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Andrew Chatwin watched as federal agents and sheriff’s deputies swarmed this rural polygamist outpost last week, storming dairy and produce stores and a food distribution center in bulletproof vests, guns drawn, handcuffs dangling from their belts.
“I thought this day would never come,” said Mr. Chatwin, 48, a former member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, the sect that rules the hearts and minds of followers here and across the state line in Colorado City, Ariz. According to prosecutors, the businesses were key players in a high-desert conspiracy that siphoned millions of dollars in food-stamp benefits from the pockets of American families to bank accounts controlled by the polygamist sect, whose leaders — most prominently, the jailed Warren Jeffs — follow a self-styled form of Mormonism and dictate where followers live, how much they eat and whom they marry.
The arrests are only part of the legal troubles confronting the sect and its home-base communities, accused in a federal civil rights trial in Phoenix of denying housing, utilities and adequate policing to nonbelievers. In closing arguments on Wednesday, the defense argued that the government was using the towns as scapegoats to seek revenge against a religion it abhors. “Who is discriminating against whom?” Jeff Matura, who represents Colorado City, asked in his closing statement, before the case went to the jury. The combined moves — the raids, arrests and the discrimination case against the towns — could signify a turning point in the government’s handling of the sect after decades of sporadic action. Pictures of children wailing as the Arizona authorities yanked them from their mothers during a disastrous raid in 1953 stirred rousing public sympathy for the polygamists and, experts said, cost Gov. John Howard Pyle his re-election and kept law enforcement away. Now, some experts argue that the simultaneous prosecutions resemble the strategy used by the federal government to go after the infamous New York crime families like the Gambinos. “You follow the money,” said Sam Brower, a private investigator from southern Utah who connected former sect members with the authorities, helping them build the case.
After raids unfolded in precise choreography on Feb. 23, here and in Colorado City, agents arrested 11 sect leaders and others on fraud and money-laundering charges. Among the people taken into custody was Lyle Jeffs, the brother and handpicked surrogate of Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence for sexual abuse of under-age girls he claimed as his wives. Court papers describe a sophisticated scheme that relied on shell companies to legitimize the money earned from fraudulent food-stamp transactions — either because no goods were exchanged or because the products bought at the dairy and produce stores were taken to the distribution center to be resold or donated. Over four years, the stores’ food-stamp sales rivaled those at Costco and Walmart, the indictment alleges. The money, it says, paid for a $30,236 Ford F-350 truck, a $13,561 John Deere tractor and $16,978 in paper products, among other items. Meanwhile, local residents said, mothers in ankle-length dresses and braids fought in line over the scarce supplies of cold cereal and meat doled out at the distribution center. “For 60 years, the state of Utah and the state of Arizona looked the other way when it came to this group’s practice of polygamy,” said Robert Hoole, a Salt Lake City lawyer who has represented many former members of the fundamentalist church. “In the vacuum that was created by their looking the other way, a host of secondary crimes grew up, and this group became a criminal enterprise.”
In interviews, lawyers, defectors and scholars who have researched the fundamentalist church said the crackdown was happening now because the allegations of criminal behavior became too widespread to ignore — and because enough people who left the church agreed to testify for the government. One of them was Dowayne Barlow, 47, a former aide to Lyle Jeffs who left the fundamentalist church in 2012. He was in federal court in Phoenix on Wednesday, awaiting the jury’s decision. In an interview, he said, “The government, they came as true freedom fighters. They’re going to liberate us.” But some warned that it would be naïve to say that the end of the sect is near. “For members of the church who deeply believe in the tenets of the faith, who are deeply committed to it, things like this can actually have a counter impact,” said Amos Guiora, a law professor at the University of Utah who has interviewed dozens of former church members and written extensively about them. “The leadership can say, ‘See, government really hates us.’” Federal and state authorities in Arizona and Utah had said they believed that Warren Jeffs’s conviction in 2011 could destabilize the sect, estimated to have 6,000 followers. But in practice, his influence never waned, prosecutors said. From behind bars, for example, he ordered believers to abandon the homes they were building and divert their money to the construction of walled compounds. As a result, half-built houses dot the bordering towns, collectively known as Short Creek when they were settled as a single community in 1913 by a group of Mormons who broke away from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints after it banned polygamy. Members of the splinter group set out looking for a refuge, and they found it here. Colorado City and Hildale are wedged against chiseled red mountains, a six-hour drive from Phoenix. Children are home-schooled and put to work early. On a recent morning, three young girls lined up rocks along the tall fence surrounding their home as their mother stood watch, hands on hips. Discreet signs hang above believers’ front doors, the word “Zion” painted pink on white board. The signs are meant to ward off “angels of destruction,” Mr. Chatwin said. For months, families have lived in tents and trailers framed by a towering fence in Colorado City, after they were evicted from the homes where they lived for refusing to pay property taxes. According to interviews, the food-stamp fraud seemed to be an open secret among people in the region — another example of a practice they call “bleeding the beast.” “They despise the government, but they are only too happy to take from the government,” Professor Guiora said.
The stores at the center of the food-stamps case — the Meadowayne Dairy Store and Vermillion Cliffs Produce, which are in Colorado City — have modest selections that resemble the products found at convenience stores. It was the size of the community the stores serve and, the indictment says, the “abnormally large and frequent” food-stamp sales they logged that roused the government’s suspicions. Beneficiaries must swipe government-issued electronic cards through a machine to make food-stamp purchases. When the dairy store reopened three days after the raid, a sign taped to the front door warned shoppers: “Card machine is unavailable. Cash or check only.”