Polygamy prevails in remote Arizona Town
Denver Post/March 4, 2001
By Susan Greene
Colorado City, Ariz. -- As a little girl,
Laura Chapman taped
the words "Keep Sweet" on her bathroom mirror to remind herself
how to get by in this remote, polygamous community.
Keeping sweet, Chapman says, meant staying silent as her father
molested her starting at age 3. It meant hiding her secret from
her 30 brothers and sisters. It meant being lashed with a
yardstick by one of her father's four wives. It meant having to
quit school at age 11, then work without pay in a store owned by
her church's prophet.
Keeping sweet meant being forced into marriage at age 18 to a
man she didn't know, let alone love. It meant having a baby every
year. It meant walking 10 paces behind her husband. And, above
all, it meant smiling, sweetly through her pain.
"We were just little girls in odd clothes and funny hair who
thought we were going to hell if we didn't obey," recalled
Chapman, now 38, who has made a new life in Longmont since fleeing
10 years ago with her five children. "Who would think, right here
in the United States of America fathers are trading their
daughters away like trophies? It's brainwashing and slavery. It's
a complete system of organized crime right in our backyard that
for some reason the government has simply chosen to ignore."
Chapman is one of dozens of people known among locals as
"apostates" - mostly female dissidents who have fled or been
booted from this fundamentalist Mormon community and are calling
attention to the child abuse and sexual slavery they say are
rampant here. They're demanding that law enforcers investigate
crimes they say have gone overlooked too long. Community leaders
dismiss those outcries as carping by bitter, godless women. They
insist problems here are no worse than in any other town, and that
locals simply are following the straightest line they know to God.
"Every community has its loudmouths, grumblers and
complainers," said Mayor Dan Barlow, one of few citizens in good
standing willing, albeit reluctantly, to speak with reporters. "I
think we've got a nice community. . . . It's a wholesome place to
Authorities in Arizona and Utah have paid little heed to this
desert hamlet, which straddles the border between both states.
"I've seen underage girls married off, marriages between
relatives and families removing youths from school. There's an
element of abuse, physically and sexually, involving some members
of these households that in most cases go unreported," said
investigator Ron Barton, who is conducting Utah's first statewide
polygamy probe in decades.
"Some men seem to be using their religion as an excuse for
behavior that shouldn't be tolerated. I'd say it's time for all
levels of government to stand up and take notice."
Plural marriage is one of the "eternal principles" of
Mormonism, based on a revelation by founder Joseph Smith that he
should take more than one wife. Practitioners believe that men
attain exalted status in the afterlife by having multiple wives in
the present one. Only wives who sweetly comply will be "lifted up"
to the "celestial kingdom" by their husbands.
Polygamy is taught in several verses of the standard Mormon
scripture, "Doctrine and Covenants." The Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints disavowed the practice in the 1890s after what
church leaders call a divine revelation, but what others say was a
political compromise so that Utah could become a state. Rebellious
zealots calling themselves the "true Mormons" claimed that if the
principle was valid once, it's valid forever.
Leaving family and friends behind, they moved in the 1920s to
this parched landscape south of Zion National Park. Here, they
formed a new order, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of
Latter-day Saints, which shares most of the same doctrines but is
unaffiliated with the mainstream LDS Church.
LDS officials don't recognize members of the FLDS as Mormons.
"I don't think it's accurate for them to call themselves that.
They have nothing to do with our religion," said LDS spokesman
Mike Otterson. Known as Short Creek until the 1960s, Colorado City
and Hildale, Utah, its neighbor across the state line, now make up
the nation's largest polygamous community. Most of the towns'
estimated 8,000 residents live in polygamous families.
Married men here typically take about three wives, each bearing
about nine children, locals say. Most keep their entire family
under one roof, where "sister wives" share the cooking, cleaning
and babysitting. Husbands rotate between bedrooms either on a
fixed schedule or according to whim. "Biologically, it's the
nature of women and men. Men are so much more hormonal than us.
For a lot of women, sex is a chore. Very few women will admit that
they want a night off," 38-year-old Naomi Hammon, the third wife
of her 76-year-old husband, said in support of the practice.
Like Chapman, girls start early learning to accept their role.
