SALT LAKE CITY — These are dark days for the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the reclusive polygamous sect led by imprisoned prophet Warren Jeffs.
The U.S. Justice Department dealt a double blow to FLDS leadership on Monday:
In Phoenix, a federal jury found that church leaders controlled the municipal governments of two cities that discriminated against nonbelievers.
And in Salt Lake City, a federal magistrate ordered Jeffs’ brother, Lyle, the so-called bishop of the two towns, to remain behind bars as he awaits trial in an alleged food stamp swindle and money laundering scheme.
Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah who has written extensively about the FLDS, called Monday’s court developments significant, but he added that they should not be considered the beginning of the end for the FLDS.
“It signals that we are not going to tolerate intolerance,” Guiora said. “We’re not going to tolerate crimes committed in the name of religion.”
But he cautioned that the civil verdict and federal food stamp fraud case targeted the alleged misdeeds of church leaders, not the faith practiced by them and their followers.
Three brothers behind bars
And so, three Jeffs brothers — Warren, Lyle and Seth — are now behind bars, creating what would appear to be a leadership vacuum in the FLDS.
Warren Jeffs continues to hold sway over the sect from prison, according to testimony at the civil trial in Phoenix. Lyle Jeffs carries out his directives as the bishop of Short Creek, which includes Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, the two cities targeted in the verdict in Phoenix. And Seth Jeffs is bishop of a compound near Pringle, South Dakota, known as R-23.
It remained unclear what will happen next in Hildale and Colorado City. The municipal governments could be decertified or fall under receivership, and the shared police force could be disbanded. In that case, outside police agencies could take over control from the Colorado City Marshal’s Office.
The FLDS was not a defendant in the lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division. Going forward, Guiora said, “There has to be respect for those who want to continue to practice their religion.”
“Today’s verdict reaffirms that America guarantees all people equal protection and fair treatment, regardless of their religious beliefs,” said Vanita Gupta, who heads the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “When communities deny their residents critical services simply because of where they worship, they violate our laws and threaten the defining values of religious freedom and tolerance that are the foundation of our country.”
Veil lifted from a secretive society
The verdict ended a seven-week trial that lifted the veil surrounding a secretive society that practices plural marriage and believes God speaks to the faithful through the prophet, Warren Jeffs. He is serving a life prison sentence in Texas for sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, who he considered “spiritual wives.” Much of the government’s testimony came from disaffected former FLDS members.
Justice Department attorneys contended that church leaders controlled who was appointed to the town councils and who held key city jobs. The appointees in turn controlled the shared water and police departments.
Witnesses testified that the cities denied outsiders water hookups and other services that church leaders received without question. Witnesses who had left the FLDS also testified about how they were spied on and harassed by local police and church security.
Such heavy-handed control, the federal government says, was corrupt.
“How did we get to this in the United States of America?” attorney Sean Keveney asked jurors in his closing argument.
But lawyers for the two cities argued that the federal government was doing the discriminating — against Hildale and Colorado City. Why? City residents practice a religion the federal government doesn’t like and hopes to abolish, the attorneys argued.
Attorney Jeffrey Matura posed it as a question in his closing argument: “Who is discriminating against whom?” He represents Colorado City, while attorney Blake Hamilton defended Hildale.
The defense acknowledged that the FLDS controlled virtually every aspect of followers’ lives, but urged jurors to place the blame where it belongs — on the church and not the cities. Matura told jurors that if the FLDS was on trial, he’d be asking them to award monetary damages.
The trial brought out many secrets that had been closely held by a community that doesn’t welcome attention from outsiders. Most FLDS members don’t watch television or movies or have access to the Internet.
Split from the mainstream Mormon Church
The FLDS, which split from the mainstream Mormon Church over the practice of plural marriage, first settled in Short Creek in the 1930s. But the cities’ populations mushroomed just before the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002, with a combined population of about 10,000 — almost all of them past or current FLDS members.
The federal government portrayed the Short Creek of today as a theocracy where there was little or no separation between church and state. Before the verdict, attorneys brokered a deal under which Hildale and Colorado City would pay $1.6 million in penalties for violating the federal Fair Housing Act.
Previous cases in Utah, Arizona and Texas have focused on Warren Jeffs and his practice of arranging polygamous marriages between girls younger than 18 and already married, older church leaders. But recently, the government has broadened its target beyond the prophet to focus on finances and other church practices that impact daily life in Short Creek.
The trial featured testimony from several “apostates,” once prominent FLDS members who have left the church or been chased out. Among them were former church security chief Willie Jessop, former Colorado City Chief Marshal Helaman Barlow and Charlene and Thomas Jeffs, the ex-wife and oldest son of Lyle Jeffs.
The trial is part of the government’s strategy to target the FLDS leadership on multiple fronts and loosen their hold on the cities. Even as testimony unfolded in Phoenix, federal prosecutors in Salt Lake City were preparing the indictments charging church leaders with engaging in a fraud and money-laundering scheme to fleece the government of millions in food stamp benefits.
Federal officials estimated the FLDS leaders illegally obtained some $12 million in food stamp benefits.
The practice even had a name, according to court documents: “Bleeding the beast.”