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Former polygamist is thorn in sect's side

Utah dental magnate Dan Fischer uses his fortune to fight the FLDS and to help fellow outcasts.

June 30, 2008|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

SANDY, UTAH — The polygamist sect preached that Dan Fischer was a heretic who had turned his back on God's chosen children.

But for Enos Deloy Steed, who was banished at age 17 for kissing a girl, Fischer was like a guardian angel, the kindest man he had ever met.

Steed's father disowned him and left him wandering southern Utah in search of menial work. Fischer gave him a place to live -- and volunteered to put him through college.

"He gives us a fair shot in the world, a chance to have a life, because he can relate," said Steed, now 22 and set to graduate in November. "It's really great that someone is willing."

It can take a long time to unlearn the tenets of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which forbids the color red, claims man never landed on the moon, and has allegedly forced pubescent girls to marry old men. (The FLDS split from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints long ago after the Mormon Church disavowed polygamy.)

Former FLDS members can count on loving support from Fischer, a onetime polygamist who invented a popular tooth-whitening formula in his barn and uses his resulting fortune to fight the sect and help fellow outcasts.

The 10,000-member FLDS "has become the Taliban of America," Fischer said.

The sect attracted national attention when Texas authorities raided a compound in April and seized more than 400 children after allegedly finding pregnant child brides.

A Texas judge ruled last month that the state overreached in taking the children. Most of the children have been returned to their parents while a criminal probe continues. A grand jury in Eldorado, Texas, is soon to hear evidence of adults marrying girls, which could lead to indictments of sect elders.

Fischer, 59, secretly practiced polygamy for years in the Salt Lake City suburbs, maintaining three wives and fathering 16 children. But he chafed under a church leadership that he considered increasingly authoritarian and "goofy," and he broke free in 1995 with his second wife, Leenie, the one he truly adored.

Well-off thanks to his dental company, Ultradent Products Inc., Fischer could have distanced himself from his polygamist past. Yet he felt that someone had to stand up to Warren Jeffs, whom the church considered prophet -- and after the church disgraced Fischer's father, he said, he realized it had to be him.

Fischer learned in 1999 that his 72-year-old father had been stripped of his three wives by sect leaders for supposed disloyalty. FLDS foes estimate that 250 plural families have been similarly torn apart, with wives redistributed like heads of cattle and children told to call a stranger Father.

"In the annihilation of my family, Warren Jeffs called the shots," Fischer said, his voice trembling with evident rage.

Like many who leave the FLDS, Fischer is shunned as a traitor. Even his mother refuses to talk to him. But like a long-lost uncle who offers a hand in times of need, other outcasts have discovered they can always call "Dr. Dan."

Through his charity, the Diversity Foundation, Fischer has provided shelter and counseling to hundreds of so-called lost boys, teens like Steed who are expelled from polygamist enclaves for alleged moral violations. Critics say the real reason for their expulsion is polygamy's brutal math: For a few men to have many wives, the rest have to be removed from competition.

"He's a remarkable man," Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff said of Fischer. "He has done more for the lost boys than everyone else combined. I know he doesn't like to brag about it, but he has spent millions."

Fischer has also aided women who left the FLDS with their children -- most notably Carolyn Jessop, whose 2007 memoir, "Escape," became a bestseller.

"Without him, I would not have survived," Jessop said, recalling that Fischer harbored her and her eight children after she fled in 2003, even as she was hunted by the FLDS elder she had been forced to marry when she was 18 and he was 50.

But it is by paying private investigators and attorneys to expose his former religion's seamier side that Fischer has had the biggest effect.

After testimony from a child bride whom a Fischer sleuth tracked down and persuaded to go public, Jeffs was convicted in Utah last year of being an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of a 14-year-old to her 19-year-old cousin. He was sentenced to two consecutive terms of five years to life in prison.

Spurred by a lawsuit that Fischer funded, Utah persuaded a court in 2005 to take over an FLDS trust that owned nearly all the land on which sect members built houses along the Utah-Arizona border.

Fischer was raised in a secluded farming community outside Salt Lake City that outsiders derisively called Polyg-ville.

When he turned 17, he drove a pickup to the home of then-prophet Leroy Johnson expecting to begin a life of hard labor, the sole career choice for most FLDS boys.

He was in for a shock.

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