Phoenix • Is a family living in southern Utah the victim of a “rogue” polygamous religion that took over two local governments, or a pawn in a conspiracy designed to suck money out of a benign community?
The two images are seemingly at odds with each other, but during opening arguments Wednesday in a federal court in Phoenix, that was exactly how attorneys on either side of a civil rights lawsuit described the Cooke family. The Cookes, who live in Colorado City, Ariz., believe their town and neighboring Hildale, Utah, discriminated against them because they aren’t part of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. They moved to the mostly polygamous community in 2008 and, they argue, have been refused a water connection and harassed ever since.
Arizona Assistant Attorney General Sandra Kane said Wednesday the harassment was an attempt by FLDS and municipal leaders to drive away the family. Kane explained that Ronald Cooke was born and raised in Short Creek — the collective name for Colorado City and Hildale — but moved as a young man. When Cooke was growing up, Kane said, the community was peaceful, even idyllic, and he decided to move back after suffering a disability. Cooke, his wife, Jinjer and their three children decided to move back in 2008 and chose to live in a home owned by the United Effort Plan — a trust that owns much of the land in the area.
But in the time since Cooke had left, both the religion and the local government had been “hijacked” by Warren Jeffs and FLDS leaders, Kane went on to say. Jeffs had begun “handling” men in the church — a term Kane said meant the men were kicked out of the community — and he went so far as to expel city leaders. Kane added that Jeffs replaced the municipal leadership with his own loyalists, and when people like the Cookes began coming into the community, it challenged the FLDS leaders’ “iron-fisted” rule.
“Jeffs wanted them to fight back,” Kane said, “and they did.”
Kane also previewed the evidence she plans to present during the coming weeks of the trial. Among other things, she said the 10-person jury would see letters from city and police leaders to Warren Jeffs, asking for his guidance. Some of those letters were sent while Jeffs was a wanted man, placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted List for sex crimes.
In 2011, Jeffs, 58, was sentenced to life in a Texas prison after a jury found him guilty of sexually assaulting two girls, ages 12 and 15, whom he took as polygamous wives.
The result of the harassment and the FLDS control of the city government was that the Cookes, who aren’t FLDS, were denied utilities when the family requested them, said the Cookes’ attorney William Walker. Ronald Cooke needs fresh water, as well as a disabled-compatible home.
Despite the Cookes’ pleas for water, and Ronald’s special needs, the city refused them; for years, the family lacked electricity, sewage and water services. The sewer and the power were eventually turned on, but the family still doesn’t have water, Walker explained.
“This is a story of people using their religion to lash out against others,” Walker said.
According to Walker and Kane, the city fabricated a story about a water shortage in order to justify denying the Cookes’ request. But despite the alleged water shortage, the cities continued to hook up water to homes of FLDS members. The city even allowed a company to bottle and sell water in the community, Walker said. The real problem, he said, was “a rogue religion that has taken over the government.”
But attorneys for the two towns told an entirely different story in their opening arguments.
Jeff Matura, who represents Colorado City, said the Cookes came to the community and were specifically chosen to sue the city in order to make money for Bruce Wisan, who runs the UEP. As Matura told the story, Wisan — who was appointed by a judge to run the trust in 2005 — has racked up millions of dollars in fees. Those fees can only be paid by selling UEP land, much of which is in Colorado City and Hildale.
But the problem is that a water shortage makes it difficult or impossible to sell that land. Wisan would have to either hook up water to the UEP properties or disclose to buyers how much it would cost to do so, Matura said.
According to Matura, Wisan wanted to get around that rule and the Cookes were the key because they could sue.
“If the trust could get around that policy, it could subdivide the land and sell the land,” Matura said.
Matura also explained the alleged water shortage in detail. He said that the community gets water from an underground aquifer, but that demand for water exceeds the supply. To make matters worse, a pump broke on July 7, 2007, which prompted city leaders to take the threat of a water shortage seriously. From that time forward, Matura said, the community had water restrictions in place.
