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Did cities collude with fundamentalist Mormon sect to persecute nonbelievers? A jury will decide

Not even defense attorneys dispute that a polygamous Mormon fundamentalist sect has gone to extreme lengths to preserve its vise grip on the community of Short Creek on the Arizona-Utah state line.

For six weeks, tearful witnesses in the government’s civil suit against the community in the twin bordering towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, testified to the church’s constant spying and harassment of people considered a threat to the church.

Even a defense attorney for the cities, Jeffrey Matura, conceded to jurors that the evidence pointed to church misdeeds that were so abhorrent that “if the church were on trial, I’d tell you to award [the plaintiffs] money.”

But as Matura said repeatedly in closing arguments in a Phoenix federal courthouse, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is not on trial.

Matura sought to distinguish between the guilt of the church, which he said was evident, and the actions of officials in Hildale, Colorado City and a water board, which he said were the victims of a federal government bent on “eradicating” the FLDS religion.

“What [the government wants] you to do is have this deep-seated hatred and disgust at this religion, and take it out on the towns,” Matura said. “You have to wonder, who or what religion is next?”

Colorado City and Hildale, collectively known as Short Creek with a population of 10,000, were both founded and operated by adherents of the FLDS faith — and, the U.S. Department of Justice alleges, are run by the religion’s prophet, Warren Jeffs, from the solitary confinement of his Texas prison cell, where he is serving a life sentence.

The Department of Justice, on behalf of six plaintiffs who sued the towns and their shared water board, says the FLDS church’s history of denying water service to apostates, running video surveillance on outsiders and delaying police responses to calls for help demonstrates a pattern of collusion between the church and towns to discourage non-FLDS members from moving to the area and punishing those who do.

The government focused much of its attention on the misdeeds of the church because, Justice Department attorney Sean Keveney said in his closing argument Wednesday, the division between church and state in Short Creek wasn’t just blurred — it never existed.

He said George Allred, the onetime mayor of Colorado City, sought the imprisoned Jeffs’ guidance on matters as routine as hiring city employees.

“He sought the mind and will of the Lord from Warren Jeffs on city business,” Keveney said.

The government alleges that the cities violated provisions of the Fair Housing Act by denying services to people based on religion, and the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act by having the police departments enforce laws differently where they concerned people who were not members of the FLDS church.

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A jury of seven men and five women must decide whether, by a preponderance of evidence, the charges are true. The panel began deliberating Wednesday afternoon.

Though Matura and his co-counsel framed the town’s troubled past of supporting Jeffs as ancient history, a recent development thrust the church back into the news. During the trial, the Justice Department brought charges of food stamp fraud against 11 church members, including Lyle and Seth Jeffs, brothers of Warren Jeffs.

The government alleges church leaders directed Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program money meant for impoverished church members to the church instead.

The 11 people indicted live in Utah and South Dakota, and all have pled not guilty. “This indictment is not about religion. This indictment is about fraud,” said John W. Huber, U.S. attorney for Utah, in a statement.

Huber has said using federal funds to pay for church needs is one of Jeffs’ strategies of “bleeding the beast” of the federal government, one which the government alleges is still an active practice in the Short Creek community.

Jeffs is imprisoned in Texas for life plus 20 years for sexually assaulting two underage girls he considered his wives. Attorneys with the federal government allege that when he was captured in 2006, Colorado City modified its old brand of justice, such as outright banishment, and adopted more modern forms of exclusion, such as denying water service to those perceived as threats to the church and its prophet.

Some of those new arrivals brought the lawsuit against the cities of Hildale and Colorado City. Those who live under the shadow of the church and its fiduciary collective, the United Effort Plan Trust, watched their cities grow from their formal incorporation in 1985 to include a gas station, a general store and a compound for the polygamous Jeffs and his wives.

At all times, they told investigators, Jeffs controlled its utilities and their police force, even as he fled justice.

“Dear Uncle Warren,” began one letter from then-Police Chief Fred Barlow to Jeffs, while Jeffs was still on the run. “I rejoice in the peace that comes over me when I follow the directives you sent to me.”

He signed it, “Your servant.”

The federal government has brought a narrow focus on the FLDS after years of complaints from residents in Utah and Arizona, as well as advocates of church and state separation. The sect is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which disavows FDLS teachings.

In addition to the civil trial and the food stamp fraud allegations, the Department of Labor last September sued church leaders and Paragon Contractors Corp., alleging they used young children illegally to harvest pecans in southern Utah.

Though there were days of testimony from non-FLDS town leadership, current employees of the cities’ police forces and the water utility, some of the most significant evidence in the government’s case came instead from the silence of the towns’ leaders.

When asked about the town government, the FLDS church security force and his own plural marriages, some of them to girls younger than 18, Colorado City’s current mayor, Joseph Steed Allred, smirked at Keveney and replied, “I respectfully plead the 5th.”

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