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States Target Polygamy Group


A crackdown is under way against a group of polygamists that dominate twin towns on the Utah-Arizona border. The group calls itself the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS Church. Earlier this month, we profiled the FLDS in a pair of reports. Since then, state prosecutors have acted on three fronts. NPR's Howard Berkes has an update.

HOWARD BERKES reporting:

The polygamists who run the FLDS Church control local schools, police, government and real estate in the border towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. About 6,000 people live there. Most are FLDS faithful. Several hundred are former members, many living on land owned by a church trust. Some of the land is being sold, perhaps to finance a new FLDS compound in Texas. So last week, a Utah judge froze the trust's assets and seized partial control from FLDS leader Warren Jeffs. Mark Shurtleff is the attorney general of Utah.

Mr. MARK SHURTLEFF (Attorney General, Utah): So much of the church is moving to Texas. Warren Jeffs has left and is spending millions of dollars on building something down there. People are being left up here, not knowing from one day to the next whether they'll have a place to live.

BERKES: The freezing and seizing of the assets is only temporary pending further court hearings, but it should send a chilling message to FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, says Jon Krakauer, author of "Under the Banner of Heaven," a book about polygamist faiths.

Mr. JON KRAKAUER (Author, "Under the Banner of Heaven"): He has to be made nervous by these developments. I mean, the writing on the wall is clear. They're going after his assets, which as his funds are cut off, it's going to be harder and harder for him to operate as he has been operating.

BERKES: And it's not just Utah. The Arizona attorney general will join the effort to freeze and seize FLDS assets this week. Last week, he targeted the group's control of the Colorado City school district. Investigators raided district offices, armed with a criminal search warrant. They hauled away a truckload of computers and documents. Mike File is the county school superintendent, and tracks spending in the Colorado City school district.

Mr. MIKE FILE (Mohave County School Superintendent): The school board and the administration are part of the church, and the money is clearly being directed to the administrative staff.

BERKES: The school funds are being used to employ more people than might otherwise be employed who are members of that church?

Mr. FILE: Correct, 'cause it's clearly out of balance for all other school districts in the state and particularly here in Mohave County.

BERKES: Arizona is now working to take control of the school district under a new state law. District Superintendent Alvin Barlow could not be reached for comment. He has previously declined NPR's requests for interviews.

There are also indications of new criminal probes of FLDS members. Prosecutors are mum, but it appears the targets are men who have allegedly engaged in polygamist marriages with underage girls. Church leaders could also be charged, including Warren Jeffs, if they facilitated underage marriages. That has writer Jon Krakauer wondering what's coming next.

Mr. KRAKAUER: I think things are coming to a boil. I think Warren Jeffs' days are numbered as leader of this church. I'm concerned, and have been concerned all along, about what happens when a felony warrant is issued for him. You know, he answers to the laws of God, and when the two are in conflict, he's going to answer to God, not United States law or Utah law or Arizona law. So the odds of a peaceful resolution aren't great in my view, and I'm worried about that.

BERKES: Krakauer isn't alone. Federal and state law enforcement officers from Texas, Arizona and Utah compared notes in a closed-door meeting last month. It's been more than a year since Warren Jeffs has been seen in public. An attorney for the FLDS leader says Jeffs doesn't talk to reporters. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Howard Berkes
Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.