Thus, the reminders to "Stay Pure," "Smile," and "Keep Sweet" that
they post at home or carry in the pockets of their home-sewn,
flowered frocks. Still, some never get comfortable with the
arrangement. "It takes a while to get over the jealousy. You learn
pretty fast to try to ignore what you're feeling," said Katie Cox,
who for 38 years has endured what she calls a "hands-off"
relationship with her sister wife. Added Chapman: "I've seen women
scratch, kick, pull hair over how they load the dishwasher."
The pecking order for FLDS members is unwavering: Children are
subordinate to their mothers, who are subordinate to their
husband, who is subordinate to the church prophet, who answers to
"I have to be a chauvinist in order to manage my family," said
high school science teacher DeLoy Bateman, who has 17 children
with his two wives but has left the church and questions gender
roles in the community. "The women give their minds over to the
men. They're really, really good, if you want a Stepford wife."
Families have intermarried over the decades so that husbands
and wives commonly are stepsiblings and cousins. Visitors remark
on the number of children who suffer from physical or mental
disabilities. "It's the incest capital of the world," said Rowenna
Erickson, co-founder of Tapestry Against Polygamy, a Utah group
pushing for investigations into such communities.
"These huge families are forced on each other," added Hammon,
most of whose 75 siblings haven't spoken to her since she split
from the church not because of polygamy but because of what she
describes as the group's increasing cultishness. "They're all
living like sardines. It's all incredibly unhealthy."
Not so, counters one church defender, who touts the community
as "a piece of lost Americana." "Everyone talks about family
values, but these people, they've really got family values.
They've got 20 to 30 children who've all got to get along. Money
is always tight. They're more committed to family than anyone else
I've seen in America," said Scott Berry, a Salt Lake City lawyer
representing the church.
Berry dismisses apostates' allegations as sour grapes. "They
probably feel pretty badly that they've devoted large chunks of
their lives to the church. They're pretty bitter about that. They
have their own agenda and will tell their yarns to anyone who will
listen," he said.
Nestled between high vermilion cliffs, Colorado City is an
ideal spot for seclusion from the outside world. It's located in a
remote strip of Arizona separated from the rest of that state by
the Grand Canyon. The 425-mile drive from the Mohave County seat
in Kingman keeps social workers, investigators and sheriffs away.
The city's mayor and council members come from the FLDS elite.
Even police officers, known among dissidents as the "God Squad,"
practice polygamy. "That's none of your business," Police Chief
Sam Roundy said of his home life. "It's a religion and we have the
freedom to do that. We're not infringing on anybody. Don't we have
the right to practice our religion?"
The community lived mostly undisturbed during its first 25
years here. That ended in July 1953, when Arizona state officials
grew annoyed by the group's flagrant disregard of polygamy laws.
ThenGov. Howard Pyle ordered all married men here - including
now-Mayor Barlow - arrested and jailed on charges of bigamy,
adultery and rape. The National Guard hauled the women and
children off to Phoenix, holding them for two years as wards of
But Pyle's strategy backfired. Swayed by news reports showing
Guardsmen prying babies from their fathers' arms, public opinion
shifted against the arrests. Prosecutors failed to win
convictions, largely because unrecorded marriages here make it
difficult to prove polygamy. The Short Creek raid ultimately cost
the governor another term in office.
"You get killed quicker in government doing your duty than
turning your back," Pyle was quoted as saying. Having forged a
powerful bond as martyrs of the raid, families regrouped here
during the late 1950s, determined to rebuild stronger than ever.
The population has exploded during each of the four decades
since, so that the twin towns each rank as having among the
youngest and largest households in their states. Arizona and Utah
officials say they give food stamps to about a third of residents
here - polygamous wives and mothers describing themselves as
single, many of whom are underage. Colorado City gets about $8 in
services for every tax dollar it pays, compared to the average
$1.20 countywide, Mohave County officials say.
"There are some polygamists accepting aid from the government
to support their lifestyle," said Barton, the Utah investigator.
Meantime, locals have expanded beyond subsistence farming on the
town's outskirts. They've built a cabinet company, a uniform
factory and construction firms, among others, that do business in
nearby Utah and Nevada towns. Most local businesses sit on land
held by the United Effort Plan (UEP), a religious charitable trust
formed in 1942 that owns virtually all real estate in the towns.
The UEP assigns residential lots to men who tithe the requisite
10 percent of their earnings. Families, in turn, build but don't
actually own the sprawling, do-it-yourself homes that house their
large broods. Continued use of the land depends on good standing
with the church and its reclusive prophet, Rulon Jeffs, whose
words are held in godlike esteem by members. The 92-year-old
retired tax attorney is said to have 48 wives.
