ST. GEORGE, Utah – Police academy officials will meet here Monday to consider whether town marshals who patrol a polygamist enclave on the Arizona-Utah border should be stripped of their badges on accusations that they revere their religious leader more than the law.
Utah authorities say officers in tiny Colorado City, Ariz., are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and are more loyal to its leader, Warren Jeffs, than to their badges and their oath of office.
The marshals are accused of misconduct for what authorities describe as ignoring court orders related to properties held in a church trust and refusing to cooperate in depositions conducted by trust attorneys.
The officers are certified in both states and patrol Colorado City and Hildale, Utah, where many church members live. The roughly 10,000 members of the insular faith practice polygamy, consider Jeffs a prophet of God and think of themselves as "fundamentalist Mormons," although the mainstream church disavows any connection.
Officials in both states sent officers a warning letter last year reminding them of their duties as sworn officers. If Utah were to decertify the department, the Washington County Sheriff's Office would likely be asked to take over police duties for Hildale. It wasn't immediately known what Arizona officials would do.
The Utah Peace Officer Standards and Training Council has since December been investigating the department of about eight officers, including Town Marshal Fred Barlow. Barlow and two officers are the subject of a parallel investigation being conducted by Arizona's Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, director Tom Hammarstrom said.
One officer, Mica Barlow, voluntarily surrendered his Utah certification last fall after spending three weeks in prison for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in Phoenix.
Included in the investigation evidence is a letter from Fred Barlow to Jeffs in which he pledges his allegiance as a "servant" to the church president, referring to him as "Uncle Warren."
"I do not know exactly what we have ahead of us, but I do know that I and all of the other officers have expressed our desire to stand with you and the priesthood," Barlow wrote. He also informs Jeffs of his plans to hire an additional officer, "unless you would like us to do something different."
The letter was part of a cache of communications seized in a 2005 Colorado traffic stop involving a pickup truck driven by one of Jeffs' brothers.
At the time, Warren Jeffs was a fugitive hiding from felony charges filed in Arizona. He is now in the Washington County jail pending an April trial on two counts of rape as an accomplice for his suspected role in a 2001 marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin.
When read in its entirety, Barlow's letter is "really quite benign" and not proof of anything more than ecclesiastical reverence, said Peter Stirba, an attorney for the marshals office.
"We don't believe there's anything there, and any action that may be taken would be unfounded," Stirba said Friday.
On Monday, Stirba's office is expected to present board officials from both states with a letter objecting to the investigation and detailing the misunderstandings, misperceptions and miscommunications he believes have resulted in the current allegations.
"They have answered this (loyalty) question routinely and repeatedly," Stirba said. "They clearly acknowledge the authority of the court and their oath of office."
Any lapses by police amount to a lack of understanding and legal assistance that has been corrected, Stirba said.
Stirba noted that most who have complained about the conduct of officers are disenfranchised FLDS members and on the payroll of a court-appointed accountant in control of the church's $110 million trust.