Jury sides with family in polygamist sect lawsuit

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Video report by Mike Watkiss

Posted on March 21, 2014 at 3:12 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 25 at 10:05 AM

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- An Arizona jury on Thursday agreed that a polygamous sect on the Utah-Arizona border discriminated against a family that doesn't belong to the church and awarded them $5.2 million.

The jury in Phoenix's U.S. District Court ruled that the family was denied a household water connection for religious reasons, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Ronald Cooke said his family was discriminated against when they returned in 2008 to his boyhood town of Short Creek - a collective name for Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.

Lawyers for the towns argued the family was denied utilities because they did not fill out paperwork correctly. The lawyers said they're considering an appeal.

The Cookes' attorney, William Walker, said the jury awarded $650,000 each to Ronald Cooke and his wife, Jinjer Cooke, plus another $1.95 million each for retaliation and interference.

Walker called the jury's decision "a total victory" and noted the award is more than the $4 million the family sought in the lawsuit.

"I'm thrilled," he said. "I'm particularly thrilled for the Cookes who have withstood this discrimination for five and half years and have finally been vindicated by a jury of their peers."

The jury also ruled that the cities had a pattern of discrimination against multiple residents in the area, which violated Arizona's fair housing law.

The Arizona Attorney General's Office, which signed onto the case shortly after it was filed in 2010, said that will clear the way for the office to pursue penalties against the cities.

"Discrimination based on religion will not be tolerated in this state," Arizona's Attorney General Tom Horne said in a statement Friday.

When the Cookes moved to Short Creek in 2008, the family was unable to get their home's water, sewer or electricity hooked up, and instead lived in a 35-foot trailer home, Walker said.

Walker said the Cookes were denied access to utilities because they're not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. He presented letters during the trial between city leaders and the sect's ruler, Warren Jeffs, who is serving a life sentence in a Texas prison for sexually assaulting two underage girls he considered his wives.

The letters demonstrated the church controlled the community, Walker argued, as did testimony from a former church security officer who said he witnessed church and municipal leaders planning to oust the family from the area. Another security officer testified that he was ordered to spy on the Cooke family.

Jinjer Cooke told the jury that family's time in Short Creek was marked by harassment, freezing water pipes and managing their own water and sewage.

The family's home was eventually connected for electricity and sewage service, but they're still without water, Walker said.

Thursday's ruling should clear the way for a court order requiring a water hookup, he said.

Hildale city attorney Blake Hamilton and Colorado City attorney Jeffery Matura said the family did not get utilities because they did not fill out the correct forms.

They argued that religious issues were a distraction from that problem.

The cities are considering appealing the decision, Hamilton said.

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Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune, http://www.sltrib.com

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