Justice Department sues polygamous towns, claims religious discrimination

Trying to return brides to homes from which they fled.

Rounding up all dogs and shooting them in a "slaughter pit."

Denying police protection and access to public services.

All at the hands of local law enforcement officers in the twin towns of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah.

And all at the direction of the polygamous Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, whose leader, Warren Jeffs, is serving a life sentence in Texas after convictions on child sex and bigamy charges.

These and other allegations are contained in a lawsuit filed Thursday against the towns and their consolidated Marshal’s Office by the U.S. Department of Justice.

According to the lawsuit filed in federal court in Arizona, city leaders and law enforcement in the two towns have for decades served at Jeffs’ pleasure while ignoring the constitutional rights of residents who aren’t FLDS followers.

"The cities’ governments, including the Marshal’s Office, have been deployed to carry out the will and dictates of FLDS leaders, particularly Warren Jeffs and the officials to whom he delegates authority," the lawsuit said. "The Marshal’s Office has inappropriately used its state-granted law enforcement authority to enforce the edicts of the FLDS, to the detriment of non-FLDS members."

In one case of law enforcement misconduct, according to the lawsuit, officers rounded up all dogs and shot them in a "slaughter pit" outside town on specific orders from Jeffs.

The lawsuit also said officers regularly allow sect members to victimize nonmembers by destroying their crops, vandalizing property and trespassing.

Federal officials also say officers have made traffic stops and arrests without cause, kept underage brides from running away and prevented children of non-FLDS members from using a public playground.

The lawsuit accuses city departments of refusing to provide electricity or water service to nonmembers.

Attorney Blake Hamilton, who represents Hildale and the Marshal’s Office that serves both towns, disputed the allegations.

"There’s nothing to support the allegation that non-FLDS members are treated differently," Hamilton said Thursday.

He said the towns ran out of water for new users, but the federal lawsuit insists "there is no water shortage."

He said Justice Department lawyers threatened a lawsuit in December when they met with him and another attorney representing Colorado City.

"DOJ asked us to dismantle a community," Hamilton said.

The federal lawsuit accuses the towns of violating the federal Fair Housing Act by depriving nonsect members of their constitutional rights. It seeks unspecified damages for victims, penalties levied against the towns and court orders prohibiting officials from harassing residents who were never FLDS members, left the sect on their own or were excommunicated.

It said the defendants "have acted in concert with FLDS leadership to deny non-FLDS individuals housing, police protection, and access to public space and services."

Jeff Matura, a lawyer for Colorado City, denied the allegations.

"We’ll have our day in court," Matura said, adding that town utilities don’t discriminate against anyone. "There’s not a question on the application that says, ‘What’s your religion?’ "

The federal complaint will finally bring the rule of law to the towns, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said.

"We have made substantial progress during the past decade in bringing justice and security to the people living in the twin cities of Hildale and Colorado City," Shurtleff said, adding that his office has sought federal involvement for years.

Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne also lauded the action.

"Finding a solution to the illegal activities that have been occurring in Colorado City for decades has been one of my highest priorities," Horne said. "I remain committed to stopping the illegal conduct perpetrated by the FLDS church on nonchurch members."

The Justice Department’s lawsuit is similar to one pending in federal court in Arizona that alleges some of the same violations of the Fair Housing Act by the defendants. The complaint was filed by a former FLDS member and his wife, and the Arizona attorney general’s office.

The Justice Department lawsuit also comes after legislatures in Utah and Arizona failed this year to pass bills aimed at abolishing the towns’ Marshal’s Office.

The FLDS practices polygamy, holding that plural marriages bring exaltation in heaven.

Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan said his department has been working with federal investigators for more than three years and that he’s elated that the complaint has been filed.

"It fortifies what we’ve been saying about the corruption that has been going on, especially with the Marshal’s Office," Sheahan said.

He said allegations in the complaint support legislation that was narrowly rejected by Arizona lawmakers earlier this year. The measure included provisions allowing a Sheriff’s Office takeover of the Marshal’s Office.

After rejection of the bill in the State House of Representatives, Attorney General Horne allocated a $420,000 grant for the Sheriff’s Office to increase its patrol presence in Colorado City. Sheahan said he plans to place more deputies in Colorado City next month, assuming the Board of Supervisors formally accepts the grant at its July 2 meeting.

"I’m very interested to see what’s going to happen in the next couple of weeks and the response to the complaint," Sheahan said. "It couldn’t come at a better time for us as we look to begin our patrols up there."

Colorado City Town Manager David Darger declined comment when contacted at his office Thursday. Darger and Fire District Chief Jacob Barlow are being prosecuted by the Mohave County attorney’s office in connection with allegations of misuse of Fire District funds.

Jeffs is imprisoned in Texas after being found guilty last year of sexually assaulting two of his two dozen underage brides.

His conviction came after an April 2008 raid of the FLDS Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas, which Jeffs had ordered his followers to build.

The raid led to a chaotic roundup of 400 children living at the secretive location in what became one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.

All of the children were eventually returned, but 11 men – including Jeffs and other high-ranking FLDS lieutenants – were arrested on charges of sexual assault or bigamy and later convicted.

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