Warren Jeffs, self-described “prophet” of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), sits behind bars in a state prison in the east Texas city of Palestine.
But even though he’s serving a 120-year sentence for sexually abusing minors, Jeffs, critics say, still manages to run an isolated community of more than 6,000 people that straddles the Utah-Arizona border.
It’s a place unlike any other in America because, dissidents charge, it operates under a veritable theocratic form of government.
Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., known collectively as the Short Creek community, are home to a radical polygamist splinter group of the Mormon church. Members of the FLDS live in what is widely considered to be their stronghold in the desert.
For years, little was known about the secretive religious group. Members shunned publicity and planned their community on a border so they could move from one state to another if trouble arose.
But now Short Creek finds itself targeted by a national spotlight – and what’s being uncovered isn’t pretty.
According to a lawsuit brought by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), members of the church have packed local government and, in defiance of the Constitution, abuse their positions by enforcing the edicts of FLDS leader Jeffs, rather than secular law.
Jeffs is able to control the community despite his imprisonment. His 2011 conviction is likely the only lasting consequence of a 2008 raid on another FLDS settlement in El Dorado, Texas, that captured national headlines after an abortive attempt to remove underage plural wives from the community sparked a backlash due to scenes of young children being taken away from their mothers.
Five years later, many Americans seem to have forgotten about the FLDS and Jeffs’ abuses. Popular television dramas like “Big Love” and documentaries about “sister wives” put a spin on polygamous communities that critics say fails to capture the essence of daily life in a theocratic community like Short Creek.
That may be changing. Evidence provided by the DOJ indicates that despite his conviction and the prospect of life in prison, Jeffs has lost none of his external power. From his cell, he continues to wield remarkable influence over the community through its elected officials. Jeffs calls the shots and runs everything through his idiosyncratic theological filter.
Letters between Short Creek’s mayor, George Allred, and Jeffs lend credence to allegations that the lines between church and state have practically vanished in Short Creek. Released by the DOJ and published by the Salt Lake Tribune, the letters are a damning indictment of Allred’s leadership.
“As my spiritual leader I write to you today with joy and rejoicing in the Lord our God, even Jesus Christ,” Allred wrote. “It is my firm belief that you have all rights, power and ability to get the very word of God for all who desire it.”
The mayor proceeded to seek Jeffs’ opinion on official vacancies, including the role of police chief and appointments to the police academy. In another letter, Allred even asked Jeffs to help him rewrite the town’s charter.
“We are doing some serious contemplating of making a city charter and changing the name back to what it was originally, and then use the prophet’s template of a city charter to start from,” Allred wrote, adding that he didn’t feel that the secular city charters available for review suited the community’s needs.
The letters indicate that for Allred, Jeffs clearly retains his position as the church’s prophet. It’s a role of significant power, given the FLDS belief that prophets enjoy a direct pipeline to God. Revelations from the prophet carry an authoritative weight for members of the FLDS, and so Jeffs’ influence has survived his conviction and subsequent imprisonment for his “marriages” to underage girls.
Post-2008, Short Creek is an insular, secretive community where the most mundane daily activities are determined by the prophet’s pronouncements. Jeffs’ edicts have become increasingly bizarre: Members are forbidden from watching television and movies. Children’s toys are banned. Followers are told to stay away from corn and dairy products.
Jeffs ordered the community’s men to build him an expensive new compound, promising them that upon its completion the bars of his cell would melt away and he could rejoin them in Short Creek. And in 2012, Jeffs declared that all children in the community must be fathered by one of 15 men – whether the mother is married to one or not.
Observers say Jeffs’ grip on the community is enforced by the Short Creek town marshals. Former members of the group accuse the marshals of acting as enforcers for the church’s leadership. Like Mayor Allred, their loyalties appear to lie with Warren Jeffs, not with the state, or even with the well-being of the community they purportedly serve.
As of this year, seven marshals have had their police certifications revoked for offenses that include bigamy and child molestation. Others wrote letters to Jeffs, similar to Allred’s, expressing their enduring support for the prophet despite his rape convictions.
Their failure to enforce the law in ways unfavorable to FLDS leadership has caused a profound rift between the FLDS and non-FLDS locals, which include former members of the church. Residents who don’t share the FLDS faith report routine incidents of police intimidation and harassment that they believe is designed to drive them from the community.
A dramatic incident of animal cruelty forced the issue into the national spotlight last year. A live cat, half-buried inside a post filled with wet concrete, was found on the property of ex-FLDS member Isaac Wyler. His fellow FLDS exile Andrew Chatwin told The Huffington Post website that when Short Creek marshals were called to the scene, they didn’t seem particularly concerned.
“[The officer] kind of chuckled and laughed a little bit and then he said that if it was up to him, he’d just throw dirt on [the cat],” Chatwin said. The officer belonged to the FLDS church.
Ex-FLDS members – apostates, by the prophet’s reckoning – report a pattern of harassment and intimidation enabled, and sometimes perpetuated, by Short Creek marshals.
According to the Tribune, local officers arrested another ex-member for trespassing – after he entered a home awarded to him by a judge.
In a report released earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center described the town’s residents, including its leadership, as “wildly loyal” to Jeffs. Outsiders are made to feel unwelcome through police intimidation and intense surveillance.
Sam Brower, a private investigator who has tracked the FLDS for over a decade, told the SPLC, “Where else in America do you go into a town that has video cameras, people in big pickup trucks watching you and trying to discourage you from even being there?”
He added, “It’s absolutely the most lawless town in America.”