Berry, his attorney, refuses to confirm that number, saying
it's "impolite" to ask. Jeffs suffers from Parkinson's disease. He
has left most oversight of the church and its business holdings to
his 45-year-old son, Warren. Warren Jeffs, who lives next door to
his father in their huge, heavily secured compound, refused to be
interviewed for this story.
Said Berry: "It's like asking to interview the pope."
Predictions of doom`and ascension As several townsfolk tell it,
Warren Jeffs has prophesied a mass lifting up in which only the
most devout will rise to heaven. The ascension is supposed to take
place from the community garden in the center of town, which
dissidents call the "launching pad." Warren Jeffs is said to have
named several dates that have come and gone with no apparent
"They've predicted so many doomsdays that I think it's messing
with their mental processes," Hammon said. Berry said apostates
make too much of the predictions. "The church does believe the end
is near. But I can assure you that no one has set a date," he
To prepare for the end, Warren Jeffs preaches increasing
isolation from the secular world. He urges his flock to avoid
newspapers, television, the Internet and other exposure to
outsiders, known as "gentiles." The town radio station shuns
popular songs with lyrics, broadcasting mostly upbeat, patriotic
instrumentals. Computer bar codes printed on most retail products
are believed to be the "Sign of the Beast."
Children have little contact with kids outside their faith
because they generally don't play competitive sports, which are
considered unspiritual. Their main pastime is bouncing on the
massive trampolines in front of nearly every home.
"Jumping on those tramps was the only freedom we had growing
up. In a way, it was the closest we ever really got to being
lifted up," said LuAnn Fischer, a 30-year-old mother of four who
says she and her husband were booted from the church last fall
after they questioned Warren Jeffs' authority.
In a move toward further isolation, Warren Jeffs urged parents
last summer to yank their children out of public school. Contact
with non-believers, he said, could hurt their prospects for the
afterlife. As a result, about 800 kids - threequarters of the
school district's entire student body - didn't show up for classes
"Jeffs didn't like that they couldn't teach religion in
school," said Mohave County schools superintendent Mike File.
"Parents felt that if they didn't pull their kids out they'd be
Community leaders defend the mass exodus, saying they're
preserving their culture. "I'm convinced that there's never been a
time that parents have taken such an active interest in
education," said Mayor Barlow. "You being from Denver, Littleton,
you know there's some major problems in public schools these
During a recent visit to Colorado City, school-age children
were seen playing in their yards during school hours. Officials
say lax laws in Arizona and Utah give them no authority to monitor
whether those students are being taught either at home or at the
FLDS parochial school, nor to check the qualifications of the
people supposed to be teaching them.
"That's the way the law's written. Nothing I can do," File
said. Others suspect that parents are trying to avoid outside
oversight. "They know that if we have access to these students
we'll find out what's going on in the community," said Ron Allen,
a Utah state senator who has authored several bills to fund probes
into polygamous groups. "A child that's not in school is a child
that can't tell a counselor they're being abused."
Seven female apostates interviewed for this story said they
were molested or raped as children. None of their alleged
perpetrators were charged. Four of those apostates are Chapman and
her sisters Rena Mackert, Louise Mackert and Kathleen Swaney, who
all said their earliest memories are of being sexually abused by
their father, Clyde Mackert. Louise recalls lying awake as her
father molested her little sister Rena in the same bed.
Their mother, who asked not to be named, said in hindsight she
has "no question" that her ex-husband sexually abused their
daughters. Chapman and Rena Mackert said they reported the
molestation by phone to Mohave County and Washington County
sheriffs in 1991, more than a decade after the alleged abuse
occurred. That was the year Chapman said memories came back to
her. Both sheriffs offices said they normally keep such reports,
but have no record of the sisters' complaints.
Clyde Mackert refused comment about his daughters' allegations.
"I don't want to talk about it," he said. "I'm not interested in
Teen girls taken`to pair with older men
In perhaps his most controversial move, Warren Jeffs is said to
be arranging an increasing number of marriages between teenage
girls and much older men. Locals say most girls over 14 already
had dropped out of high school, even before the mass dis-enrollment.
One such case involves Nichole Holm, who, according to her
mother, was taken by the Jeffs family at age 15 and assigned to be
the second wife of a man 23 years her senior.
