Indictment: Fire chief stole polygamous town funds

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Associated Press

Posted on August 18, 2011 at 9:00 AM

Updated Thursday, Aug 18 at 11:04 AM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — The fire chief in the polygamous sect-run border town of Colorado City, Ariz., is facing a 30-count felony criminal indictment that alleges he improperly used public funds to pay for items including furniture and an out-of-state trip.

The town is one of two on the Utah-Arizona border dominated by followers of Warren Jeffs' Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Jeffs, 55, is serving a life sentence in Texas after being convicted of sexually abusing underage sect girls.

A Mohave County, Ariz., grand jury returned the indictment against Fire Chief Jacob Barlow on Aug. 4 — the same day the Texas jury returned two guilty verdicts against Jeffs.

Barlow has been summoned to appear in a Kingman courtroom Tuesday, Deputy Mohave County Attorney James Schoppmann said.

The indictment, which Schoppmann described but has not yet been made public, alleges 27 counts of violating the duty of a custodian of public money, two counts of participating in a criminal syndicate and one count of assisting in a criminal syndicate.

"We believe it's a frivolous indictment," Barlow's attorney, Michael Piccarreta told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "There are lots of expenses for running a fire department beyond driving to and back from a fire."

Mohave County's investigation of Barlow began in January 2008 after a St. George, Utah, restaurant manager contacted county authorities to report that he believed Barlow had used a fire department credit card to buy dinner for his wife.

Court papers police filed to obtain search warrants show that for two years following the complaint, the county attorney's office interviewed city officials and filed public records requests for bank and credit card statements, invoices and other documents spanning from September 2004 to June 2009. The records involved Barlow and Colorado City Manager David Darger, who was the secretary-treasurer for the fire department.

Court records state that Schoppmann found the responses to those requests "vague and incomplete."

Among the purchases cited in court papers as questionable were a trip to Lava Hot Springs in Idaho, restaurant meals, a clock/radio docking station for an iPod, clothing and furniture, including a computer workstation, an armoire and a pair of leather sofas.

In April 2010, sheriff's deputies served search warrants on fire stations in Colorado City and its sister city of Hildale, Utah, for documents and computer files containing financial records. Warrants were also served on Barlow and Darger's homes.

Darger has not been charged and Schoppmann declined to say whether an indictment against him was pending.

A message left for Darger at the Colorado City offices on Wednesday was not immediately returned.

The Colorado City Fire District covers a 225-square-mile area along the Utah-Arizona border and serves Hildale through an interlocal agreement, Barlow told the AP last year. The district has about six full-time staff members and 100 volunteers, including firefighters and paramedics. The district's budget for 2009 was about $1.5 million.

Piccarreta said the fire department provides benefits to its volunteers and that Barlow's expenditures would be explained. He also said any personal expenses that Barlow may have lumped into purchases made with a department credit card have been repaid.

Management of the twin towns and Jeffs' fundamentalist church, which operates most area businesses and work in all levels of city government, has been under increasing scrutiny by authorities in Utah and Arizona. Allegations surfaced in 2005 that Jeffs increased the number of underage marriages and mismanaged a church property trust valued at more than $110 million.

Some Colorado City police officers, who were also FLDS members, have been investigated and decertified following allegations that they had placed their loyalties to the church ahead of enforcing state and federal laws. The faith is engaged in a protracted legal battle with the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona over control of the property trust.

Piccarreta contends that the investigation and indictment of Barlow is part of an ongoing effort by state authorities to dismantle the FLDS community for its religious practice of polygamy.

The faith's religious roots are tied to the early teachings of the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Plural marriage, which the FLDS practice through marriages arranged by church leaders, is believed to bring exaltation in heaven. The mainstream Mormon church abandoned the practice in the 1890s.

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Jennifer Dobner can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/JenniferDobner.

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