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Lost to the Only Life They Knew

COLUMN ONE

Officials say more than 400 teenage boys have fled or been driven from a polygamous sect.

June 13, 2005|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

ST. GEORGE, Utah — Abandoned by his family, faith and community, Gideon Barlow arrived here an orphan from another world.

At first, he played the tough guy, aloof and hard. But when no one was watching, he would cry.

The freckle-faced 17-year-old said he was left to fend for himself last year after being forced out of Colorado City, Ariz., a town about 40 miles east of here, just over the state line.

"I couldn't see how my mom would let them do what they did to me," he said.

When he tried to visit her on Mother's Day, he said, she told him to stay away. When he begged to give her a present, she said she wanted nothing.

"I am dead to her now," he said.

Gideon is one of the "Lost Boys," a group of more than 400 teenagers -- some as young as 13 -- who authorities in Utah and Arizona say have fled or been driven out of the polygamous enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City over the last four years.

His stated offenses: wearing short-sleeved shirts, listening to CDs and having a girlfriend. Other boys say they were booted out for going to movies, watching television and staying out past curfew.

Some say they were sometimes given as little as two hours' notice before being driven to St. George or nearby Hurricane, Utah, and left like unwanted pets along the road.

Authorities say the teens aren't really being expelled for what they watch or wear, but rather to reduce competition for women in places where men can have dozens of wives.

"It's a mathematical thing. If you are marrying all these girls to one man, what do you do with all the boys?" said Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff, who has had boys in his office crying to see their mothers. "People have said to me: 'Why don't you prosecute the parents?' But the kids don't want their parents prosecuted; they want us to get the No. 1 bad guy -- Warren Jeffs. He is chiefly responsible for kicking out these boys."

The 49-year-old Jeffs is the prophet, or leader, of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The FLDS, as it is known, controls Hildale and Colorado City.

The sect, which broke from the Mormon Church more than a century ago, has between 10,000 and 15,000 members. It believes in "plural marriage," that a man must have at least three wives to reach the highest levels of heaven. The Mormon Church forbids polygamy and excommunicates those who practice it.

Polygamy is also illegal, and in recent weeks law enforcement has turned up the heat on the FLDS.

On Friday, Jeffs was indicted in Arizona on charges that he had arranged a marriage between a 28-year-old man, who was already married, and a 16-year-old girl.

He faces two years in prison if convicted, though he hasn't been arrested and is thought to be in Texas.

A few days earlier, a Utah judge froze the assets of the United Effort Plan, an FLDS trust that owns most of the homes and land in the polygamous towns. And on May 24, the records of the financially troubled Colorado City Unified School District were seized to prevent any evidence of potential wrongdoing from being spirited away, according to the Arizona attorney general's office.

At the same time, Jeffs is being sued by five of the Lost Boys, who claim he conspired to banish them so church elders would have less competition for wives.

Jeffs has not responded to the lawsuit, filed in Utah's 3rd District Court, leaving him open to a default judgment from the bench.

"There is a virtual Taliban down there. You tell people this stuff happens and they don't believe it," said Dan Fischer, a former FLDS member and dentist living outside Salt Lake City who helps educate and house the exiled teens. The exodus "has been far more dramatic in the last year."

FLDS officials rarely speak to the media. But church lawyer Rodney Parker, who isn't a member of the faith, said some of the ousted boys were delinquents or proved unable to live up to the community's strict moral code.

"I think many are minimizing their own behavior," he said. "These places are very different and very strange. But broad-stroke claims about what goes on down there are exaggerations -- and often fiction."

*

About half a dozen boys who spoke recently say it's all too real.

Tom Sam Steed said he was put on "religious probation" at 15 for sneaking off to see the film "Charlie's Angels." Shortly after, he said he was ejected from the FLDS, living temporarily in a tool shed. When he begged to return to the church, he said he was refused.

"I was really into the religion. I would have been the first to drink the poison Kool-Aid," said Steed, now 19. "I felt [the faith] was the only way to go to heaven."

He said he made a personal plea to Jeffs, meeting him in a Colorado City print shop.

"He told me I wasn't welcome," Steed said. "And on the way out he said: 'Just to let you know, when the final devastation comes, you will be destroyed.' I believed it completely. If you are told your whole life the Earth is flat, what else would you believe?"

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