Nichole Holm could not be reached for comment. Berry did not
return phone calls about the Jeffs' role in her disappearance. Now
17, Nichole Holm doesn't speak to her mother.
"One day I saw her walking down the road with a heavy load. I
stopped to give her a lift and she ran into the bushes to get
away," Lenore Holm said. Because she refused to consent to her
daughter's marriage, Holm says the Jeffs are kicking her and her
11 younger children out of their home. She goes to court this
month to fight eviction notices.
Mayor Barlow counters that Holm is being ousted because she
left the church and no longer deserves to live on land owned by
the UEP trust. Holm said the ordeal is more anguishing than the
abuse she suffered during her first, polygamous marriage.
"Taking the hits all those years wasn't as hard as worrying
about what Nichole is going through," she said. "I'll pitch a tent
if I need to. But I'm not going to let them herd her through life
like a head of cattle."
Holm filed reports with local police, county sheriffs deputies,
state child protective officials and the FBI. "Nobody's lifted a
finger to help," she said. An FBI agent in Arizona said his agency
has "looked into" Holm's sex offense complaint, but wouldn't say
whether it's still investigating.
Officials with Arizona's Division of Child, Youth and Family
refused comment, citing confidentiality laws. Mohave County
sheriffs deputies say they last investigated in October, when they
were told that Nichole Holm has chosen to live with an aunt.
Still, they sent the case to county prosecutors, who passed it on
to the Arizona attorney general's office. A spokeswoman for the
attorney general said "it's extremely unlikely" for her office to
prosecute cases not pursued at the county level.
Colorado City Police Chief Roundy said his department
investigated Holm's complaint, but acknowledged that officers
didn't actually interview her. "I didn't feel I had to talk with
her. It's done. It's been done forever. All the allocations (sic)
of Lenore is not true. The girl is not married.
She has not been raped. Everything is upboard and legit," he
said. Roundy promised to forward the investigative report to The
Denver Post, but failed to do so. He said his department has
responded to only five domestic abuse calls during his 12 years on
"Anything reported, we'd investigate, of course. But we just
don't have domestic problems. We've got family structure. They're
decent, law-abiding citizens," he said.
Police here have never made an arrest for polygamy. "I'm not
going to mess with it," Roundy said. "The state hasn't taken it
upon themselves to prosecute. Why should we?" Officials call
polygamy`a victimless crime Sheriffs and prosecutors in Arizona
and Utah call polygamy a victimless crime that's difficult, if not
impossible, to prove in such a closed society as Colorado City and
Hildale. Because most plural marriages aren't licensed, they're
legally similar to a man and women living together - which
officials don't prosecute.
"Are there crimes going on that we don't know about? Sure. Is
there domestic abuse going on? Sure. But we can't just arbitrarily
go into a household. We have to have probable cause," said Steve
Johnson, spokesman for the Mohave County Sheriffs Department. "At
what point does it become Big Brother in "1984'? At what point
does the New World Order take over?" Former Arizona Governor Bruce
Babbitt agrees, saying the group's religious freedoms need to be
"They're not really hurting anyone," he said. "It doesn't make
sense to approach them like the Gestapo." One notable exception to
such government ambivalence is the current, highly publicized case
against Tom Green, a northern Utah man with five wives and 28
Juab County attorney David Leavitt - brother of Utah Gov. Mike
Leavitt - launched the case last year after Green was featured on
"Judge Judy" and "Jerry Springer" talking about his polygamous
lifestyle. Leavitt alleges that Green's wives were between 13 and
16 when he married them. He charged Green with bigamy, welfare
fraud and one count of child rape, for having sex with one wife
when she was 13. That wife, Linda Kunz, is Laura Chapman's first
Other than the Green case, however, polygamy is "something that
prosecutors haven't been real enthused to prosecute," said Reed
Richards, who left office in January as Utah's chief deputy
Lawmakers, too, generally are unwilling to step in. Several
bills to investigate polygamous groups and fund shelters for women
fleeing plural marriage have failed in the Utah and Arizona
legislatures. Utah lawmakers compromised last year, earmarking
$75,000 for a part-time investigator to probe "closed societies."
That "is the politically correct term for polygamy," said Barton,
the investigator hired to do the job.
Some critics say authorities are otherwise reluctant to
intervene because of wariness left from the 1953 raid. Others say
mainstream Mormons - who control government throughout Utah and in
much of northern Arizona - are unwilling to face their polygamous
roots. They add that many Mormons are sympathetic because they
think the practice could someday be reinstated.
