Family wins lawsuit against polygamous towns, gets millions
A jury Thursday sided with a family living in a polygamous community, awarding them $5.2 million for years of religious discrimination.
The ruling concludes the Cooke family's civil rights trial, in which they argued that the mostly-polygamous towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, discriminated against them for not being members of The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The family moved to the area, known as Short Creek, in 2008 but were refused access to utilities for years.
The Cookes subsequently sued and the case has been playing out for the last two months in Phoenix's U.S. District Court.
The jury deliberated through the day Thursday before siding with the Cookes. It ultimately awarded husband Ronald Cooke and wife Jinjer Cooke $650,000 each for discrimination, as well as $1.95 million each for retaliation and interference, according to their attorney William Walker.
The $5.3 million total award exceeds what the family was seeking; during closing arguments Thursday, Walker asked the jury to give the Cookes each $2 million a high sum he said would send a message to the cities. Thursday, he called the verdict and higher award "a total victory."
"I'm thrilled," Walker said. "I'm particularly thrilled for the Cookes who have withstood this discrimination for five and half years and have finally been vindicated by a jury of their peers."
Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton said Thursday night that he was extremely disappointed by the outcome but respects the judicial process.
The case boils down in large part to water. When the Cookes moved to Short Creek, they ended up in an unfinished home owned by the United Effort Plan, a trust made up of much of the religious group's property but controlled by the state of Utah. They expected to finish the home quickly and move in, but soon learned they couldn't get water, sewer or electric hook ups at the home. As a result, they and their three children were forced to live in a 35-foot travel trailer.
The Cookes and their attorneys say the cities denied the family utilities because they aren't FLDS and church leaders wanted to drive away outsiders. During the trial, attorneys cited letters between now-imprisoned FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs and city leaders, including a mayor and a police chief, as evidence that the church was pulling the strings in the community. The attorneys also cited testimony from former FLDS security officer Willie Jessop, who said he was present when city and church leaders concocted the scheme to driver the Cookes out by withholding water.
Early in the trial, the Cookes called Guy Timpson and Patrick Barlow both of whom did security for the FLDS Church before leaving it to the witness stand. Timpson said the church and the cities shared resources, while Barlow said he was ordered to spy on the Cookes.
The result of these experiences was a hard life for the family. During emotional testimony last month, Jinjer Cooke recalled the various hardships the family endured, including freezing pipes, harassment from people in the community and the need to haul water in and sewage out. Living without utilities also posed challenges for Ronald Cooke, who is disabled and uses an electric breathing machine as well as other equipment that requires regular washing.
The family eventually got electricity and sewage, but remain without water to this day. Walker said the Cookes' victory Thursday means, among other things, that they should be able to get a court order requiring the city to give them water.
But while the Cookes clearly suffered for years, attorneys for the cities told a very different story about the causes of that suffering. In their version, the Cookes moved the community as a "test case" for the UEP, and specifically Bruce Wisan, a court-appointed accountant who runs the land trust. Wisan wanted to sell land in the community to pay himself and his agents, the city attorneys argued in court, so he use the Cookes to try to circumvent city policy, which was preventing property sales.
During closing arguments, Colorado City attorney Jeffery Matura called Wisan the "culprit" in the case. He and Hildale attorney Blake Hamilton also argued that the Cookes never got utilities because they refused follow the proper procedures and fill out the correct forms.
Among other things, they cited a UEP agent and Jessop as characterizing the family as a test case. The goal for everyone involved was simply to make more money. Bringing the FLDS Church into the case was merely a distraction, the city attorneys said.
Walker said Thursday's verdict means the jury rejected that narrative.
"That was nothing more than a smoke screen," Walker added of the cities' efforts to pin blame on Wisan and the Cookes themselves.
Walker went on to say that the case is unique because it shows Colorado City and Hildale are "not run as typical American cities. They're run as arms of the FLDS Church and Warren Jeffs."
The jury also found that the cities exhibited a "pattern or practice" of discrimination against multiple people in the community, which Walker said should give the Arizona Attorney General's office the ability to pursue remedies in the area.
Hamilton said Thursday night the cities would explore their appeal options.