophet—have opened a window onto this peculiar closed society.

I'd been to Jeffs' compound in Hildale two days earlier. It's a city block surrounded by an 8-foot wall. Originally, Jeffs shared the block with his father, the previous prophet, Rulon Jeffs. But when Uncle Rulon (as he was known) died in September 2002, Warren Jeffs quickly annexed his father's house as well as a few of his old man's estimated 75 wives.

The wall though had gone up only recently. When I was there, the gate's entrance had an empty hole where the buzzer should have been. No one answered my knock; the place was silent and deserted. I wasn't surprised. The prophet hasn't been seen much in Hildale/Colorado City since he burst into the middle of an FLDS meeting on January 10 to announce that God had told him to expel many of the town's leading citizens, among them his own brothers (and, perhaps, now also stepsons) and the mayor, Dan Barlow.

Ever since Warren Jeffs' ascension to prophet, things had been difficult for the entire community. For starters, it had been dogma among the faithful that Uncle Rulon—though he was past 90 and in terrible health—would never die. Warren Jeffs, a pedantic, humorless, former religious schoolteacher, had been the leading proponent of this view, and, it was said, would have his father excommunicate anyone who suggested otherwise. Since being able to toss aside the veneer of acting in his father's name, Jeffs had grown increasingly unpredictable. He'd recently ordered a local historical monument destroyed. Then he'd canceled religious services indefinitely. And, in recent months, in addition to the 10 percent tithe, he'd been demanding monthly donations from families, ranging from $500 to $1,000. Most disconcerting, Jeffs was expelling increasing numbers of men from town without explanation.

Still, the January 10 gathering had been just a regular Saturday morning projects meeting—where the men in the sect came together to plan various improvements around town—before Jeffs, 48, arrived with his omnipresent entourage of toughs and called the men up.

"We wasn't exactly excommunicated," says one of the men exiled that day, who, like most people connected to FLDS, would only speak to me anonymously. "We was told to leave town, and they took our wives and children from us. We were told to leave town and not come back until we repented." Of course, there was a major caveat; God had secretly told Jeffs what each man's sins were, and they were to write letters of confession and repentance to Jeffs, which had to match what God had to say on the subject.

According to another FLDS member present, Jeffs, after making this announcement, turned to the other men at the gathering: "This is a benevolent dictatorship. But I would like anyway to see a show of hands of those who support me in cutting these men off." Only four men refused to back Jeffs, and the outraged prophet let them know: "God is taking this down."

But that was the only visible sign of dissent. Within hours, the men, though many of those expelled were senior citizens who had spent their entire adult lives in the community, mostly followed Jeffs orders by moving out of town—leaving behind their possessions, wives and children to be reassigned by the prophet to those men who were still in his good graces.


Jeffs' actions did, however, have repercussions for this isolated community of his approximately 6,000 followers, which straddles the Utah/Arizona border: an anonymous letter appeared proclaiming that a brother of the deposed mayor was the true prophet, and, more disconcertingly, teenage girls—their male relatives expelled by Jeffs—began fleeing town, fearing abuse and forced plural marriages to older men. State authorities began to examine not only the claims made by the runaways, but also to look into other allegations, such as widespread welfare abuse among FLDS members, as well as massive misuse of public money, particularly funds for the public schools, to benefit FLDS causes and members. Such outside scrutiny was as unprecedented in Colorado City as it was unwelcome. Longtime critics and dissidents of the sect note that, even before incorporating in 1985, the leadership of the FLDS—affectively obliterating the Constitution's distinction between church and state—has been allowed to run the affairs of Colorado City with complete autonomy. From the police force to the school board to the mayor's office, almost everyone with public authority in Colorado City answers to Warren Jeffs. Or, as The National Enquirer put it with characteristic subtlety: "A cult-run town where the incestuous rape of underage girls is not uncommon flourishes in the Southwest desert—and your tax dollars are helping pay for it!" Other media, too began to descend on Colorado City, including me.


Colorado City is not a city. Most of the roads are still unpaved. There is no bar, coffee shop, movie theatre, miniature golf, bowling alley or even a gym. The prophet does not approve of magazines, music compact discs, DVD movies, newspapers, condoms or alcohol, and the few shops in town don't sell them. There is a supermarket at the center of Colorado City, with posted instructions at the register telling the customers to have their welfare cards ready. The customers are all women, many pregnant, marshalling along their broods of children. As with most things here, there is a total conformity to the dress code among the women of Colorado City: homemade outfits—which looked cribbed from Little House on the Prairie—that cover head to toe, no makeup and long, mop-colored hair pulled tightly back.

