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In God's Name

updated 10/06/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/2003 01:00AM

Pennie Peterson was 14 when she learned she was about to become the fifth wife of a 48-year-old man. Frightened, she ran away from her family—which included her father, his three wives and Peterson's 38 brothers and sisters—and met friends by a roadside in Colorado City, Ariz. "They took me to their house in Las Vegas," recalls Peterson, 34, nearly 20 years later. "And I never went back."

Colorado City, a desert town some 50 miles north of the Grand Canyon, is a world of its own. Just below the border of Utah, the community teems with children, yet there are no competitive sports leagues, no dances, not even a backyard pool. Most kids are homeschooled. Even quilting bees have been forbidden by town leaders for fear they might promote gossip. Men and boys dress in a uniform of dark pants, striped shirts and suspenders; women and girls wear long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses, even in summer. But what truly sets this place apart is the group that controls it, a radical Mormon offshoot called the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) that has more than 8,000 members and espouses polygamy—which is illegal in all 50 states. One local historian estimates that plural marriages account for about half the city's unions. Mayor Dan Barlow, 70, a polygamist, sees nothing too unusual about his town. "We are just families," he says, "with a little bit of a different take on things."

Now, after decades of being ignored, that little difference could land town leaders in big trouble. Last year Barlow's son Dan Jr. pleaded guilty to sexually abusing one of his daughters. Then, in May, a couple who had been threatened with eviction from church-owned land after they refused to allow their 16-year-old daughter to become the second wife of a 37-year-old won a court ruling allowing them to stay. Three months later a jury convicted a local police officer of bigamy and unlawful sex with a minor. And state officials in Arizona and Utah are investigating charges of welfare fraud in Colorado City and the adjacent town of Hildale, Utah, which also has many FLDS followers. Although many Colorado City families live in sprawling homes, 78 percent of them are on food stamps. "The history of this sect is all about money and power and sex," says Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who is leading the charge against FLDS in concert with Arizona officials. A Mormon himself, Shurtleff calls the polygamists "an embarrassment" to the mainstream Church, which proscribes polygamy. "We're adamant about rooting these people out."

The investigation predates the Elizabeth Smart case, in which Utah police allege Brian David Mitchell, 49, kidnapped the then 14-year-old to make her the first of seven virgin brides. But both cases shine a light on the practice of polygamy, which still flourishes in this part of the country. "There maybe 40,000 polygamists in Utah alone," says Shurtleff. "We do not have near the resources to go after [all of them]. But we do have the resources to go after other crimes in polygamist communities like Colorado City and Hildale, particularly crimes against children."

The crackdown could bring drastic change to Colorado City, where church policy forbids newspapers and television and, according to one high school teacher, no one has gone to college since 1992. Sect doctrine says that in order to enter the celestial kingdom's highest level, a woman must obey her husband and a man must take more than one wife. After the mainstream Mormon church banned plural marriage in 1890, the forbears of the FLDS moved from the Salt Lake region to this largely uninhabited area, where they could practice polygamy with little interference. In July 1953, Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle sent a force of more than 100 to arrest the men of what was then known as Short Creek, arresting 122. But the raid generated such ill will—news photos from the period show tearful children being ripped from their parents' arms—that Pyle was voted out of office the next year, and the issue became a political hot potato. "That raid was badly managed," says Ron Barton, who has spent three years investigating the sect for the Utah attorney general. "It set back efforts to control what was going on in those communities 50 years."

It also enabled the church's top official, or prophet, to wield unparalleled influence in Colorado City. These days that position is held by Warren Jeffs, 46, who has not made any public appearances since a jury convicted policeman Rodney Holm of sex abuse in mid-August. Under church doctrine, only the prophet can grant permission to marry, and he regularly made matches. DeLoy Bateman, 52, a high school science teacher who left the sect five years ago, says that when Jeffs's father and predecessor, Rulon—who died last year at age 92—began assembling an "army" of wives to prepare for a miraculous ascent to heaven he expected in the year 2000, he married some 56 teenage girls. "Because they are married in secret, we have no idea precisely how many there are," says Barton.

Lawyer Rod Parker, who represents the group, says after a man first weds, subsequent marriages are performed only within the church and don't involve underage girls, therefore breaking no laws. For the FLDS, he says, "the issue is, who controls marriage—the state or God and God's representative, their prophet?"

The church has further clouded the lines between church and state with an arrangement called the United Effort Plan, a 1942 common-law trust designed to protect church members' property from the state. Today the UEP owns much of the land in Colorado City and in neighboring Hildale. Although residents don't pay rent, they are expected to give at least 10 percent of their earnings to the church. Shurtleff says that includes substantial amounts of welfare money collected by the sect's women—who, because they are single mothers in the eyes of the state, qualify for government aid. "Women and children live in poverty," he says, "while rich old prophets get richer and have more and more young brides."

The sect's tight control over the territory can make life difficult for the few who split from the church. Teacher Bateman, for instance, had two wives and 15 children when the town's sheriff threatened to take four of his kids away over a marital dispute. He left the church but is now fighting its efforts to evict him from his huge 18-bathroom home.

But the power is beginning to shift. In December 2001, Pennie Peterson was at home in Phoenix when her sister Ruth Stubbs showed up with two of her children. "She was underweight, stressed out, dark circles under her eyes," says Peterson. At age 16, Stubbs had been coerced to marry Rodney Holm, the police officer, who was twice her age and already had two wives, including one of Ruth's sisters. It was the testimony of Stubbs, now 21, that convicted Holm of illegal sex with a minor and bigamy on Aug. 14.

Church leaders are nervously anticipating Holm's sentencing on Oct. 10: Two days after Holm was found guilty, the prophet Jeffs canceled the regular Sunday services and has not been seen publicly since. Law enforcement officials are also watching with interest. In the only other case against a Colorado City polygamist, the mayor's son got a suspended sentence, serving just 13 days for molesting one of his daughters after his other children appealed to the judge for leniency. Says Shurtleff: "There hasn't been justice made available to these women and children."

That leaves some of them stranded in marriages with plenty of company but little hope of escape. "We're chattel to them," says Pam Black, 51, a former FLDS member who was 16 when she was coerced to marry. Black left the cult three years ago to live with her mother in Hildale when her husband (who has since died) became increasingly tyrannical and wanted to take on other wives. "My rage was driving me insane," says Black.

For the women Black left behind, the nearest hope are organizations like Help the Child Brides, which offers aid and advocacy for women harmed by polygamy, and an underground network of activists like Black and Peterson, who have successfully escaped plural marriages. The women have helped persuade local officials to establish a justice center in Colorado City to offer shelter for others like them and to prosecute abusive spouses. But that's unlikely to open until mid-2005.

In the meantime Black speaks out whenever she gets a chance and, with Peterson, tries to keep state officials focused on what was for so long a secret in Colorado City. "Word is getting out," Peterson says, "and that's definitely troubling the leaders up there."
Thomas Fields-Meyer
Oliver Jones in Colorado City

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