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.
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."
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.
Jeffs is now in an Arizona jail, facing similar charges accusing him of performing more child-bride marriages. Mohave County, Ariz., prosecutors have also secured sex crimes convictions against six FLDS men accused of taking underage brides.
Beyond the criminal convictions, Utah and Arizona moved forward with a crackdown on the FLDS Church, seizing control of its real estate holdings arm, the United Effort Plan Trust, placing the Colorado City School District in financial receivership and disciplining police officers in the border towns.
"One of the best things you can say about Arizona and Utah is (the FLDS) went to Texas to get away from us," Goddard said.
The Utah Attorney General's Office has had special investigators, dubbed "polygamy czars," look into crimes within closed societies. Still, prosecutions are few and far between. Authorities say that is because witnesses and evidence are difficult to secure.
Goddard said he intends to keep the pressure up.
"We've investigated thoroughly every complaint we get, and we don't hesitate to pull a kid out of the house where there is abuse," he said.
Both Utah and Arizona's attorneys general provided information about the FLDS Church to Texas authorities. Shurtleff testified before the Texas Legislature and encouraged lawmakers there to raise their marriage age in response to the FLDS Church moving in. But both Shurtleff and Goddard said they did not know the raid was coming.
Texas child protective services officials have said in court that the children on the YFZ Ranch were growing up in a culture that lends itself to abuse. Shurtleff said he can't reach the same conclusion.
"Let's say you're a 6-month-old girl, no evidence whatsoever of any abuse. They're simply saying, 'You, in this culture, may grow up to be a child bride when you're 14. Therefore we're going to remove you now when you're 6 months old,"' he said. "Or, 'You're a 6-month-old boy; 25, 30 years, 40 years from now you're going to be a predator, so we're going to take you away now."'
Rod Parker, a Salt Lake attorney acting as a spokesman for the FLDS, said he can agree with Shurtleff on one point.
"What Texas has done here is beyond the pale. I agree with Mark that the circumstances don't call for that kind of heavy-handed action," he said.
But Parker criticizes Shurtleff, accusing him of feeding a prejudice against the FLDS by making statements about the people as a whole.
"His role is to investigate and prosecute crimes and not to malign societies. This is a vulnerable group," Parker said. "He knows it. He would never go out and make these kind of negative remarks about any other group except polygamists."
The raid on the YFZ Ranch was prompted by someone claiming to be a 16-year-old named "Sarah," who said she was pregnant and in an abusive, polygamous marriage to a man named Dale Barlow. When Texas authorities responded, they said they found other signs of abuse. A judge ordered all of the children removed from the ranch and placed in state protective custody.
Authorities have dropped the warrant against Barlow, who lives in Colorado City, and are investigating whether the call was a hoax perpetrated by a Colorado woman with a history of making phony abuse calls. Both Utah and Arizona are investigating similar calls.
The backlash from the Texas raid may hinder investigations into crimes within polygamy in Utah and Arizona.
"We've done a lot to establish trust and a lifeline," Goddard said.
He pointed to the Safety Net Committee, a group composed of polygamists, social service workers and government bureaucrats working to end isolation and combat abuse and neglect in polygamy.
"If suspicion and hostility reasserts itself, we may get cut off. If it works out well, we'll be able to at least do some damage control and make it clear that Utah and Arizona aren't Texas," Goddard said.
Calls to a domestic violence hotline set up to deal with abuse situations in plural families have increased, but the attorneys general fear that an abuse victim may now be reluctant to come forward for fear of triggering another raid.
"They want us to punish the guy who hurt them or the guy who ordered it, either Warren Jeffs or their husband," Shurtleff said. "They don't want their whole family impacted. They still love their siblings."
Shurtleff confirmed he has ongoing investigations into the FLDS Church, the Kingston polygamous family and other groups.
"We're hopeful there may be some evidence that came out of the temple," Goddard said of the raid on the YFZ Ranch, where the FLDS built their such edifice.
Shurtleff said he hopes federal authorities will also share evidence seized from the car that Jeffs was riding in when he was arrested outside Las Vegas in 2006. The FBI has said it is willing to cooperate where it can on evidence seized.
Federal task force
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's very public comments that he was "embarrassed" for Utah and Arizona, accusing them of doing nothing about polygamy-related crimes, infuriated the attorneys general.
"Harry Reid is full of crap," Shurtleff fumed in a TV interview.
The two states fired off a four-page letter. Goddard went so far as to send a foot-thick package of documents to Reid's office, detailing the polygamy-related convictions and victim-outreach efforts. Shurtleff said they buried the hatchet when Reid called, saying: "I want to kiss and make up."
Reid said he would push for a federal task force to investigate polygamy-related crimes, something Shurtleff and Goddard support.
"All is forgiven if he will help us get active federal involvement in cases that they can investigate," Goddard said.83 comments on this story
Utah U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman said he did not think a federal task force was necessary, since the majority of the crimes being investigated were state-level offenses. Tolman revealed to the Deseret News that he and the FBI have attempted to build a Mafia-type RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) case against the FLDS Church and Jeffs, but it has not been successful because of a lack of witnesses or hard evidence.Shurtleff said Reid pledged to the attorneys general that he would get them in contact with top-tier Justice Department officials. Shurtleff said he is still waiting for that phone call.