Though the Cookes’ attorneys argued that there is no evidence before 2010 of policies that would have prevented the family from getting water, Matura said he would show during the trial that there was indeed a water shortage. He also said that in a letter written to the city, Ronald Cooke himself actually acknowledged the water shortage.
Blake Hamilton, who represents Hildale, further argued that the Cookes could have received water already if Wisan and the UEP had been willing to cooperate with the cities. According to Hamilton, the city policy of not hooking up new water connections is applied uniformly and fairly. However, the city was willing to compromise with the Cookes, which Hamilton described as “compassionate.” The UEP turned down the city’s overtures, leaving the family without water for years.
“Anyone can get a new water connection in the towns if they follow the policy,” Hamilton said.
The policy includes bringing new water to the city system — something Hamilton said the UEP could do because it has significant water rights in the area.
Neither side could present evidence during their opening arguments, so the differing images they painted of the city and the Cooke family will be teased out over the course of the trial, which is expected to last as long as eight weeks.
The Cookes’ attorneys called Richard Holm as a witness Wednesday to confirm their view of the story. Holm was a member of the FLDS Church in the past and was appointed to the Colorado City Council in 1985 — the year the town was incorporated. Holm testified that Leroy Johnson, then the leader of the FLDS Church, was involved in his appointment to the council, which he served on for 19 years without ever being opposed in an election.
Holm went on to say that all the members of the city council were FLDS members and chosen with the blessing of church leadership.
Eventually, in 2003, Jeffs kicked Holm out of the church and reassigned his two wives to Holm’s younger brother. At one point, attorneys for the city objected to the line of questioning that prompted Holm to tell the story of his expulsion.
Walker countered: “These were the hammers that were being used by religion to force counsel members to do what they wanted.”
The judge allowed the questioning to continue.
Holm later described buying a piece of land in the community that turned out not to have any utilities hooked up to it. Holm reached out to the mayor to get utilities and was told the state had put a moratorium on new water hook ups due to a sewer issue. Several months passed and the story changed to a water shortage, Holm testified. Then, when he obtained water rights and offered to supply the city with water, he was told he and the trust had illegally divided the land.
The city eventually filed a lawsuit against Holm and the trust over the subdivision. The case only wrapped up when Holm finally bought the other section of land, rendering the subdivision issue moot.
Following opening arguments, Issac Wyler took the stand as the first witness in the trial. Wyler, a former member of the FLDS Church who now works for Wisan, said the religion changed dramatically when Jeffs took over.
“It was a drastic change,” Wyler testified. “It was a 180-degree change from when I grew up.”
Among other things, Wyler said, Jeffs canceled many social activities and forbade church members from talking to “apostates,” or those who had been kicked out of the religion.
Wyler also described being kicked out of the FLDS Church in January of 2004, along with 20 other men. The group of men were told to leave immediately, without saying goodbye to their families, and to give Warren Jeffs a list of all their sins. All but two men complied, Wyler said, and he was one of them.
Significantly, the mayor of Colorado City and a town councilman were also among the exiled group. Both men complied with Jeffs’ orders, Wyler said, and new FLDS loyalists were appointed to their positions in the city governments. The appointments were apparently unsurprising to Wyler, even though the positions were technically for elected officials.
“The elections are unopposed because they’ve been chosen by the prophet,” Wyler explained of the political process in Short Creek. “The people in the church are told who to vote for.”
Kane and Wyler also went through a series of photos together Wednesday afternoon. The photos showed various different buildings and construction projects, and Wyler said they all had water hookups, despite having been built after the Cookes arrived and during the alleged water shortage.
However, during cross examination, Hamilton asked Wyler if he had ever worked for the towns’ utility companies or seen a list of pre-existing water hookups. Hamilton’s point was that the new projects were compliant with city policy — which he earlier argued the Cookes could have chosen to obey — and therefore got water.