Polygamous civil rights trial still anyone's game after one month
Phoenix • After nearly a month in court everyone seems to agree that a family of outsiders living in a polygamous town were victims. The question that has emerged, however, is who exactly caused their suffering.
The Cookes and their lawyers wrapped up their side of a complex discrimination trial Thursday in U.S. District Court for Arizona, finishing with testimony from husband and father Ron. From the witness stand, Ron Cooke slowly explained that after moving to Colorado City, Ariz., in 2008, the city government denied him water, sewer and electric hookups for years. As a result, he spent more than two years living in a cramped trailer with his wife, Jinjer, and their three children.
"It was probably one of the worst situations I have ever lived through," Ron Cooke said Thursday, recalling freezing pipes, limited electicity and watching his wife haul away sewage water.
The Cookes and their attorneys believe the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints controls the town government in Colorado City, as well as neighboring Hildale, Utah, and singled the family out for poor treatment. The alleged intertwining of church and local government is the crux of the Cookes' lawsuit.
Ron Cooke said that he and his family tried to follow the towns' rules and instructions for getting utilities, but at every turn they were given more hoops to jump through.
In an effort to prove their point, the Cookes' attorneys subpoenaed Joseph Allred, the mayor of Colorado City. Allred refused to answer any questions Wednesday and Thursday, instead invoking his Fifth Amendment rights over and over again. However, that was enough to open the door to a whole series of questions about the misuse of government funds, a fabricated water shortage, church access to government security cameras, police running license plates for the church, and an array of other topics. Many of the questions implied that Allred himself was involved in blurring the lines between the church and the government, as well as in targeting the Cookes.
Allred was flanked by his lawyer throughout his testimony.
Allred's answers meant the jury had to come to their own conclusions, but the objective was clear: ask a city leader about the discrimination and show him dodging. The message was that the city was responsible for victimizing the Cookes.
But that's only one side of the story.
The other side, told mostly through cross examination until now, bears little resemblance to the tale told by the Cookes' lawyers, instead painting the family themselves as litigious victims of a valuable land trust.
Jeff Matura, an attorney representing Colorado City, made that point clear Thursday, when he argued that the United Effort Plan, which owns the home the Cookes moved into, could have housed them elsewhere or helped them get utilities. The trust never did this, Matura said, because it wanted to circumvent town rules in order to more easily subdivide property and sell it off.
Matura and Blake Hamilton, who represents Hildale, had time for one witness Thursday, and called Vincent Barlow, who has served as Hildale town manager since 2011.
Barlow said he has never seen any religious discrimination. The comment was significant because Barlow admitted to having left the FLDS Church roughly two years ago, potentially earning him the same "apostate" status as Ron Cooke, who left as a teenager. And despite leaving the faith, no city or church leaders tried to force Barlow out of his government job, a fact the city attorneys hinted undermined the point about alleged FLDS control of the government.
Barlow went on Thursday to say that recent elections have been contested, meaning elected officials weren't merely put into place by church leaders, and that water supply was indeed limited.
The water issue is an important one because the Cookes believe the water shortage was made up. Their attorneys have noted that while the family went without water, the city hooked up more than 100 other homes and even allowed a bottling company to use city water.
Barlow noted that the bottling company used less water than the previous user of that hookup.
Barlow's testimony will continue next week and will be followed by other witnesses for the cities.