Of course, the fact that the women all look the same is the result of more than just fashion. Decades of inbreeding are starting to show through, and many of the residents of Colorado City have high foreheads, ruddy cheeks and in various other ways bear an unhealthy resemblance to museum paintings of European nobility near the bitter end of empire. When one former sect member traced part of her family tree for me, it looked like a football play, with lines of relation running up and down and back and forth. Talk to natives of Colorado City about their family and you quickly learn terms like "double cousin," which refers to someone who is a cousin on both the maternal and paternal sides.

So it is no surprise to discover that the town clerk, Kevin Barlow, whose office is just around the corner from the supermarket, is the nephew of the deposed mayor. In fact, according to dissidents, Jeffs' excommunications have been directed at consolidating power away from the Barlow family. The Barlows have lived in this area since the polygamist activist John Y. Barlow, the town's first recognized leader, began settling his family here in 1940, back when it was still known as Short Creek and was populated by a handful of extended families that practiced plural marriage.

Until recently, a Barlow ran the local police, there was a Barlow on the Hildale City Council, and another Barlow was superintendent of the Colorado City Unified School District. But times have changed for the family dynasty. Three of the former mayor's brothers and one nephew were tossed out with him. Of course, that still leaves plenty of Barlows in Colorado City; and if Kevin Barlow was concerned about the way things are going for his clan, he didn't show it when we met.

In fact, Barlow, sorting mail at a long table , much of it addressed to his deposed uncle, not a computer or phone in sight, insisted with a constant smile and through gritted teeth that the real story is that there is no story in Colorado City. The only problem in Colorado City is that press people like me are stirring up trouble. "Right now, there's such a media hype and gossip and rumor mill that it is absolutely oppressive to a people who are trying to live their lives in a way that is between them and God," he says.

"Do you know anyone who is a local history buff," I ask, "who would know everything about the town's history?"

"Not that I would refer you to."

"So, do you know someone who you wouldn't refer me to?"

He laughs.

"Is there anyone you can refer me to who can talk about Colorado City."


"Do you think anyone will talk to me?"

"I doubt that."

"Is this the best interview I am going to get?"

"That's right, and it's going to be a very poor one at that."

I believed him, though, of course, I planned to try talking to FLDS members anyway. Only problem: To ask questions I first needed to find the people.

"What's there to do here in Colorado City?" I ask Barlow.

He laughs again. "Your version and my version of something to do would be totally different."

"That's fine, I want to do your version. So, what is there to do here?"

"As far as recreation, there is hiking."

"What about social recreation."

"No," Barlow says. "We're a very family-based community."

"So, most people leave work and then go directly to their families?"


"Are there any central gathering points where people just hang out?"

"Not really."

Oliver Barlow, a school district official, arrived at the town clerk's office as my colleague, Kate Silver, and I were leaving. Asked if he'd be willing to answer a few questions, he replied: "I'm sure Kevin's told you everything you need to know."

Except for church dissidents and anti-polygamy activists, the only person to talk to me during my first trip to Colorado City was a policeman who showed up within moments when Kate began taking photographs of the supermarket from the sidewalk. His name: Officer Barlow. He didn't stop Kate from taking pictures. But he didn't leave either, not until Kate finished.


The most important event in the history of Colorado City (then called Short Creek) took place on July 26, 1953, when Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle ordered a raid on the town. One hundred twenty-two people were arrested; 263 of their children were placed in the foster-care system. Among the many accusations that triggered the raid were statutory rape, bigamy and misappropriating school funds. In his self-published book The Polygamists: A History of Colorado City, local historian and former FLDS member Ben Bistline concludes: "The polygamists, in some degree, were guilty of almost all of these charges." Nonetheless, the raid was a public-relations disaster, as the incident was widely portrayed in the press as unwarranted religious persecution by the state. Gov. Pyle lost his reelection bid the next year, and within a few years everyone arrested was out of jail, and the children were all returned to their families.

