When the Water Canyon School reopened in 2014, it was the first time in 13 years that students in Hildale, Utah, could attend a public school. The closure hadn’t been for lack of children in the town, though.
Hildale is one-half of a religious community once known as Short Creek, which now numbers around 7,500 and spans the Utah-Arizona border. It’s the nerve center of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway Mormon sect whose polygamous, patriarchal practices have often landed it in hot water with the law.
The school in Water Canyon closed in 2001 when religious fundamentalist Warren Jeffs commanded that Hildale parents remove their children from the public school system.
A year later, upon his father’s death, Jeffs assumed leadership of the FLDS church. It wasn’t long before he landed in hot water with the law, too—by 2005, he was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and in 2007, he was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice to rape, after he helped marry an underage girl to an older man. While that conviction was overturned in 2010, he was convicted a year later in Texas and sentenced to life in prison for sexually assaulting two minors—a 12-year-old and a 15-year-old whom he called his “spiritual wives.” More recently, he’s been accused of sexual assault by his nephew and several of his own children. (Jeffs reportedly had 70 wives and dozens of offspring.)
Long after Jeffs’s arrest, an extreme culture of child brides, excommunication, and “concentration camp”-like compounds has allegedly survived under the nose of local law enforcement, including police who are members or former members of the church.
The adjoining towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, are the subject of a federal trial in Phoenix, Arizona, this month, which alleges that the town’s powerful fundamentalist leadership denied non-FLDS members access to water, electricity, housing, and help from the local police forces.
The scope of the charges against the Hildale and Colorado City governments is unprecedented—and it’s revived allegations of abuse in the secretive community.
“This is the first lawsuit by the Justice Department to include claims under both the Fair Housing Act and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act,” the U.S. Department Of Justice wrote in a release.
The DOJ is accusing the two towns of arresting non-FLDS residents without probable cause, seizing their property and refusing to investigate reports of crimes against them, while ignoring alleged crimes committed by church members. In multiple cases, the DOJ claims a local utility company cut off non-church members’ water, then blamed the outages on a nonexistent water shortage. In another case, the DOJ accuses local police of allowing church members to steal property by building a fence across non-church members’ land.
The towns’ governments have denied the religious discrimination charges, and have accused the federal government of punishing FLDS members for their beliefs.
But the trial has surfaced new allegations of troubling activities within the church that lie beyond the scope of the DOJ’s current charges.
Under Jeffs’s leadership, girls as young as 12 were forced into “spiritual” marriages with much older men. According to one former police officer’s testimony in the Phoenix court last week, the practice continued after Jeffs’s arrest, with police allegedly turning a blind eye to the marriages, or even taking child brides themselves.
“If it was a church marriage, I as a church member saw it as a valid marriage,” Helaman Barlow, a former Colorado City marshal and member of the FLDS, said on Wednesday in testimony reported by Courthouse News.
Barlow had been called to the stand to answer questions about the marriage of his fellow officer and FLDS member Jonathan Roundy to a 16-year-old girl. Law enforcement had been notified of the marriage, but did not investigate or press charges against Roundy, Barlow said.
Local police have a long history of alleged inaction on child brides in Hilsdale and Colorado City.
Roundy was chief marshall of Colorado City, replacing his brother Sam Roundy, who lost his police certification in 2003 after the state ousted him and one other officer for allegedly keeping multiple wives. Sam had also come under fire for allegedly failing to report fellow officer Rodney Holm’s two simultaneous marriages—one to an adult woman, and another to a 16-year-old girl.
In Colorado City, where even Mayor Joseph Allred has been accused of (and refused to comment on) marrying a 15-year-old, this alleged abuse of police power isn’t just normal—it’s a mandate, Barlow testified.
He told the court he was appointed deputy marshal in 1994, when Warren Jeffs’s father, Rulon Jeffs, led the FLDS. (After Rulon’s death, Warren married all but two of his 20 former wives.) When Barlow asked Rulon for advice, he said the cult leader told him to keep the church first and the law second.
“He told me, ‘No. 1, you aren’t a cop. You are a peace officer. No. 2, your calling is to stand between the church and harm,’” Barlow said in his Wednesday testimony.
But there’s little preventing the church from harming its own members.
In 2014, Colorado City changed its land-use laws to allow the FLDS to convert a former industrial park into a high-walled living compound, the St. George News reports. Inside the six-acre compound are a hierarchical set of tents and trailers. High-ranking families reportedly live in the trailers, while people of lower standing sleep in the tents. Everyone shares the same shower lean-tos.
“It’s quite the concentration camp,” Colorado City resident Isaac Wyler told the St. George News.
Wyler is among a growing number of defectors who left the church after Jeffs’s arrest.
But excommunication in this religious community isn’t easy.
Richard Holm, a former high-ranking FLDS member, was cut off from his wife, children, and water supply after he left the church, he testified on Tuesday. Holm, a former councilman, said he was excommunicated along with a number of powerful church members whom Warren Jeffs viewed as a threat.
After Holm’s banishment, the church separated Holm from his wife and children and reassigned them to his younger brother, a fate worse than death, he said. Later, when he attempted to connect his home to the city water supply, he claims that he and other non-LDS members were denied utilities permits, while church members received uninterrupted access to water and electricity.
Wyler’s home was vandalized after he left the church, he testified.
In 2012, Wyler’s friend Andrew Chatwin said he found a live kitten stuffed into a pipe and encased in concrete outside Wyler’s home. Chatwin, a fellow FLDS defector, told the Huffington Post that the kitten was just one in a series of threats and animal killings directed at former members of the church.
“Some of the worst stuff they did to me would be like filling my fuel tank full of sugar and putting dish soap in my brakes. Almost killed me on that one,” Wyler told local radio station KNAU. “Sometimes I can find 10 or 15 dead cats in my property. Just to send a message.”
When Chatwin found the live kitten on Wyler’s property in 2012, he dug it from the concrete and took it to an animal shelter, where it died shortly thereafter. But he says the Colorado City marshal’s office laughed when he submitted an official complaint.
An unnamed officer “kind of chuckled and laughed a little bit and then he said that if it was up to him, he’d just throw dirt on [the cat],” Chatwin said. “And this is coming from a city marshal who’s a member of the FLDS Church.”