ST. GEORGE, Utah —
By KIRK JOHNSON
Utah’s attorney general, Mark L. Shurtleff, sat before a room of perhaps 400 people, most of them fundamentalist polygamists, at a town hall meeting here on Thursday night. He asked for a show of hands. How many people, he wanted to know, were related to the children who were seized last month in a raid in Texas in an investigation of possible marriage and abuse of child brides?
Scores of hands shot up. Then Mr. Shurtleff asked his follow-up: How many of you would be willing to take those children into your homes? Without a moment’s hesitation, the same hands rose.
“We think it would be wonderful if that were to happen, and we’re going to continue to try to encourage that,” Mr. Shurtleff said, as the room exploded with applause.
The raid in Eldorado, Tex., was not formally on the agenda here, and neither was the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or F.L.D.S., the sect at the heart of the Texas case. And never mind the question, for the moment, of whether foster placements from Texas into polygamist homes in Utah would ever actually happen for any of the 462 children seized in the Texas raid.
But for two hours, in a long-planned outreach meeting here between law enforcement officials from Utah and Arizona and people from the isolated world of religious polygamy, the Texas incident set the agenda.
There were questions filled with anxiety, such as whether a Texas-like raid would or could happen in Utah or Arizona and whether Texas was asking for help from states that had more experience in dealing with fundamentalist polygamy.
Mr. Shurtleff, a Republican, and Arizona’s attorney general, Terry Goddard, a Democrat, used both questions as a platform for a little Texas-bashing.
Arizona has offered to assist, Mr. Goddard said, “but right now they’re claiming they’re an independent republic and we need to establish diplomatic relations.”
Mr. Shurtleff fielded the question about whether there might be a raid.
“We do not plan a raid to end polygamy,” he said flatly. “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.”
Both men told the crowd that fostering cooperation, to persuade polygamist families and groups to police themselves and report abusers and to create an environment of trust so that girls wanting to complain of abuse or escape a sect could feel safe in speaking out, was the best way to protect children. Raids, which Arizona tried to its huge regret in the past, Mr. Goddard said, are often counterproductive.
But if the state of Texas got pounded a little, the even bigger punching bag of the evening was the F.L.D.S. sect itself, which one law enforcement official said was barely represented in the room.
Mr. Shurtleff and Mr. Goddard agreed that Texas had been forced into the position of a mass raid by the secretive, command-down structure of the Eldorado leadership and the demonstrated willingness by the F.L.D.S., they said, to flout child-marriage laws. The group’s leader, Warren S. Jeffs, was convicted in Utah last year of being an accomplice to the rape of a 14-year-old girl in his group by forcing her to marry.
“Some polygamist leaders have put their people in harm’s way,” Mr. Shurtleff said in a long speech on abuses by Mr. Jeffs. “Instead of cooperation, they’ve engaged in manipulation, distortion and lies.” It’s unfortunate, he added, “that so few have given a bad name to so many.”
The meeting, at a convention hall in this city about 45 miles from the historic heartland of the F.L.D.S. and other polygamist groups on the Utah-Arizona border, took on a surreal, absurdist quality at one point. As the religious polygamists — all of whom take their religious heritage from the early founding principles of Mormonism in the 1800s — sat primly in their seats, a raucous convention of commercial truckers in an adjoining convention room was cranking up a live band, with an open bar just down the hall.
Mainstream Mormons from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, based in Salt Lake City, disavowed polygamy in 1890 and excommunicate polygamists. But there are many shared threads between them and members of the F.L.D.S., notably an abstention from alcohol and tobacco.
As the talk of prosecutions, raids and sober-minded politics went on in one meeting room, the band next door, thundering through the wall, played the old Elvis Presley hit “Jailhouse Rock.”
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