Michael F. Haverluck
The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit against two Arizona-Utah border towns alleging they violated the rights of residents by taking operating orders from Warren Jeffs, the imprisoned leader of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
According to the DOJ, Jeffs and other FLDS leaders controlled the towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, through a campaign of intimidation targeting non-FLDS members, who composed a small minority in both cities.
The federal civil rights case filed in Arizona argues that city leaders and law enforcement officers followed Jeff’s illicit orders, which included denying non-FLDS members housing and municipal services, as well as allowing individuals in the sect to damage their property and crops.
Last year, Jeffs was incarcerated after being convicted for the sexual assault of two of his 24 brides, all of whom were underage. The trial came after Jeffs’ FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch was raided in April 2008, when some 400 children were seized at the isolated Texas compound that was built by members at the leader’s command. Each child was returned after the custody battle, which was one of the largest in U.S. history.
Jeffs and 10 prominent FLDS lieutenants were arrested and subsequently found guilty under bigamy and sexual assault charges. The mainstream Mormon church did away with the practice of polygamy back in 1890 so that Utah could be granted statehood.
Even though Jeffs currently is serving a life prison sentence in Texas, it is reported that the convicted felon continues to rule the border towns from his jail cell.
The religious sect leader’s control is said to have been taking place for decades in the communities, where non-FLDS residents’ constitutional rights were continually trampled.
“The cities’ governments, including the marshal’s office, have been deployed to carry out the will and dictates of FLDS leaders, particularly Warren Jeffs, and the officials to whom he delegates authority,” the complaint against the towns reads. “The marshal’s office has inappropriately used its state-granted law enforcement authority to enforce the edicts of the FLDS, to the detriment of non-FLDS members.”
Yet Blake Hamilton, the defense attorney for Hildale and the marshal’s office (shared by both towns), says no such discrimination has taken place.
“There’s nothing to support the allegation that non-FLDS members are treated differently,” Hamilton remarked Thursday to The Associated Press. “DOJ asked us to dismantle a community.”
The DOJ claims that numerous violations against non-FLDS individuals took place, however, such as police officers pulling over and arresting residents for no reason. Law enforcement was also accused of looking the other way when FLDS members destroyed, vandalized and trespassed on non-members’ property.
Other reports of officers’ misconduct includes denying non-FLDS children public playground access, keeping underage brides from escaping, catching dogs and shooting them in a “slaughter pit” at Jeffs’ command and shutting down non-members’ city water and electricity.
Hamilton justified the latter allegation, claiming that new users are unable to get water when the towns run out, yet the federal suit asserts that no water shortage exists.
The lawyer fighting for the defendants of Colorado City also attests that there is no favoritism when it comes to utilities for the Arizona town.
“We’ll have our day in court,” attorney Jeff Matura asserted when the complaint was filed Thursday. “There’s not a question on the application that says, ‘What’s your religion?’”
Town officials are also charged with violating the Fair Housing Act – for harassing those who left the sect or were forced out, as well as those who were never members. The lawsuit states that the violators “have acted in concert with FLDS leadership to deny non-FLDS individuals housing, police protection, and access to public space and services.”
A complaint similar to the one filed by the DOJ was filed in Arizona by a former FLDS member and his wife, who also claimed Fair Housing Act violations.
Prosecuting attorneys are elated that the towns are finally being brought to justice.
“Finding a solution to the illegal activities that have been occurring in Colorado City for decades has been one of my highest priorities,” said Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne. “I remain committed to stopping the illegal conduct perpetrated by the FLDS church on non-church members.”
“We have made substantial progress during the past decade in bringing justice and security to the people living in the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City,” Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff explained before noting that for years, his office has attempted to get the federal government to step in.
This latest lawsuit comes on the heels of failed Arizona and Utah bills that would have eliminated the marshal’s office of Colorado City and Hildale. New lawsuits by residents against the towns are anticipated to spring up as the federal case moves forward.