A declaration of war it was not. But in Utah, where polygamy has been a persistent but submerged issue for generations, no governor had so much as whispered a public opinion on the topic before.
So when Gov. Mike Leavitt asserted last May that “polygamy is against the law” and polygamist Tom Green was sentenced last month to five years in prison, it appeared to signal an unprecedented crackdown on multiple marriages.
With the Winter Olympics only a few months off, image-conscious public officials are starting to talk tough about a crime that law enforcement officials have routinely ignored.
But it remains to be seen if the tough talk will translate into action any time soon.
Testimony during the Green trial and interviews across Utah reveal just how entrenched polygamy remains in a state where plural marriage is practiced by about 2% of the population.
The Green trial exposed a broad range of illegal activity among modern-day polygamists. But public officials will confront many obstacles if they are serious about prosecuting crimes associated with polygamy, according to interviews with anti-polygamy activists and child welfare workers and a search of public records by The Times.
For one thing, some local law enforcement officials don’t want to be bothered with what they view as a private matter, while local politicians don’t want to alienate important constituencies.
Local prosecutors, meanwhile, say they can’t afford to pursue the complex crimes associated with polygamy, from welfare fraud to child neglect.
“If all of a sudden you say you’re going to prosecute all polygamists, we’d all have to hire about 15 people in each of our offices,” said Mel Wilson, attorney for Davis County, north of Salt Lake City.
The secrecy in which polygamy thrives adds another layer of frustration for law enforcement.
But the biggest obstacle may be Utah’s unique religious and cultural history. Polygamy was an integral part of the Mormon faith until the church outlawed the practice in 1890. But in Utah, where 80% of residents are Mormon, many are reluctant to condemn beliefs held by their great-grandfathers and revered church prophets.
It would be difficult to find anyone of note in public life with no family tie to the ancient practice called “The Principle.” The governor, most of the state’s legislators as well as the prosecutor and the judge in the Green case are all descended from polygamists.
“For people in Utah to confront polygamy means they have to confront practices condoned by their ancestors, including mine,” said Ron Allen, a Democratic state senator who sponsored a bill aimed at stopping minors from marrying into polygamy. The bill became law in April.
Allen adds: “We are in a faith-based environment that holds ancestors in high esteem. To deal with polygamy properly, we have to say that what our ancestors created has led to pretty horrific crimes for us now. How do you resolve that?”
According to law enforcement officials and others familiar with how plural marriage operates, the problems usually associated with polygamy include:
* High levels of incest, child abuse and wife battering. But the crimes are rarely reported because of the secrecy surrounding polygamous communities, law enforcement officials say.
* Widespread reliance on welfare. In the tiny town of Hildale, for example, along the Utah-Arizona border, as many as 50% of the residents are on public assistance, according to state and federal records. The fraud occurs when plural wives claim they don’t know the whereabouts of their children’s father.
* Unusual levels of child poverty. For example, across the street from Hildale in Colorado City, Ariz., every school-age child in town was living below the poverty level, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates from 1997, the most current available.
* Wide-ranging tax fraud. Polygamists often underestimate their income or, as in Green’s case, don’t file returns at all.
* Limited educational opportunities. Last year the prophet of the Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints Church, a group excommunicated more than a century ago for practicing polygamy, ordered the town’s children to stop attending public school, resulting in the closure of the local elementary school.
* Overtaxed public services. Medicaid pays for more than one-third of the babies born in Utah, and plural wives account for a disproportionate share of those births, child welfare advocates say.
“It’s very hard to prosecute--you need witnesses, you need cooperation,” said Utah Atty. Gen. Mark Shurtleff. “Because of the closed nature of the society and the threats to the young brides, people are afraid to talk. But the state needs to protect these people.”
Statistics about polygamy are hard to come by. For the most part, information about polygamy and its problems comes from a small group of investigators or from a handful of polygamists and plural wives who have left the fold.
Plural marriage is embedded across Utah’s landscape--in far-flung rural communities like this in the southern Utah desert as well as the bustling Salt Lake City suburbs.
Investigators have identified at least three major polygamous groups: the Kingston group runs a vast business empire from suburban Salt Lake City. The Allred group, which takes a more liberal approach that frowns on child marriage, is also in the Salt Lake City area.
Here, in this tiny desert enclave snug against vermilion cliffs is perhaps the most conservative group, headed by 92-year-old Rulon Jeffs. Jeffs’ FLDS church calls for isolation from non-practicing “Gentiles” and holds apocalyptic, end-of-days views.
