The Polygamists Are Coming!

Nervous West Texas townsfolk brace for the arrival of a sect of Mormon fundamentalists and their many wives

"There is so much misinformation on the bride issues, it's hard to know where to start," Parker says. "I'm not aware of a single proven example of a forced marriage. Young girls are not required to be married if they don't want to be."

He also denounces those who draw comparisons to Koresh.

"Any analogies are completely off base and designed to scare people by appealing to local fears and prejudices. The church is a peaceful and pacific people," he says.

Ross Chatwin, above, is among the Mormon fundamentalists booted from the sect by "prophet" Warren Jeffs, pictured below with his father, former prophet Rulon Jeffs.
John Dougherty
Ross Chatwin, above, is among the Mormon fundamentalists booted from the sect by "prophet" Warren Jeffs, pictured below with his father, former prophet Rulon Jeffs.
Fundamentalists leaders say this compound near Eldorado will be used as a religious retreat. Locals are not so sure.
Nicole Frugé/ San Antonio Express-News
Fundamentalists leaders say this compound near Eldorado will be used as a religious retreat. Locals are not so sure.

Parker says that the fundamentalists' plural marriage lifestyle is constitutionally protected from government interference, particularly in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down a Texas law that had criminalized consensual gay sex. "That case says the government can't tell homosexuals how to conduct their intimate lives. We're talking about the same thing here. I believe a plural family relationship is also protected from being made a crime," he says. "These people have a right to structure their family lives and intimate relations without interference from the government."

But that argument has not derailed efforts to police the polygamists.

Last year, Rodney Holm, a Colorado City policeman, was found guilty of bigamy and unlawful sexual relations with a 16-year-old girl he had taken for his third wife. He was given a year in jail and lost his police certification. In Arizona, legislators are considering a bill, modeled after a Utah law and aimed at polygamist communities, that would make it a felony for a married adult to marry a minor. And in Utah, where polygamy and sexual relations with underage girls are already illegal, an investigator for the attorney general's office is charged specifically with policing closed communities. Investigator Ron Barton regularly checks reports of illicit relationships between young girls and older men, but he says they are dauntingly difficult to prove.

"Basically, in plain English, if a girl under 18 has sexual intercourse with a man who is more than 10 years older than her, and she is not married to him, then that is a felony," he says, though birth records with a county health department indicate that Jeffs has fathered children by underage girls. "There are birth certificates that list Warren Jeffs as the father. These are children who were conceived by girls that he is not married to, who were under the age of 18," Barton says.

Yet despite Barton's regular visits to Hildale, Jeffs remains a phantom. "I have never spoken to him or seen him in person," Barton says. "The community is so closed, and he is so well-protected, we've tried to serve subpoenas on him and his family members, and we have not been able to do it. We don't know where he is, even now."

The alleged female victims, who are raised in a closed, religious society, are extremely reluctant to cooperate with outsiders, he says.

"The young girls are married to these men, and if they were to violate the trust or relationship, they will be totally ostracized by their family. These girls have been taught since childhood that this is how their lives will end," Barton says. "They will be assigned someone to marry. Life on earth might be hell, but they will be blessed in the hereafter. A person who leaves the faith is treated as if he is dead by remaining church members, including the family."

Among the apostates or "living dead" in Hildale is Pam Black, 52, who left the faith five years ago and now lives with her elderly parents and some of her younger children on a small plot of land just outside the city limits. Black had 14 children in 22 years of an arranged marriage and says some church women have borne far more, but she could never accept the absolute obedience and subordination demanded of women.

"You obey your husband and do exactly what he wants, and he'll take you to heaven. A woman has absolutely zero freedom. It's like the Taliban," she says. "It was like soul murder. I didn't care if I lived or died, but I was going to be free."

Black is now working with outside groups trying to help young girls and women trapped in abusive polygamous marriages.

"I'm not anti-polygamy. The only thing I'm against is the abuse of young kids and the indoctrination," she says, while sitting in the shade of a piñon pine near the rocky headwaters of Short Creek.

Black recalled her own marriage, arranged by an earlier prophet, to a 26-year-old man she barely knew. "Leroy Johnson said, 'We have a husband for you. Is that all right with you?'" she says.

Black agreed to the match because she had been taught that "if we chose different than what the prophet wanted, we would go to hell."

"I was barely 17. I might as well have been 12. I was raped on my wedding night. I didn't even know about sex," she says. Years later, she says, her husband, now dead, apologized.

"He said, 'I only did it to show you that I owned you,'" she says.

And although most of her children left the church with her, one 34-year-old daughter, who is Kevin Barlow's second wife, has remained in Colorado City among the faithful.

"It's so sad. People here loved me, and I loved them," she says. "I can't see my own grandchildren. My daughter has nine kids and is pregnant with twins. She's doing what I taught her to do. Have babies."

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