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Polygamists Fight to Be Seen As Part of Mainstream Society
Shurtleff's office has also moved to dismantle a communal property trust owned by Jeffs's sect in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. His office also is investigating the Kingston family, including seven brothers accused of incest who are thought to have fathered more than 600 children, informed sources said.
Shurtleff has secured commitments from four polygamist groups that they would abandon the practice of forcing underage girls into marriage, end the widespread practice of welfare fraud and create a more favorable environment for women in plural marriages to report domestic violence and child abuse.
"The things I am going after are crimes against children, rape and other types of abuse where there is a clear victim," he said. Shurtleff persuaded Utah's legislature to pass a specific law in 2003 on child bigamy, making it a second-degree felony punishable by one to 15 years in prison for a married adult to take as a second spouse anyone under 18.
Polygamy has deep roots in Utah's history and in the history of the Church of the Latter-day Saints. Many mainstream Mormons once believed, and many fundamentalists still believe, that only men in plural marriages will get to heaven. But, to ensure Utah would get statehood, the Mormon Church swore off polygamy in the 1890s.
Even so, polygamous communities continued to exist through the American West and in Canada and Mexico. And in recent years, authorities in the state adopted a "don't ask, don't tell" stance, Shurtleff said.
One reason was that the politically powerful Mormon Church, while officially opposing polygamy, did not want the bad press strict enforcement might bring. Another reason was that law enforcement was worried that isolated polygamist communities would erupt in violence if raided. An internal memo at the Arizona attorney general's office in 2002 spoke of a "Waco-level problem" among the polygamous communities along the Utah state line.
Shurtleff said he decided to confront polygamy's darker side and leave the more mainstream communities alone. In 2001, one of Utah's best-known polygamists, Tom Green, was prosecuted for and convicted of child rape for having sex with his first wife when she was 13.
"That's what really started my focus on this," Shurtleff said. "We can't really allow crimes to be committed against children in the name of religion."
Some polygamists said they welcome Shurtleff's prosecutions.
"Jeffs needed to be stopped," said Bonnie, a 20-something in a polygamist marriage who, like Valerie, declined to give her last name. (She said she has lost three jobs because of her polygamous background.) "I am glad they are prosecuting him."
Bonnie, along with her husband, Nat, and his first wife and their three children, are members of the Apostolic United Brethren, which says it has 7,500 members across the West and in Mexico. Bonnie's family lives in a suburban subdivision containing about 50 houses -- all inhabited by members of the sect. Bonnie's family has been polygamous since the 1860s. Nat was raised in a monogamous household but converted to Mormonism and decided to become a fundamentalist and a polygamist.
Bonnie said that what attracted her to polygamy was the chance it gave her to bond with women as well as with her husband.
"I always had an inner feeling that I'd be a plural wife," she said. "I was very excited to join his family. I had a really good feeling with his first wife."
Nat said he needed to be convinced. Far from the stereotype of the patriarch, he appears bookish and perhaps a tad meek. "Usually the women tend to be the biggest advocates of this way of life and men enter it more timidly," he said. "If you are going to do it right, it's a huge responsibility."