People here are ferociously dedicated to their church leaders, whom they call prophets. And the churches’ aging prophets demand much of their flock, including tithing, arranged marriages of teenage girls, and most of all, absolute obedience.
Scores of smaller independent groups of polygamists dot the state where men like Green head up large families and live mostly anonymous lives. They live today much as they have for decades: Frugally, quietly practicing their religion, which has plural marriage as its centerpiece.
The poverty that seems to envelop those who live in polygamy is a concern for state child welfare workers. In Green’s case, he was found guilty on a charge of criminal nonsupport for those of his 30 children who were receiving welfare fraudulently. One investigator put the state tab for supporting Green’s children at more than $150,000.
“It is my belief that child sex abuse, criminal nonsupport and bigamy are the Triple Crown of the practice of polygamy,” said David Leavitt, the prosecutor in Green’s case. Leavitt is the governor’s younger brother.
Green also provided state investigators with a glimpse into tax fraud in polygamy: He had not filed a state tax return for 10 years. During the pretrial phase of his case he espoused an anti-government sentiment called “bleeding the beast,” a way of justifying taking money from the U.S. government, which he reviled.
Educators at public schools near polygamous communities walk a fine line to encourage children from plural marriages to attend school. But Hildale’s elementary school is now closed and the high school, across the border in Arizona, is under-attended because of recent FLDS pronouncements.
Deloy Bateman, a former polygamist here who teaches at the high school, said that higher education is taboo in the FLDS church. The last time anyone from the church was allowed to attend college was 1993, he said.
Bateman’s wife, Eunice, said the polygamous enclaves are filled with children with special needs--from attention-deficit disorder to physical disabilities--some a product of intermarriage. State child welfare groups are keeping a close watch on medical care available to children in polygamy.
The Batemans, who have a son with Down syndrome, said that Down syndrome children are prized here for their docile nature and the fact that their families receive $500 a month from the government for their care.
“You see these young pregnant mothers rubbing their stomachs saying, ‘I hope this one’s a Down’s,’ ” said Eunice Bateman, a former plural wife.
Rowenna Erickson, who married into the Kingston group, calls the health care for children in polygamy a “freak show,” saying pregnant women seldom receive prenatal care.
Along with others, Erickson helped organize Tapestry Against Polygamy, a group that helps women seeking a way out of plural
marriage. She says intermarriage is common in some polygamous groups.
“Half brothers and sisters marry and it’s nothing for cousins to marry,” Erickson said.
Such a case had a rare public hearing in 1998, when a 15-year-old girl fled an arranged marriage to her uncle. She was his 15th wife. When she ran away a second time, her father found her and beat her as punishment.
The prosecution of the two men, from the powerful Kingston family, created a sensation in Utah. David Ortell Kingston is serving a 10-year sentence for incest and unlawful sexual conduct with his niece, and John Daniel Kingston was found guilty of child abuse of his daughter.
That case prompted the Utah Legislature to fund a full-time polygamy investigator, who began work in January.
“I wonder why we in Utah have allowed these crimes against children to occur,” said Allen, the state legislator. “I’m not interested in prosecuting or persecuting consenting adults. But the social costs of polygamy are quite high. The things I’m most worried about in polygamy are physical and sexual abuse of children, forced marriages among minors, welfare and tax fraud, and the diminished educational opportunities, especially among girls. None of this is acceptable.”
Neighboring Arizona, where polygamy is limited to a few towns near the Utah border, last month sent two investigators from the state attorney general’s office to probe sexual abuse and child abuse complaints in Colorado City. The case involves a teenage girl who attempted to flee a polygamous marriage. The girl was spirited out of the area through a modern-day underground railroad, a network of people dedicated to helping girls out of forced marriages.
Still, there is little indication that Arizona plans to crack down on polygamy. Mohave County Atty. William J. Ekstrom Jr. said: “We don’t view polygamy as a prosecutable crime. There is no driving desire to prosecute people for these types of things. We see it as consensual relations between adults.”
An estimated 40,000 polygamists live in Utah and in towns along the Arizona border, and their ways are deeply entrenched.
“It’s a problem begging a solution,” said Lt. Diana Hollis, a child abuse investigator for the Utah attorney general’s office who helped investigate Green. “The tragedy of the situation is that the problems seem to escalate in each subsequent generation. It takes a firm hold and it’s tough to get loose. It’s real tough for law enforcement to get at. You’ve got to want to do it.”
Times researcher Belen Rodriguez in Denver contributed to this story.