NATION

At trial, government accuses two towns of crimes in support of Warren Jeffs' sect

Isolated and framed by the raw beauty of the rugged high desert, the tiny twin towns along the Utah-Arizona border were different than most places.

Men had multiple wives, strangers were ostracized, and spiritual leaders of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints displayed a particular fondness for banishing those who failed to heed the commands of the religious sect.

When the sect's leader was running from the law — wanted on suspicion of sexually assaulting underage girls he considered his wives — authorities came to believe that even the police departments in Hildale, Utah, and neighboring Colorado City, Ariz., were running interference for Warren Jeffs.

"Dear Uncle Warren," began one letter from Fred Barlow, then police chief for both towns, to Jeffs while the spiritual leader was on the move. "I rejoice in the peace that comes over me when I follow the directives you sent to me."

He signed it, "Your servant."

With Jeffs long ago behind bars, the government now is bearing down on Hildale and Colorado City.

In its most aggressive move yet, the government has taken the border towns to court, alleging that sect leaders traded in their Old Testament brand of justice for something more polished, but just as exclusionary.

A Justice Department civil suit, which went to trial Wednesday in a Phoenix courtroom, alleged that leaders of the towns — which make up the 10,000-person FLDS stronghold known as Short Creek — discriminated against nonbelievers by denying them water service and delaying police response to emergencies.

It the government prevails, police and government services could be handed over to a receivership that answers to the federal government, but the government hasn't said yet what relief it would seek if it wins the case.

"The evidence will show the control that these men have over city officials and police officers to achieve their own objectives, the objectives of the FLDS church," Justice Department prosecutor Jessica Clarke told jurors Wednesday. "Their plan was to deny basic rights and freedoms to those non-FLDS families so they pack up and move away."

In response, attorneys representing the cities say Hildale and Colorado City are victims of a deep-seated desire by the U.S. government to extinguish their religion and way of life. The cities and their shared water utility deny the allegations of discrimination, and say they have distanced themselves from Jeffs.

During turbulent times last decade, when Jeffs was tracked down, tried and convicted, the cities had different leadership, including a different chief of police. After investigations into their conduct, town police officers were decertified by the Arizona and Utah police registry agencies, then given government or church positions.

But since 2007, defense attorney Blake Hamilton said, no officers have lost their certification, and the current leadership of the towns' collective police department is not accused of having done anything improper.

Hamilton told the jury of five women and seven men that the government's case rests on two faulty assumptions: that deeply religious people shouldn't hold public office and that all civic employees in the border towns are FLDS members.

Though the Justice Department has not made such broad allegations, Hamilton said, the nature of its prosecution will lead in that direction.

"It's tempting to lump them all into a category as brainwashed cultists," said Hamilton, a Salt Lake City attorney. "I believe [the government] is targeting people because they're different."

The FLDS is not affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the mainstream Mormon Church, which formally banned polygamy in 1890, though plural marriages remained a custom through the 1930s, when Mormons began to excommunicate those who took multiple wives.

FLDS members seeking freedom to practice polygamy — a practice they believe guarantees their entry to heaven — founded the community of Short Creek in the 1930s in response.

Today, the towns of Hildale and Colorado City operate as independent municipalities, each with a mayor and five-member town council, though most of the land in each is held by the United Effort Plan Trust, a FLDS-controlled fiduciary collective.

Clarke said witnesses would testify that civic leaders ordered officers to follow newcomers, taking down their license plate numbers and sending information about the drivers to FLDS church security. Outsiders are followed when they enter town, then tracked by a network of cameras that were once monitored around the clock, Clarke said.

The Justice Department says it will call former church leaders, former city officials and one former chief of police. But attorneys for the towns quickly questioned the credibility of some of the prospective witnesses.

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Hamilton's primary target was a former police chief of the towns, Helaman Barlow, who has since turned against the church.

"He's a liar!" Hamilton shouted. "He will admit he has consistently lied to juries. He will admit that he's consistently lied to judges … and what did the government do? They gave him immunity."

Hamilton acknowledged in his opening statement that many defense witnesses will invoke their 5th Amendment rights and decline to answer attorneys' questions.

In alleging fault, the government targeted public officials who they say had blurred the lines between the FLDS church and their public duties, using their position to do the bidding of their imprisoned leader while leaving enough room for plausible deniability if they were ever charged.

Though Clarke highlighted allegations of the most egregious misconduct, the case is centered on the simple difficulty of living day to day in a place where you are not wanted.

One of the primary witnesses expected to testify about such treatment is Jinjer Cooke. Her husband was raised in the FLDS faith, then left the church. When the Cookes returned to Short Creek with children, they found they were denied water, electric and sewer service.

They sued and won a $5.2-million judgment in 2014, later reduced to a $3-million payment from the insurance companies for the towns of Hildale and Colorado City. A jury decided that their complaints of discrimination held up.

The Cookes' experiences will be used as evidence in the Justice Department's case. But, notably, the jury will not be told that they won their case.

nigel.duara@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on January 21, 2016, in the News section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "U.S. takes polygamous border towns to court" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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