Lawsuit details how polygamy sect monitors and controls members
Colorado City, Ariz. • In 2012, the mayor of a mostly polygamous town reached out for help governing from imprisoned FLDS Church leader and convicted sex offender Warren Jeffs.
George M. Allred's request for Jeffs' insight is documented in a pair of letters filed in a Department of Justice civil-rights lawsuit against Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, collectively known as Short Creek.
The lawsuit alleges the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints essentially runs the twin towns, not the elected leaders, not the civil authorities and not all that subtly. If true, it means the separation of church and state a constitutional bedrock of pluralistic America is nonexistent, replaced by an iron-fisted theocracy in which Jeffs' edicts are enforced above the law.
Attorneys working the case have raised specific allegations they say illustrate the blurring of lines between church and civic government. They argue in court documents that civic and religious leaders conspired to prevent a non-FLDS Short Creek family from getting water, conducted extensive surveillance and practiced housing discrimination, among many other things.
The allegations are not new, but Allred's letters offer the most explicitevidence to date of this complex, and at times convoluted, twining of civil and religious authority in the polygamous community.
The Letters • Allred's letters were sent to Jeffs via registered mail, prefaced by a cover sheet with the word "Private" scrawled on it. The first letter is dated June 6, 2012, and begins with praise for Jeffs.
"As my spiritual leader I write to you today with joy and rejoicing in the Lord our God, even Jesus Christ," Allred begins. " It is my firm belief that you have all rights, power and ability to get the very word of God for all who desire it."
Allred then explains that the town's police chief has retired and he welcomes Jeffs' suggestions on who should fill the post.
"If the Lord had someone he would like to have in that position," Allred writes, "it would be very helpful to get his sure word on who he desires to occupy that position."
He later asks if the "Lord" has anyone he wants to send to the police academy.
The requests for Jeffs' guidance strike at the heart of the lawsuit, which is scheduled to go to trial Jan. 28. Plaintiffs Ronald and Jinjer Cookelive in Short Creek and believe they were discriminated against because they are not FLDS.
In other court documents, attorneys for both the Arizona Attorney General's Office and the Cookes argue Allred's letters explicitly prove the church and the city are in collusion.
"The two letters provide current, direct evidence of FLDS control of Colorado City," the attorneys write.
The letters also shed light on the conflict between the towns and other government agencies. Allred writes in the June 6 letter that then-Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff was trying to force the police to recognize an occupancy agreement in the town organized by Bruce Wisan, a judge-appointed accountant who oversees much of the property in the area as the special fiduciary of the United Effort Plan.
In the second letter, dated Dec. 14, Allred asks Jeffs for guidance on rewriting the town charter.
Later, in a bizarre twist, Allred ponders the prospect of minting his own currency when he writes about the possibility of instigating "lawful money (silver) in the city under the constitution."
The June letter concludes with Allred asking if he is handling the city's conflicts correctly before praising Jeffs.
"I am so grateful the Lord has chosen You as his mouthpiece to all the world," Allred writes.
Authorities intercepted the letters and delivered them to the A.G.'s office and the Cookes' attorneys in September, according to court documents filed by those lawyers.
Mixed power •The letters were filed in the case along with a declaration from Willie Jessop, who ran FLDS security until he left the church in 2010. In his declaration, Jessop reports that over multiple years he met with city officials to "convey to them the FLDS Church's view on the events" in the Short Creek area.
Jessop also says in his declaration that city officials tried to thwart Wisan's efforts to subdivide property in the Short Creek area, attempted to prevent some people from occupying homes in the community and developed strategies to shift the legal costs of their actions from the church to the cities.
Wisan's name comes up repeatedly in the documents as someone whose actions FLDS and town leaders often opposed. If true, the allegations would fit with the FLDS Church's pattern of behavior toward Wisan; earlier this year, church leaders refiled a fraud lawsuit against him, claiming he won an $8.8 million judgment based on misleading evidence.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit in August.
According to Jessop, church and city authorities also conspired to restrict new water hookups in the city a complaint raised by the Cookes unless the person seeking the tie-in could bring additional water to the city.
"We developed this policy," Jessop explained, "knowing that the cities did, in fact, have the ability to make new connections regardless of whether the applicant brought new culinary water to the system."
Jessop also reports in his declaration that Blake Hamilton, an attorney representing the towns, was present at some of these conversations.
Doubts remain •Hamilton, however, called into question the veracity of Allred's letters and Jessop's declaration.
In a phone conversation, he said George M. Barlow, not George M. Allred, was the mayor of Colorado City at the time the letters were written. Court documents filed by the A.G.'s office attempt to explain the discrepancy by saying that the same man used both names, but Hamilton remained skeptical. He said the A.G.'s office was relying on Jessop to connect the two names.
"His claims in his declaration are not true," Hamilton added of Jessop.
Hamilton also does not believe the Arizona attorneys will be able to authenticate the letters, though handwriting experts will be called to examine the signatures.
In court documents, an assistant attorney general states that Barlow used the name Allred and did in fact write the letters.
Attorneys representing the A.G.'s office and the Cookes did not respond to requests for comment.
The surveillance • Whether the letters can be authenticated, court documents include reams of information about the allegedly narrow gap between the FLDS Church and the administrations of Colorado City and Hildale.
In one set of documents, for example, Patrick Barlow states he worked security for the FLDS Church and spied onmembers and nonmembers alike. Barlow reports in his statement that church security had access to city cameras and could link the church and city systems.
"It is my understanding and belief that church elders and senior government officials knew of and authorized the linkage of the church surveillance system with the cities' surveillance system," Barlow continues. "We could also broadcast church messages over the local fiber-optic network."
Barlow goes on to say he spied on the Cookes for five years because he was told they were a "threat to the church." The objective was to prevent the family from getting a water hookup and to drive them from the community. And, like Jessop, Barlow reports that there was no water shortage in the community.
Church security also was used to warn community leaders when outside law enforcement was approaching and to keep FLDS women from escaping.
"I am aware that church security was also used to keep the FLDS ladies from getting away from the community," Barlow states in court documents.
Barlow's comments fit into the larger narrative about surveillance in the community that includes an extensive network of mounted cameras as well as hundreds of photos Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap received from a confidential informant. Though Belnap has little information about who shot the photos he received, Barlow's description of church surveillance seems to offer the most logical fit for how the images were produced.
Barlow eventually left the FLDS Church. According to court documents, he later approached the Cookes' daughter to apologize "for stalking her and her family while working church security."
The future •What exactly happens as a result of the lawsuit remains to be seen. Hamilton said he "strongly disagrees" with the claims in the lawsuit, even as court documents make it clear the Arizona attorney general and lawyers representing the Cookes disagree. The trial to be held in Prescott, Ariz., is expected to last as long as eight weeks.
Join us for a Trib Talk
A federal civil rights lawsuit and new photographs shed light on what it's like to live in the polygamous communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Monday at 12:15 p.m., Tribune reporter Jim Dalrymple, photographer Trent Nelson and court-appointed accountant Bruce Wisan discuss the cozy relationship between the FLDS church and the communities' government during a live TribTalk video chat at sltrib.com.
View Surveillance Cameras of Short Creek in a larger map