Critics: Polygamy crime still thrives
Los Angeles Times on Sunday, August 18 2002


ZION NATIONAL PARK -- It has been two years since Utah's legislature appointed a full-time investigator to root out crimes associated with polygamy. But, aside from last year's high-profile prosecution and imprisonment of polygamist Tom Green, no other cases have been brought to court.

Anti-polygamy activists, who gathered here Saturday for an unprecedented meeting, charge the state has not done enough to stamp out "Utah's dirty little secret." They say the inaction is allowing child abuse, welfare fraud and sexual assault to continue unchecked in polygamous communities.

Groups from Utah, Arizona and Canada met for the first time to gather material for a report they intend to forward to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. They also have recruited former "sister wives" to help build a massive class-action suit to be filed against a polygamous religious group that arranges marriages of girls as young as 13.

The activists called polygamous leaders "the American Taliban," saying women are subjugated by the practice of plural marriage.

And repeatedly, they said Utah's polygamy investigator merely has provided political cover for the state, which has little interest in delving into a highly sensitive issue.

"I think it's a good show, but it's all a political game," said Flora Jessop, who fled her polygamous family in Colorado City, Ariz., when she was 16.

Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, are polygamous communities that straddle the states' borders about 40 miles southwest of here. There are an estimated 40,000 polygamists living in the western United States and Canada, where some splinter groups have fled after internal fractions.

"Polygamy is an ugly word, no matter how you look at it," Jessop said. "But child abuse is ugly, too. What do people think is going on in these towns? There are still children being abused and still girls trying to run away. So as long as that's allowed to happen, no, I can't say there's been any progress in two years."

Officials say that investigating closed societies is difficult and that women and girls seldom come forward to report abuse. In some rural areas, the local sheriff and county prosecutor are reluctant to get involved in what they view as a matter of religious choice or lifestyle, state officials say.

Anti-polygamy activists say that's no excuse for not going after lawbreakers.

Ron Barton, Utah's polygamy investigator, acknowledges he doesn't have much to show for two years' work.

"I would have hoped that more would have been done during that time," he said. "My eyes have been opened to the problems in the community. The problems are pretty well hidden.

"There are children who are victimized, sexually molested by nonfamily members. Incest. Underage marriages. Spousal abuse. Welfare fraud. Women and children are the primary victims."

Barton investigated flamboyant polygamist Tom Green, who was sentenced last year to five years in prison for bigamy and failing to repay the state for thousands of dollars in welfare payments his family improperly received. It was the first conviction of its kind in Utah in 50 years.

Green, 54, will be sentenced again on Aug. 27, this time for child rape for marrying Linda Kunz Green in 1986 when she was 13. He was 37. She is the only one of his wives he legally married. The others were married to him in a religious ceremony.

Green's complex family structure, which was dissected during the trial, gave investigators fits. When they finally constructed a family tree, Green was charged with rape. Linda Kunz Green was Green's stepdaughter at the time of their marriage. Green had been married to Linda Kunz's mother, Beth Cook, whom he later divorced. Cook gave Green her permission to marry her daughter.

Anti-polygamy activists dismiss Green's prosecution as a "show trial," a charge that riles Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"They don't know what they're talking about," he said, adding that new polygamy cases are being prepared. "I have no respect for people who just stand there and complain and do nothing to help. This is a much more wide-ranging problem than we had thought. Other prosecutions will be forthcoming, but we're making sure to do this right. We are serious about it."