The result of what became known as the Short Creek Raid was that Arizona and Utah authorities learned a lesson, and essentially developed a hands-off policy for the next 50 years. According to Jay Beswick of Help the Child Brides, an organization that aids children forced into plural marriages, until quite recently, authorities routinely ignored complaints of child abuse from Colorado City. Often, runaways who did escape FLDS and Colorado City would be taken back and turned over to the local police. Of course, that was the equivalent of returning them to the FLDS. This was a point that became painfully clear in August, when one former Colorado City police officer, Rodney Holm, was convicted of bigamy and unlawful sexual contact with one of his teenage plural wives. Holm's conviction and Jeffs' excommunications—and the media attention both have generated—helped make it so that the outside authorities could no longer ignore events in Colorado City. Last week, Mohave County and the State of Arizona approved $200,000 to place a police substation in Colorado City, which would include space for Arizona Child Protective Services and Arizona attorney general's office.

Even before these events, though, the FLDS was beginning to feel heat thanks to a serialized investigation that began appearing in the Phoenix New Times last March. Reporter John Dougherty laid out how the FLDS was, in essence, continuing all of the practices that had resulted in the original Short Creek Raid. Dougherty also documented how Jeffs—through the church trust, United Effort Plan, which owns almost all of the land in Colorado City—has been able not only to excommunicate people but also evict them from their homes at will. Dougherty also uncovered a birth certificate that suggested Warren Jeffs fathered a child with one of his spiritual wives before she had reached the age of consent.

One of the few subjects town clerk Kevin Barlow was willing to talk about at length was the Short Creek Raid and its relevance today. "It's like right here in America," Barlow said. "The state comes in and tries to annihilate a people for their beliefs. That doesn't go away very quickly." According to Barlow, the Short Creek Raid was not an isolated incident, either. "There's been a continuation, before and since," he says. He once again sees reporters as the primary instigator of the recent problems because of the "absolute lies" that get published. But it isn't the lies in the press that primarily concern him. "Where it has become oppressive is that the state officials suck up on it like it was truth, to the point where that's what they base their decisions on." Asked if he fears another raid like the one in 1953, Barlow replies, perhaps, referring to the runaway girls, "Well, you read the most recent newspapers as late as this morning. They're stealing our children." Asked to elaborate, he demurs.


In the face of increasing inspection from the outside world, the Colorado City civic leadership decided to once again call up a talisman of the Short Creek Raid to send a reminder to any government officials who may think to interfere in the affairs of the town. On July 26, the 50th anniversary of the raid, Mayor Dan Barlow—who as a 21 year-old had been one of the men arrested—presided over the dedication of a monument and museum to the event. Most of the town showed up and a press release even invited outsiders to come learn about the Short Creek Raid. "There was a slide show and music," says an FLDS member present at the dedication ceremony. "It was a nice show and good entertainment."

But Mayor Barlow and the others gathered for the ceremony had unknowingly made a serious mistake. Warren Jeffs had not been consulted. According to an FLDS member familiar with all sides, "They didn't communicate with him and allow him to have his say. It was more of a civic thing. They unintentionally offended Warren." Of course, a glance at the inscription on the monument should have reminded Mayor Barlow that nothing is just a civic thing in Colorado City:

"The Prophet Leroy S. Johnson stood on this site with the people and met the raiding police officers. He later declared the deliverance of the people in 1953 as one of the greatest miracles of all time."

Jeffs was furious. Maybe it also rubbed him that his immediate family had no connection to "one of the greatest miracles of all time." (Jeffs moved from his home near Salt Lake City to the Hildale/Colorado City area in the late '90s.) "Warren told them to grind the monument into powder and sprinkle it in the hills and turn all of the museum artifacts and the slide show to him." Jeffs then cancelled all religious ceremonies for FLDS members and went into seclusion until reemerging at the January 10 meeting.


During the many years that Leroy S. Johnson, Uncle Roy, had been the prophet, succession was not an issue, as it was a matter of dogma among FLDS members that Uncle Roy would never die. Though the FLDS has always had a leader, according to Ben Bistline's history, originally most decisions were made in consultation with a council of elders. But Bistline's book documents how, secure in the belief in Uncle Roy's immortality, two things slowly happened: the belief in absolute one-person rule—that person being Uncle Roy—began to take root as doctrine, and it was easy for FLDS members to turn their land over to UEP, which to them meant giving it to the stewardship of Uncle Roy. So Roy's death in 1986, at age 98, came as something of a shock to the devout. Soon, two factions formed; the larger one was lead by Rulon Jeffs, a retired CPA from near Salt Lake City. Jeffs excommunicated all the members of the opposing faction, damning them to hell and ordering them kicked off of FLDS property.