The Department of Justice concurs. In its suit, it accuses town leaders, including the marshals, of violating fair housing laws by participating in blatant religious discrimination of non-FLDS Short Creek residents, especially those considered apostates by the prophet.
According to the DOJ, the offenses range far beyond wrongful arrests.
“The Cities’ public officials, the Colorado City/Hildale Marshal’s Office and utility entities have acted in concert with FLDS leadership to deny non-FLDS individuals housing, police protection, and access to public space and services,” the suit reads.
The DOJ details report after report of religiously-motivated intimidation. It claims that marshals actively supported the FLDS leadership’s surveillance of the community and provided training to the church’s private security personnel, called the “God Squad.” The suit even accuses the local marshals of returning escaped underage plural wives to their husbands.
This isn’t the first attempt to check the marshals’ abuse of power. State legislators in Utah and Arizona have proposed bills that would disband the community’s entire force. But because Short Creek is located in both Utah and Arizona, the states would have to coordinate efforts for this to be an effective gesture.
Bills in both states targeted the Short Creek marshals’ disproportionately high rate of decertified officers; had the bills passed, any law enforcement department with a certain number of decertified officers would be forcibly disbanded. But the measures failed in both states. Arizona legislators have promised to introduce an improved proposal next year, but its outlook for success is murky.
The DOJ’s lawsuit, United States v. Town of Colorado City, Ariz., and City of Hildale, Utah, attacks the problem from another angle: It accuses the department of “unconstitutional policing,” asserting that the marshals’ office “enforces laws and regulations against non-FLDS individuals on the basis of religion” and that the force “effectively serves as the enforcement arm of the FLDS Church.”
Jim Dalrymple, a reporter with the Salt Lake Tribune told Church & State it’s difficult to say to what extent Short Creek’s leadership has conflated civil and religious authority. But, he said, there’s strong evidence that for the town’s faithful the two have become unconstitutionally entwined.
Dalrymple, who follows the community for the Tribune’s Polygamy Blog, said, “From what I’ve been told, the threat of [losing] eternal salvation makes people obey. When they’re told to leave, they leave.”
He added, “They seem to be deferring to Jeffs’ orders.”
It’s difficult to speak to Short Creek residents about the issue. It’s an insular community by design, and non-FLDS townspeople live in predictable fear of retribution from Jeffs’ agents. But other fundamentalist Mormons are more willing to criticize Short Creek and its leader.
In Centennial Park, Ariz., a polygamist community best known as the subject of the National Geographic Channel’s “Polygamy, USA” Warren Jeffs and the FLDS are viewed with sharp suspicion.
According to Claude Cawley, one of Centennial Park’s primary spiritual leaders, Jeffs has corrupted the original teachings of fundamentalist Mormonism. Cawley says life in Short Creek revolved around Jeffs and that he has been elevated to an almost godlike status.
“He really believes he’s God’s representative,” Cawley said of Jeffs in an interview with Church & State. “He almost thinks he is God.”
Cawley, who has known Jeffs since the self-appointed prophet’s early childhood, lived in Short Creek until concerns over its direction under Jeffs’ father, Rulon, forced a split in the late 1980s. Jeffs and his followers consolidated the FLDS in 1992; Cawley and others decamped to Centennial Park.
Since the split, Cawley has noticed a drastic shift in Short Creek’s beliefs and practices during Jeffs’ tenure in power.
“When Jeffs got involved, it got horrendous – he is mentally disturbed,” Cawley said.
The community, which had always prided itself on its self-sufficiency, began to rely heavily on government welfare programs – although residents balk at paying taxes. Members deliberately racked up credit card debt they lacked the means to pay. It’s a practice colloquially called “bleeding the beast,” and Cawley said it reflects a deep-rooted disdain for government, an entity Jeffs and his acolytes view as sinful.
Cawley is careful to note that Centennial Park does not “bleed the beast.” It’s one of the many philosophical differences that drove the groups apart during the waning years of Rulon Jeffs’ leadership.
“We obey the law,” Cawley said.
Underage marriages are another point of contention. Cawley asserted that the practice of marrying girls as young as 12 and 13 to much older men began with Jeffs and is still limited to the Short Creek community. He said it’s a reflection of Jeffs’ personal instability, not of fundamentalist Mormonism as a system; in fact, Cawley refers to Jeffs as a “pervert.”
Cawley also believes that the DOJ’s allegations of unconstitutional discrimination, enforced by Short Creek’s marshals, are accurate.
“It (the law) has always been applied prejudicially,” he told Church & State. He added that this and other practices, markedly worsened under Jeffs.
Public scrutiny of Short Creek, and its defiance of secular law, is beginning to reach critical mass. The “Polygamy, USA” reality TV program showcases Centennial Park as a counter to the FLDS. Another reality show, TLC’s “Breaking the Faith,” publicizes the plight of young FLDS exiles seeking escape from Short Creek.
These programs may be intended as titillating entertainment, but they’ve put the spotlight on Short Creek’s constitutional violations.
In addition, the shows, along with the stunning evidence released by the DOJ, indicate that a small theocracy really is alive and well in the United States. After all, if Jeffs believes he is God’s representative, then his edicts are divine law. It seems that in Short Creek, divine law trumps the law of man.
Will change come to Short Creek? Time will tell. For now, there seems little doubt that the community is operating as a mini-theocracy within America’s borders.
Asked if he believes violations of church-state separation have occurred in Short Creek, Cawley is blunt.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It is happening.”