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Polygamous town lawyers: Lawsuit 'all about money'

Published March 20, 2014 10:28 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Phoenix • The last day of a civil rights trial was filled with fire, brimstone and talk of greed, but at the end a jury was left to decide if a secretive polygamous sect controlled the government of two towns or if a group of outsiders were scheming for cash.

For the past eight weeks, attorneys have argued in Phoenix's U.S. District Court over discrimination in Short Creek — an area made up of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. On one side, Ronald and Jinjer Cooke believe they were discriminated against after they moved to the area in 2008. The reason for the alleged discrimination: not belonging to The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

On the other side, attorneys for the two towns say the Cookes just wanted money and moreover were pawns in a scheme to sell off land.

The biggest revelation Wednesday — when both sides delivered closing arguments — was the financial award the Cookes are seeking. After a lengthy, impassioned speech about the many wrongs the family suffered, attorney William Walker asked the jury to award the family $4 million — $2 million each for Ronald and Jinjer Cooke. Walker acknowledged that the sum is significant, but he argued the Cookes had suffered physical and emotional pain, embarrassment, humiliation and other injustices at the hands of a city government that is obliged to treat people equally regardless of religion.

"What do you award them for the deprivation of their civil rights?" Walker wondered aloud to the jury.

Bill Richards, an attorney representing Arizona in the case, further argued that the case boils down to three points:

1. The discrimination the Cookes allegedly suffered.

2. Their claim that they were the targets of intimidation.

3. That Hildale and Colorado City had a pattern or policy of treating people differently based on their religion.

Both Walker and Richards recapped the details of the case in their remarks. Among the more salient points, they referred to earlier testimony from Willie Jessop, a former FLDS security officer who has since left the church. According to Walker, Jessop recalled a "water sham" that was designed to drive the Cookes from the community. Richards said the fabricated water shortage was part of a policy, originating with the FLDS Church, to "shun" apostates and outsiders.

Richards also said the cities never called anyone to contradict Jessop's testimony.

The result of the alleged water shortage was that the Cookes spent five and a half years without water. In order to drink, bathe and deal with Ronald Cookes' pre-existing disabilities, they hauled water in massive tanks from a public spigot. The family also lacked sewer and electrical hookups — Jinjer Cooke previously testified about manually hauling the family's sewage away — though they eventually managed to get the services at the United Effort Plan-owned home they occupy to this day.

Walker stressed these hardships during his remarks Wednesday. He recalled Jinjer Cooke's testimony in which she described her frozen, makeshift pipe system from a water tank in the yards. She had to dismantle the pipes and take them to a friend's home to thaw them out, and other times someone came by and vandalized them. Walker also said that Ronald Cooke uses an electric breathing machine, meaning his life was imperiled before the family finally got electricity. The family was further subjected to various forms of intimidation, including having their yard dug up by a water company employee, Walker said.

And all of the hardships stemmed from a plan — hatched by the FLDS leadership and carried out by the cities — to drive the Cookes out, according to the family's lawyers.

"These weren't people who practiced their religion privately," Walker argued of the city leaders. "These were people who inflicted their religion on others."

During his comments, Richards recalled letters that had come up during the trial between city leaders and now-imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs. The letters asked for Jeffs guidance, among other things. The point in bringing them up was to show the close, and controlling, relationship the FLDS Church had with the city authorities.

Walker in particular was visibly animated during his remarks, his voice trumpeting through the courtroom about the injustices the Cookes allegedly suffered simply for being outsiders. He also trembled and jabbed his finger at the city attorneys as he accused them of deliberately misrepresenting the evidence in the case.

But the attorneys for the cities didn't take the criticism lying down. Colorado City attorney Jeffery Matura framed his closing remarks like a kind of investigation, wondering over and over what exactly the case was really about. The main answer Matura, along with Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton, arrived at was money.

In their version of the story, the community was hit with a water crisis in 2007, a year before the Cookes arrived. Documents they cited Wednesday apparently showed that demand for water exceeded supply and as a result the city had to make hard decisions about the dwindling resources. Hamilton characterized it as being "stuck between a rock and hard place" and the solution was to limit water to existing hook ups.

This policy wasn't formally codified until years later — a point cited by the Cookes attorneys as evidence that it was merely a form of discrimination — but the city lawyers said that it was effectively the policy before the Cookes came on the scene.

Matura went on to argue Wednesday that the real "culprit" in the case was Bruce Wisan, a Salt Lake City accountant appointed by a judge to oversee the UEP trust — which owns massive amounts of land in Short Creek. Wisan and his agents in the community racked up millions of dollars in fees and in order to pay themselves they wanted to sell land, Matura said. They couldn't do that without water hookups, so they had the Cookes serve as a "test case" to see if they could circumvent the obstacles to selling property.

Matura said Wednesday that both a UEP employee and Jessop — whose deposition he played in court — referred to the Cookes as a test case. The Cookes also refused to comply with city policies, Matura and Hamilton argued, which was the real reason they weren't getting utilities.

Hamilton later criticized the judgment the Cookes are seeking, saying that they too were out to get money and Walker simply pulled the $4 million figure "out of the sky." Among other things, Matura and Hamilton also argued that other non-FLDS people in the community, including critics of the church, had utilities, and that the Cookes' attorneys brought up irrelevant topics like the FLDS Church that weren't actually part of the case.

"They are trying to distract you from the real issues," Matura said to the jury. "They want you to get so angry over these non-issues that you take it out on the defendants."

The closing arguments took nearly the entire day. The jury will begin deliberations in earnest Thursday. If they don't finish in a single day, they will return next week to continue.

jdalrymple@sltrib.com

Twitter: @jimmycdii