‘Apostate’ aids civil rights lawsuit against radical sect
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.
Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County district attorney’s office in Arizona who spent years accumulating evidence against the sect, said he saw families separated by Jeffs. “If leaders tell a family their children have to go, they abandon them,” he said.
Some of Jeffs’ orders defied reason. In 2001, the federal lawsuit contends, Jeffs banned domestic dogs and later sent marshals to round up any remaining canines, which were taken to a “slaughter pit” and shot.
The towns employ a small team of state-certified uniformed marshals, but the lawmen allegedly failed to protect residents from harassment. “They sought guidance from the church rather than serving the higher call for justice,” said Mohave County Atty. Matt Smith.
Since 2003, according to the suit, Arizona authorities have decertified six of the marshals for failing to cooperate with law enforcement, including their refusal to testify at a grand jury proceeding involving the church.
Efforts by Arizona and Utah to disband the marshal force bogged down in the states’ legislatures, but Arizona Atty. Gen. Tom Horne said he expected his state to abolish Colorado City’s marshal’s office in the next legislative session.
“It doesn’t do any good to remove these marshals one at a time, because they get replaced by clones,” he said.
In the meantime, Arizona has directed the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office to respond to calls in Colorado City, he said.
Horne said Arizona had pursued civil rights charges against Colorado City officials for years but that the church had circled the wagons. “People don’t remember things, they refuse to answer questions,” he said. “It’s a very closed society. It’s tough to scrape your way inside.”
Isaac Wyler stood in a cornfield and shook his head. A baseball diamond once stood here, he said, but church members bulldozed the sandlot and have used bundles of pressed cardboard to block off an outdoor school basketball court.
Sports were encouraged until Jeffs suddenly proclaimed them off-limits, Wyler said.
“The elders used to watch apostates’ kids play baseball and basketball, and they must have thought, ‘Wow, that looks like fun,’ ” said former church member Ross Chatwin. “Next thing we knew, the field was gone and the court was blocked off.”
Someone cut openings in the fences at Wyler’s stable, allowing horses to bolt, and he suspected church members. The marshal’s office was no help.
“The officers would come out and say, ‘Well, this fence has clearly been cut, but we’re going to fine you $25 for each horse on the loose,’ ” he said.
Wyler said his teenage son Marvin was injured once when a church youth ran him over with a horse. The boy’s crime: wearing a short-sleeve shirt, which is forbidden by the sect.
“I told my son these church kids don’t realize what they’re doing,” he recalled. “I said that intolerance isn’t born into people; it’s taught.”
Though outnumbered, Wyler remains defiant. “When I was a boy, I was taught that apostate was the worst word you could ever be called,” he said. “But now I’m one of them, and I couldn’t care less. I’m actually proud of it.”
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