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Its leader on trial, sect changes slowly

THE NATION

As polygamist Warren Jeffs faces rape-related charges, the enclave he controlled sees little progress.

September 12, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO CITY, ARIZ. — Progress is measured slowly here. To Isaac Wyler, it is a sign of the times that he can sit at a picnic table at a park.

Three years ago, when Wyler was exiled from a polygamist sect that dominates this slice of the Arizona-Utah border, the park and everything in town was under control of the group's prophet, Warren Jeffs. Wyler, 41, was told he had no right to stay in his home or be out in public.

This week, Jeffs was put on trial, charged with two counts of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl whose wedding to a 19-year-old cousin he presided over. And Wyler hopes his nightmare here is coming to an end.

"It's like the end of a long tunnel," he said. "You're finally starting to see the light."

For years, dissidents from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints complained that Jeffs was a virtual monarch in this isolated stretch of red-rock country. They alleged that he ordered girls to marry, demanded that men add new brides to their families and expelled people from the 10,000-strong group for seemingly no reason, severing them from their families.

For years, Arizona and Utah officials were reluctant to take on the sect, which the Mormon Church has disavowed. But in 2005, Arizona appointed a receiver for the Colorado City school district, park and other properties. Authorities pursued Jeffs on sex-crimes allegations; the prophet fled and became one of the FBI's 10 most wanted. He was arrested last year in a Cadillac Escalade outside Las Vegas.

Jeffs, 51, also faces charges of being an accomplice to sexual misconduct with a minor for marrying two Arizona girls to men, and has been sued by a nephew who alleges the sect leader raped him when he was 4.

He has pleaded not guilty to the rape accomplice charges, which carry a maximum penalty of life in prison. Jury selection began Monday in St. George, Utah. It has been difficult to find jurors in this region who don't have an opinion about Jeffs; of 100 potential jurors, only 20 made it through a preliminary round of selection. If the court cannot find 28 impartial jurors, the trial will be moved to more populous Salt Lake City.

Jeffs' attorneys, who did not return calls for comment, previously have argued that he was performing regular religious duties and is being prosecuted for his beliefs. Though he has been in jail since his arrest, Jeffs continues to lead the FLDS and presumably would do so even from prison.

Colorado City and its counterpart on the Utah side of the border, Hildale, are really one community -- a cluster of gas stations on the state highway that gives way to spacious two-story homes, many inside walled compounds. A tiny commercial district includes a health food store, food co-op and Radio Shack.

Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who has represented FLDS members and maintains close ties with the group, said the prosecution of Jeffs has increased the sect's separation from the rest of society.

"It's driven a wedge between the FLDS and the outside world," Parker said. "They see it as completely unjustified, as religious persecution. It's touched that nerve that's been really raw down there for a long time: distrust of the outside world."

In the last few years, FLDS members have been leaving their enclave and establishing bases in Texas, western Colorado and South Dakota.

"The town is thinning out," said Sam Brower, a private investigator who for years has delved into sex abuse cases involving FLDS members. "Things have slowed down here. They're less likely to do underage marriages."

As sect members have moved away, ostracized FLDS members are gradually returning to the community. The changes are modest, but significant. There are occasional dances at Cottonwood Park, and an Oktoberfest is scheduled next month. People in short sleeves -- considered obscene by FLDS -- now appear in town.

Even so, said David Zitting, the mayor of Hildale, "the majority of citizens are still FLDS."

Wyler estimates that about 5% of the residents here now do not belong to the sect. And the differences in town, he said, are a testament to how far this isolated community has to go.

Families who once spent all day huddled inside compounds in fear of federal raids now can be seen riding horses down the dusty streets, even if they mainly consist of a man and his wives, who wear dresses that keep them completely covered. Some gates on walled compounds are left unlocked. There are dogs again. At one point, Jeffs ordered every dog here slain.

But Jeffs' arrest and the modest improvements that followed, some say, don't change the heart of the community.

Flora Jessop, 38, fled the church more than a decade ago, but began fighting it again when she got a call from her 14-year-old sister pleading for rescue before a Jeffs- ordered marriage to her stepfather.

That call in 2001 was the last time Jessop heard from her. She has been told that her sister remains under confinement in one of the sect's many compounds.

"Warren Jeffs is only one man out of thousands who are committing crimes," Jessop said. "And nothing's changed. The people still back him 100%."

Buster Johnson, a supervisor in Mohave County, Ariz., which includes Colorado City, agrees. Though he was elated to see Jeffs in a courtroom, Johnson said there was far more work to be done.

"Of course I hope he goes to prison, but it can't end there," Johnson said. In the minds of FLDS members, "everything outside is the devil, and they're going to take away everything from you. You don't get rid of that culture with a trial."

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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