Soon Uncle Rulon was installed as the immortal prophet. But after the initial uproar, little changed, as for most of his tenure Uncle Rulon left the affairs of Colorado City to the Barlows while he remained up near Salt Lake City. But his pretense of eternal life did not stop Uncle Rulon from frequently seeing the world as about to end. According to one FLDS member: "Rulon Jeffs had prophesied that Salt Lake City was going to be destroyed and had moved everyone down to Colorado City before the Olympics, because the Olympics would never be happening." Another time, after a wind had damaged the roof of a mainstream LDS church in Salt Lake, Jeffs again predicted the end of the world. Finally, as the millennium rolled around, Uncle Rulon once again fled to Colorado City to escape the apocalypse. "The entire community was moved out of Salt Lake City by the end of January 2000, and the final destruction was supposed to happen," says the FLDS member. The world didn't expire, but Uncle Rulon did. After years of poor health caused by a stroke, Rulon Jeffs died at age 92 in September 2002.


Before Rulon's death made Warren Jeffs God's sole prophet on Earth, he ran his father's private school, Alta Academy in Sandy, Utah. Cassette tapes of classes taught by Jeffs to sixth- to eighth-graders are frightening. Among his most troubling views are that women and black people are cursed by God. Predictably, women must atone by serving their husbands, and blacks must atone by serving white people. In November 1995, Jeffs explained to students why only Uncle Rulon can decide wedding matches:

"If you young people were to marry a Negro, you could not be a priesthood person, even if you repented. You could not stay in this work. ... Today, you can see a black man with a white woman … A great evil has happened on this land because the devil knows that if all the people have Negro blood, there will be nobody worthy to have the priesthood. The devil is trying to get people to go out and marry and mix with the world, even different colored people. That is why we marry only who the prophet says—because if you marry anybody out in the world, there's a chance they could have Negro blood in them."

In July 2002, at the behest of Warren Jeffs, who claimed to be speaking for Rulon, all the FLDS parents pulled their children from the public schools (the FLDS retained control of the public school system, attended by a few non-sect members). Ever since, the children have either been home-schooled or gone to private FLDS schools. In both cases, according to former FLDS members, the cassettes of Warren Jeffs' old lectures at Alta Academy are still used as popular training tapes to help educate the young.

Former students describe Jeffs as fanatical and mean. He was also remarkably unforgiving of even the littlest things. One recalls, "Warren Jeffs was talking to the parents of some children who would talk in class or do other behavior that he considered inappropriate.  He said that 'Some children are black sheep; they are sent to test and try their parents and were never meant to enter the kingdom of God.'"

Ezra Draper, 31, is one of the few former students of Jeffs willing to speak on the record. "Little things is what got you in trouble, like poor penmanship," he recalls. "Not having your shirt done up properly or not having your sleeve buttoned under your long-sleeved shirt. Little things could get you in trouble, because they were a sign of a spiritual flaw or sin. If you have a dark spirit on the inside, you have sloppy writing on the outside." Jeffs also encouraged the students to tattle on each other and spy on their parents to uncover for him even the littlest sin. But Jeffs' sense of sin was arbitrary, and Draper notes, "Warren ran that school a lot like he is doing with the church, in that there will be no tolerance for sin. But the catch is that Warren's definition of sin keeps changing."

Draper was not only a student of Warren Jeffs', he was also a relative, as his father was married to two of Rulon Jeffs' daughters.

According to Draper, after Uncle Rulon's stroke, Warren Jeffs hid his father's infirmity while acting in his name and maneuvering to succeed him. Draper recalls how he finally grew disillusioned, after overhearing Jeffs dispatching a rival, Winston Blackmore, the Bishop of a Canadian FLDS group:

"Four months before Rulon Jeffs died, Warren used Rulon Jeffs to dismiss Winston from his responsibilities as Canadian Bishop. Here's something that Warren wasn't aware of. I was in Winston's truck the day Warren made that phone call, and I heard the whole conversation, which was very short. Rulon Jeffs didn't even know who he was talking to. Warren then told his father who he was talking to. And then Warren told him what to say, sentence by sentence. When I returned to Colorado City, I asked Warren how the dismissal came about. He said, 'Ezra, father handled that situation all by himself. I made the phone call, and he handled all the rest.' I found a way to excuse myself and end our conversation on a pleasant note. I decided, that's it. I don't know where I am going, but I am not following this guy."


