Inside the Lawsuits that Could Finally Take Down the FLDS Mormon Cult

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamous breakaway group from the mainline Mormon church, has long existed in relative peace in the isolated border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona (collectively known as Short Creek), using its First Amendment right to freedom of religion as an excuse to practice plural marriage. This year, though, a few high-profile civil suits are poised to break the foundation upon which this allegedly criminal cult rests.

Many polygamists, as well as non-polygamists unfamiliar with the insidious intricacies of the practice, will defend the right to plural marriage by aligning it with gay marriage. They will say, "It's our family, our choice." But the analogy doesn't hold: With fundamentalist Mormon polygamy, you have men—very often much older, high-ranking men among their religious groups—taking a multiplicity of young wives assigned to them by an all-powerful "prophet." These women really have no say in the matter. They are faced with what the cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon called bounded rationality; the choices they make are bounded by the limited information available to them, financial constraints, family pressure, and other factors that might unfairly influence one's choices in one direction. An FLDS woman who refuses her marriage placement, in this bounded choice scenario, will have to start life over completely from scratch: penniless, lacking basic life skills to get on in the outside world, away from all the family or friends she's ever known. What kind of choice is that?

"My experience with polygamy is that one negative person will ruin it for everyone involved," says Brielle Decker, who at just 18 was married to Warren Jeffs, the FLDS prophet now serving a life sentence for sexually assaulting his pre-teen brides. "In a family that believes in more and more wives, I never really felt I had a choice: I said yes out fear." After six years as one of Warren's 70-plus wives, Brielle finally escaped Short Creek and sought refuge, initially, at a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

In many ways, the FLDS operates like an organized crime syndicate, where church leaders control everything in Short Creek, from the local grocery stores to the law enforcement agencies. Earlier this year, I wrote about an FBI raid in Short Creek in which multiple businesses and eleven individuals—including then-Bishop and acting leader Lyle Jeffs—were indicted for money laundering and food stamp fraud (since then it has been said that a high-ranking church elder named Ben E. Johnson has assumed control of the group). The significance of this white-collar case is made clear in US District Judge Ted Stewart's continued ruling that Lyle Jeffs should remain behind bars pending trial.

Polygamy beat reporter Nate Carlisle, writing for the Salt Lake Tribune, elaborated on Judge Stewart's decision, which ultimately came down to Lyle Jeffs' own well-documented history of avoiding law enforcement and helping other in his command to do the same, as well as proof that he remains in contact with his brother Warren and would continue to carry out his will unless forcibly prevented. In essence, per Judge Stewart's ruling, Lyle Jeffs has shown no remorse for his or his brother's crimes and cannot be counted on to appear in court to be tried for crimes he's been accused of.

Though this case is not directly about polygamy, the widespread practice of plural marriage among the FLDS did come up in Jeffs' most recent detention hearing. The fact of it is as inescapable as it is material to the charges against the indicted individuals: Their multiplicity of wives––the majority of them technically unwed welfare mothers on government assistance––is what allows the alleged fraud to take place. Under orders from their husbands and spiritual leaders, wives donated their food stamp debit cards to the church, swiped them at church-owned businesses where the benefits were converted to cash, and purchased goods with federal assistance––all of which they then were ordered to donate to the church storehouse. In sum, they did not benefit from government assistance. The FLDS church did.

Jeffs and his associates are currently awaiting trial, which has been scheduled for May 31, though it is likely to be pushed back as lawyers work through what has been described as terabytes of evidence.

An earlier case against the towns of Hildale and Colorado City, however, gives us reason to believe that justice will be served, so to speak, in the food stamp fraud case. With United States v. Colorado City/Hildale, heard earlier this year, the Department of Justice hoped to successfully prove to a jury a "long-standing pattern of discrimination based on religion" by the towns themselves, and by their municipal utility providers, Twin City Water Authority Inc., and Twin City Power. Their argument was simple: the towns and their utilities services take their orders from the religious leaders of the FLDS and discriminate against gentiles (non-members) and apostates (ex-members) by withholding utilities from, extorting, and harassing those who are not of the FLDS faith.

Short Creek is a very small community. Everyone knows everyone, and everything is grist for the gossip mill. When someone leaves the faith, the whole community shuns them—even their immediate family. Further, as was proven in court by Ron and Jinjer Cooke, who were awarded a settlement of $5.3 million in 2014, non-FLDS who move to the community face their own brand of discrimination. Ron left Short Creek as a teenager, and when the Cookes and their three young children relocated from Phoenix to Ron's hometown of Colorado City in 2008, they were immediately faced with prejudice; the towns refused to provide sewage, electricity, and water for their home. Ron, who is disabled and uses a wheelchair and electric breathing machine, relied on his wife to haul sewage herself. Eventually, their electric and sewage lines were hooked up, but for five years the Cookes lived without running water.

The final witness called by the State during this year's DOJ discrimination trial was a former FLDS man named Patrick Barlow. He testified that, from 2007 until his departure from the FLDS in 2013, he served on church security, alongside ultimately hundreds of other men, all of whom took their orders from Colorado City Mayor Joseph Allred over a three-way radio. "We were instructed to watch for [Mohave and Washington County] law enforcement, for Sam Brower, a private investigator for the state of Utah... we were instructed to watch Ron and Jinjer Cooke," he testified. "In particular, these were high-profile people that we would try to identify any of their actions and movements within the community." All of them were non-FLDS. The goal, Barlow explained, was to "try to find something on them" to prove that Ron Cooke was faking his disability, "but we only saw them going peacefully, pulling their water trailer."

The FLDS church security officers drive large white SUVs with heavily tinted windows. They patrol the narrow, winding, hilly road that leads from Short Creek to nearby Hurricane, and all of the residential streets, paved and unpaved, that make up the small grid of Short Creek. Patrick Barlow's testimony confirms what I experienced firsthand in reporting on the community earlier this year: Pulled over on the side of a residential public road in Hildale, Utah, taking a phone call with a source, I was accosted by Colorado City Marshal's Officer Daniel Musser (a member of the FLDS), who claimed that a complaint had been made against me for "stalking and harassing."

According to sources in law enforcement, I was pulled over only so that church security could figure out who I was. All day I'd been driving around town, followed by multiple cars I could identify as church security, who took my photo and photos of the license plates of my rental car. When running my rental plates turned up nothing about me, they ultimately let me go without citation, as they had nothing on me; I'd done nothing wrong.

On March 7 of this year, the jury in the religious discrimination case returned a verdict of guilty on all counts. The towns have been ordered to pay $1.6 million in fines related to violation of the Fair Housing Act. In addition, the police departments and municipal governments of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, were found to be guilty of religious discrimination, in violation of the First Amendment. How this will be resolved remains to be seen––recommendations for remediation are expected sometime in October––but the collective hope is that the municipal governments will be dissolved and replaced with a more law-abiding set of officials. It would be unprecedented for an entire law enforcement agency to be stripped of its authority and replaced in its entirety, but never before has the court found such a flagrant dereliction of duty.