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Utah, Ariz. Prosecutors Vow Not to Raid Polygamists

The top prosecutors in Utah and Arizona promise not to raid polygamist groups in their states. That includes the group accused of child abuse in Texas, which has its home base on the Utah-Arizona border. The pledge was made Thursday night at a Polygamy Town Meeting that attracted a thousand people, many of them polygamists.

So many people crowded into a ballroom at the convention center in St. George, Utah, that organizers pulled back the folding doors to another ballroom, and it was still standing room only. They looked like a casually dressed crowd you'd find anywhere. There were no granny dresses or 19th-century hairdos. But most indicated they were part of polygamist groups when hundreds of hands shot up in response to questions from Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.

"Can I just ask, and we're not taking notes, but how many of you have relatives in Texas who are in custody? How many of you would be willing to take them into your home? We think it would be wonderful if that were to happen, and we'll continue to try and encourage that," Shurtleff said.

'We Do Not Plan a Raid to End Polygamy'

For two hours, Utah and Arizona officials told the gathering that this isn't Texas, where suspicions about arranged child marriages triggered a raid on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS Church. More than 460 FLDS children are now in state custody.

"We assure you that we do not plan a raid to end polygamy," Shurtleff said. "I know you're worried about that. We're not going to do it. I don't care how many talking heads on cable television shows tell Terry and I that we need to cowboy up and be like Texas. We don't believe that's the answer."

"Terry" is Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who has one of the twin FLDS hometowns in his state. Goddard told the gathering that he and Shurtleff share a different strategy from Texas. They target specific polygamists committing specific crimes, including arranged marriages of minor girls.

Goddard assured the crowd that polygamist beliefs alone won't trigger prosecution.

"There are suspicions that some actions are taken because of the defendant's belief and not because of their acts. And I want to assure you, that's not the rule in our office, and as long as I'm attorney general it never will be," Goddard said.

'Polygamy Is Not Going Away'

Polygamist wives and husbands also spoke, saying they are different from the FLDS group. They don't arrange marriages, many said. They don't believe in pairing underage girls with relatives or older men. They don't isolate themselves from the modern world. They worry about being tainted by what they called the offensive actions of a few. And they're here to stay.

"I think the state has to realize that polygamy is not going away," said Don Timpson, part of a group that broke away from the FLDS. "It is part of the fabric not only of fundamentalist Mormon communities but every community."

Well, not every community, but there are tens of thousands of polygamists in at least nine states. Most adhere to a lingering remnant of the Mormon faith as founder Joseph Smith preached it. Mormons firmly rejected polygamy decades ago. Today's polygamists believe they're keeping the original faith alive.

Earlier in the day, during a series of panel discussions, some polygamy opponents grew tired of what seemed like a forgiving tone.

"I think they should go into all these polygamous communities," said Buster Johnson, a county supervisor in Mojave County, the Arizona home of the FLDS. "Because you have the probable cause from Texas to say that these abuses have taken place, you go up to the house and you say, 'I want everybody outside. I want to see the birth certificates. I want to know who the mothers are.' You look and you go, 'It appears that you were underage when you had this child,' you DNA test them, and somebody goes to jail and we start putting an end to this right now."

Johnson didn't stay for the Polygamy Town Meeting. He doesn't buy the Arizona and Utah approaches, which seek partnerships with polygamist groups to help root out abuse.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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