The people of Colorado City, though, have yet to make that decision. On the night the FLDS Deep Throat directed me back to the Jeffs' compound, I called one of the excommunicated men. He dutifully wrote his letter of atonement and has been waiting to hear back from Jeffs. So far there has been no reply. I asked if he really believes Jeffs is a prophet speaking for God. There was silence for a moment as he hesitated. "This phone is bugged. There is somebody listening to us right now." He then quickly ended the conversation. I thought the man a bit paranoid until I arrived at the Jeffs compound the next day to seek my letter. On the way to Colorado City, I relaxed and entertain visions of earning a Pulitzer with what I am sure will be the crucial inside documents about the FLDS.

When I got to town, it was much busier than on my first trip. There were some news trucks around, since Ross Chatwin, an excommunicated FLDS member, was holding a press conference at his house to announce that he will publicly resist attempts to evict him. This is the most open sign of defiance yet. Otherwise, there are only rumors that the Barlows are meeting supporters in a nearby town.

But things were still quiet at the Jeffs compound. Some eggs and milk had been delivered and were sitting outside the gate, the only signs of life. I had just begun to look for the letter when an unmarked white SUV pulled up with men inside, like they'd been expecting me. One wagged his finger to bring me over, and pulled out his wallet. "I am a town marshal," he said. But all I saw was a driver's license that he put away before I could read it. There was no badge and none of the men were wearing police uniforms. "What are you doing?"

"Just looking." I said.

"I don't want you talking to people who don't want to be spoken to," he said.

"How do I know if they don't want to talk unless I ask?"

"I'll give you a clue," he said. He pointed to the Jeffs compound. "These people don't want to talk to you."

"That's fine. I'm just looking," I said, and tried to go back to searching for the letter as if I was unconcerned. The white SUV stayed and the men watched me search. But soon I realized there was no letter and retreated to a nearby gas station.

Fortunately, my secret caller had left his number on my caller ID, and I called him. After being a bit surprised to hear from me, the man mentioned the location where he left my letter. Only it was the wrong location. Then he realized that I was a different reporter. He admitted that press from all over had been instructed to go pick up the same letter that day at different locations around the Jeffs compound. "You are supposed to have it before the press conference," he said. He told me to wait at the gas station and he'd bring by another copy. He turned out to be a local rancher carrying notes on behalf of an FLDS member who wanted—big surprise—to remain anonymous. So much for Woodward and Bernstein. The dissidents of Colorado City may not have been dealing with press for long, but the secret letter turned out to be a brilliant publicity stunt. It got the press all heated up with a scavenger hunt, and the contents, a screed against the dictatorship of Warren Jeffs, dovetailed nicely with the press conference.

Still, Jeffs remains the only person in town with any meaningful authority, and his expulsions have continued to this day—more than 100 FLDS members since his father's death. While many are willing to secretly complain to the press by phone or e-mail, none of the current members dare speak out publicly. And even dissidents admit that there is no mechanism to replace a prophet. For that reason, FLDS members secretly admit hoping that the outside world of state officials and press will protect them from their own leader or even remove him. Until then they intend to lay low.

It is the sort of cowardice that allows Jeffs to pick off his targets one by one, while everyone else in the church remains silent and compliant. The risk for men of losing their homes and having their families reassigned is too great. As for the wives, they, too, are mostly too scared to stand by their man in the face of an expulsion. After all, the marriages in Colorado City did not originate in love but were mostly arranged by the FLDS prophet.

"You've got to understand," one of the excommunicated men hoping to be reinstated by Jeffs tells me. "We've been taught our entire lives to obey and that this man speaks for God." How do you stand up to God's mouthpiece? The man admits that there is some irony to the answer that he and other FLDS members have come up with: anonymously help the evil, fallen, secular press people like me, hoping this will somehow fix the problem of Warren Jeffs for them. I point out to the man that if he really believed that Jeffs was representing God's will in any way, wouldn't that be the equivalent of aiding Satan against Him? "That's how Jeffs would see it. I don't know. I just don't know," he says with some emotion.

In his history of Colorado City, Ben Bistline quotes Uncle Roy making a prediction. "It is my opinion that our greatest persecution, our greatest test, rather, will not be from the outside people prosecuting or persecuting us, but our great test will come from within our own ranks." I can't say I believe old Uncle Roy was a prophet, but this prediction, at least, seems to be coming true.

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