"I've been surprised to find active LDS members who are
extremely supportive of polygamy. My impression is that if they
had wives that would go along with it, they would be polygamists
themselves," said Barton, himself a member of the mainstream
LDS church leaders note that plural marriage has been grounds
for excommunication for more than 100 years. "The matter's closed
as far as we're concerned. That is, until the Lord speaks again on
the subject," said Otterson, the church spokesman. Berry lauds
authorities' hands-off approach.
"Politicians have figured it out that there was no percentage
in hauling these families off to jail," he said. But dissidents
bristle at officials' liveand-let-live attitude.
"It's that big elephant in the living room that no one wants to
acknowledge," Tapestry's Erickson said. "The state has treated us
like just a bunch of angry women. They've really downplayed what
we're saying." Rena Mackert notes that her mother was pregnant
with her during the 1953 raid. Had authorities protected them
then, she complains, she wouldn't have been forced to sexually
satisfy her father nor to marry her stepbrother.
"If the state had done their job then, none of this would have
happened to me," she said. Critics complain bitterly that
authorities don't crack down on Colorado City's town councilmen
and police officers, who have a stake in preserving plural
marriage because they gain status by accumulating many wives and
children. Apostates describe a bartering system whereby the more
young daughters a man gives away, the more young wives he is
Dissidents don't challenge polygamy between consenting adults.
Rather, they object to the practice when it involves coercing and
bartering adolescent girls. "If they're married in the eyes of
their religion, it's really of no concern to me," said Arizona
state Rep. Linda Binder of Mohave County, one of the few lawmakers
besides Allen rallying on behalf of the apostates. "But they're
dealing in trafficking underage females, forcing them to marry
older men, not allowing children to be appropriately educated.
Then they tell them they'll be condemned into eternity if they
talk. That's brainwashing, and that's not OK with me."
Exacerbating the problem, watchdogs say, is that even women who
want to flee are stuck. They own no property, have little
education and no job training. They're typically bound by several
kids. Most know no one outside the community. And they believe
they'll burn in hell if they stray from the church.
"When you try talking to the girls, they say nothing because
they're convinced they'll die if they talk," said Allen. "They
just look straight ahead and stare, like deer caught in
That's a familiar look to visitors here. Girls turn away in
apparent horror when asked about their lives. A photographer's
tire was slashed and a reporter's car keyed while parked outside
homes of apostates still living in town. It's that kind of
wariness that some perceive as the community's increasing
cultishness. Warren Jeffs is so isolating the group, dissidents
say they fear a Waco- or Guyana-type tragedy.
"People here are armed. The 1953 situation got people
defensive. If (officials) ever did that again they'd be looking
down the barrel of a shotgun," Hammon said. "The kids who were
kidnapped are now adults. Like hell they'd let that happen again.
They have a cause. You know the most bloody wars are holy wars
with causes. And I can't blame them." Chapman worries about the
safety of her 50 family members still living in the community.
"They're going to more and more extremes. It's hard to say where
it will end," she said.
As though it were another life, Chapman remembers the time when
she, too, hated and feared outsiders. She recalls with disbelief
that she grew up thinking that females naturally outnumber males
two to one. She cringes at the thought that she lived as her
husband's property. "It's a lopsided life," she said. "It's like I
was walking around unconscious."
Since Chapman fled her marriage in 1991, most of her family
here won't speak to her. She nevertheless has helped two teenage
girls escape the community and is writing a book about growing up
in polygamy. She wants to open a shelter in Colorado, a state she
thinks will offer more protection than Arizona or Utah.
As an adult responsible for carpools and mortgage payments,
Chapman looks around her new world with amazement. She is
painfully and wonderfully aware of all she missed as a kid - the
prom she never attended, the rock songs she doesn't recognize, the
strawberry lip gloss she never wore. She remembers peeking in one
recent night on one of her teenage daughters enjoying a slumber
party with friends. The girls giggled about the sticky green and
brown on their faces from the mint chocolate chip ice cream they'd
been eating all night. Chapman was struck by the sweetness in
"They were so free, uninhibited. They didn't have to worry
about being dragged into marriage or sharing their husbands. They
won't have to live numb," she said. "I just stood there and
watched those girls being girls, being goofy. And I knew then why
I had left."