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COLUMN ONE

'Apostate' aids civil rights lawsuit against radical sect

Isaac Wyler and other church outcasts on the Arizona-Utah border say they are still being harassed years after being banished by sect leader Warren Jeffs.

July 10, 2012|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • Isaac Wyler, 46, stands in front of a former baseball diamond in Colorado City, Ariz., that church members razed and turned into a cornfield after sect leader Warren Jeffs declared sports off-limits.
Isaac Wyler, 46, stands in front of a former baseball diamond in Colorado… (John M. Glionna, Los Angeles…)

COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Isaac Wyler is one of the unwanted ones.

For years, he has endured a cruel banishment from those he once considered brethren — followers of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Out here on the desert high plains, guarded by big-shouldered buttes, church outcasts are dismissed as apostates, ostracized in life and condemned to burn in hell after death. Wyler was among several members banished by church leader Warren Jeffs in 2004 for unspecified sins.

"Jeffs told the women and children not to say goodbye to their husbands and fathers," said Wyler, a horse rancher with a white cowboy hat and piercing blue eyes. "It was his will that we now simply failed to exist."

But Wyler, 46, has refused to disappear. He and others collected evidence of church harassment that has become the basis of a federal civil rights lawsuit seeking to protect nonbelievers from the church and from civil and law enforcement authorities said to be under its control.

Filed last month by the Justice Department, the suit alleges that authorities in the twin border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., have for 20 years "operated as an arm" of the church.

Jeffs has called himself "president and prophet, seer and revelator." Law enforcement officials describe him in less lofty terms: as the leader of a polygamist cult who once made the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. He is serving a life sentence in Texas for child sexual assault.

Even from behind bars, the suit contends, Jeffs, 56, wields power here. Under his direction, those banished from the sect have been denied "housing, police protection and access to public space and services," according to the federal lawsuit, which seeks to bar local officials from discriminating against scores of former church members in both towns.

The church is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, which disavowed polygamy more than a century ago.

Wyler is a native of Colorado City and a father of four who grew up in the church but did not practice polygamy. He told Justice Department officials that those cast out by Jeffs had been denied electricity, water, building permits — even service at restaurants.

Local marshals have stopped their cars and arrested them without cause and allowed sect members to vandalize their property, the suit claims.

Attorneys for the border towns criticized the lawsuit as an unnecessary intrusion.

"This is a very heavy-handed attack," said Jeff Matura, a lawyer who represents Colorado City. "You've got two small communities in sovereign states. There's no need for the federal government to get involved. Arizona and Utah can take care of this."

The twin border towns are about an hour south of Zion National Park, where Utah's Route 59 turns into Route 389 on the Arizona side. To visit the towns is to step back in time. Women wear long-sleeve "prairie dresses," even in the summer heat, their hair worked into elaborate buns in the style of 19th century homesteaders.

Church members are forbidden to participate in sports, watch TV or read newspapers. Teenage girls are sometimes forced to marry men old enough to be their grandfathers.

Most residents avoid eye contact with visitors. Asked the name of the mayor, a paramedic chief looked at the ground, saying he didn't know.

Wyler, whose father had 39 children by four wives, loves the desert heat and the privacy of the place and says he helped build most of the houses here with his bare hands. But over time, he says, he began to harbor doubts about Jeffs' capricious dictates.

When a fellow member asked him about making his young daughter sexually available to Jeffs, Wyler said he responded: "Anyone comes looking for my daughter before she's 18 will meet my baseball bat."

He suspects the comment got back to Jeffs, leading to his banishment.

Wyler says he could have abandoned Colorado City but stayed instead to help advise the growing number of so-called apostates, who he says make up 10% of the towns' combined population of 10,000.

He has survived his banishment, he said, by making a living raising horses, which he sells outside the community.

Challenging the church has brought heartbreak. "It's really hard," he said, "to have an entire town against you."

*

On Aug. 30, 1953, Arizona law enforcement officers stormed the town then called Short Creek in one of the largest mass arrests of polygamists in U.S. history.

Hundreds were arrested and 236 children taken into protective custody. But negative public reaction allowed many church members to return to the area, which later split into two municipalities — Hildale and Colorado City.

The community was left alone until 2005, when Arizona successfully prosecuted two church members for fathering children with underage girls. Jeffs, who was indicted, went on the run. He was convicted last year on child sex abuse charges.

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