'Apostate' challenges radical FLDS sect with civil rights lawsuit

By John M. Glionna

Los Angeles Times (MCT)

Published: Wednesday, July 18 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

When a fellow member asked him about making his young daughter sexually available to Jeffs, Wyler said he responded: "Anyone comes looking for my daughter before she's 18 will meet my baseball bat."

He suspects the comment got back to Jeffs, leading to his banishment.

Wyler says he could have abandoned Colorado City but stayed instead to help advise the growing number of "apostates," who he says make up 10 percent of the towns' combined population of 10,000.

He has survived his banishment, he said, by making a living raising horses, which he sells outside the community.

Challenging the church has brought heartbreak. "It's really hard," he said, "to have an entire town against you."

On Aug. 30, 1953, Arizona law enforcement officers stormed the town then called Short Creek in one of the largest mass arrests of polygamists in U.S. history.

Hundreds were arrested and 236 children taken into protective custody. But negative public reaction allowed many church members to return to the area, which later split into two municipalities — Hildale and Colorado City.

The community was left alone until 2005 when Arizona successfully prosecuted two church members for fathering children with underage girls. Jeffs, who was indicted, went on the run until his conviction last year on child sex abuses charges.

Gary Engels, an investigator for the Mohave County district attorney's office in Arizona who spent years accumulating evidence against the sect, said he saw families separated by Jeffs. "If leaders tell a family their children have to go, they abandon them," he said.

Some of Jeffs' orders defied reason. In 2001, the federal lawsuit contends, Jeffs banned domestic dogs and later sent marshals to round up any remaining canines, which were taken to a "slaughter pit" and shot.

The towns employ a small team of state-certified, uniformed marshals to keep order, but the lawmen allegedly failed to protect residents from harassment. "They sought guidance from the church rather than serving the higher call for justice," said Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith.

Since 2003, according to the suit, Arizona authorities have decertified six of the marshals for failing to cooperate with law enforcement, including their refusal to testify at a grand jury proceeding involving the church.

Efforts by Arizona and Utah to disband the marshal force bogged down in the states' legislatures, but Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne said he expects his state to abolish Colorado City's marshal's office in the next legislative session.

"It doesn't do any good to remove these marshals one at a time, because they get replaced by clones," he said.

In the meantime, Arizona has directed the Mohave County Sheriff's Office to respond to calls in Colorado City, he said.

Horne said Arizona has pursued civil rights charges against Colorado City officials for years but that the church has circled the wagons. "People don't remember things, they refuse to answer questions," he said. "It's a very closed society. It's tough to scrape your way inside."

Isaac Wyler stood in a cornfield and shook his head. A baseball diamond once stood here, he said, but church members bulldozed the sandlot and have used bundles of pressed cardboard to block off an outdoor school basketball court.

Sports were encouraged until Jeffs suddenly proclaimed them off-limits, Wyler said.

"The elders used to watch apostates' kids play baseball and basketball, and they must have thought 'Wow, that looks like fun,' " said former church member Ross Chatwin. "Next thing we knew, the field was gone and the court was blocked off."

Someone cut openings in the fences at Wyler's stable, allowing horses to bolt, and he suspected FLDS members. The marshal's office was no help.

"The officers would come out and say, 'Well, this fence has clearly been cut, but we're going to fine you $25 for each horse on the loose,'" he said.

Wyler said his teenage son Marvin was injured once when a church youth ran him over with a horse. The boy's crime: wearing a short-sleeve shirt, which is forbidden by the sect.

"I told my son these church kids don't realize what they're doing," he recalled. "I said that intolerance isn't born into people; it's taught."

Though outnumbered, Wyler remains defiant. "When I was a boy, I was taught that 'apostate' was the worst word you could ever be called," he said. "But now I'm one of them, and I couldn't care less. I'm actually proud of it."

©2012 Los Angeles Times; Visit the Los Angeles Times at www.latimes.com ; Distributed by MCT Information Services

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