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Utah, Arizona AGs feel fallout from FLDS raid

Published: Sunday, May 4 2008 12:30 a.m. MDT

Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff, of Utah, and Terry Goddard, above, of Arizona have been on hot seat.

Sherrie Buzby, Arizona Republic

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is reluctant to judge Texas authorities on their raid on the Fundamentalist LDS Church's YFZ Ranch one month ago, but he wonders if they may have gone too far.

The isolated nature of the compound near Eldorado may have made the heavy response by law enforcement necessary. Then, when Texas child protective services workers saw what appeared to be pregnant teens, Shurtleff said, they had a duty to remove them and investigate further.

"As far as all the kids, I don't know. What else could they do?" he wondered aloud during a Deseret News interview. "My gut feeling is they shouldn't have. They've gone too far."

The raid in Texas that put 464 children in state custody is a complicated situation for Shurtleff and his counterpart, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. They have extended an olive branch to polygamous communities with one hand — while clasping a pair of handcuffs in the other.

The attorneys general have been reaching out to polygamous communities to help abuse victims and trying to end the isolation of the closed societies. At the same time, they have continued to pursue criminal investigations against some of those very people.

Their approach has been both praised and condemned.

In interviews with the Deseret News, the attorneys general spoke at length about the aftermath of the raid in Texas. They believe their actions in prosecuting crimes within polygamy forced the FLDS to seek refuge in Texas, setting the stage for what is happening now.

Crimes within

Shurtleff and Goddard defend their approach of prosecuting abuse and fraud crimes within the closed societies, rather than polygamy itself, which has constitutional implications.

"It's never been that I choose to ignore a felony crime in the state, it's always been a matter of resources," Shurtleff said.

Where Texas has 464 children in state custody, Shurtleff counters that a similar approach would flood the Utah system with thousands of children in foster care and thousands of polygamist parents in prison.

"If we start prosecuting polygamy just for polygamy, where do we stop?" he said. "The state of Utah, let alone my office, does not have the resources."

That's not how some see it. Anti-polygamy activists have accused Arizona and Utah of being too lenient and turning a blind eye to abuse.

Goddard concedes that prosecuting polygamy itself may not even stand up in court under constitutional claims of freedom of religion and privacy rights. Instead, the prosecutors say they focus on abuse, domestic violence and welfare fraud.

"I do think we've taken the right approach," Goddard said. "It's not spectacular and it's not headline grabbing, but we've changed attitudes that existed in the state after the Short Creek raid (in 1953). What we're interested in is crimes against children."

A Texas-like raid on the FLDS enclaves of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., is not likely to happen. Goddard said Texas laws regarding child custody are drastically different from his state's.

"Why didn't we sweep in and pick up all the kids? It's really a silly question when you boil it down," he said. "Our law wouldn't permit it. We have such a different situation from Eldorado."

The crackdown

Utah has cracked down on crimes within polygamy, securing convictions against polygamist Tom Green, members of the Kingston group and former Hildale police officer Rodney Holm.

FLDS leader Warren Jeffs was convicted last year by Washington County prosecutors on charges of rape as an accomplice, accusing him of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.

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