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.Next Page >
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.