Lease renewal denied to 'refuge' office for polygamists

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Office may close after 5 years of service

FLAGSTAFF - State and county officials are losing their base in a polygamous community near the Arizona-Utah line that they say is needed to thwart crime and provide a refuge for people seeking to flee abusive situations.

Two trailers set up on the Mohave Community College campus in Colorado City have served as office space for law enforcement officials, victims advocates, a county investigator and some state agencies for the past five years. But the college decided against renewing the lease.

"It would have been nice to stay there longer, but they have their issues, and it's their lease," Sheriff Tom Sheahan said. "We'll find a place."

Sheahan said he is hopeful the county will find another property to lease by the end of the year.

Most residents of Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which practices polygamy. Critics claim the church uses polygamy to justify a wide range of evils, including child rape and underage marriage. The isolation of the community helps perpetuate those suspicions.

Colorado City has its own police force, but Sheahan said its primary allegiance is to the church, not the law.

"The people that want honest law enforcement certainly are glad to have us there," he said.

The satellite offices represented the first semi-permanent, independent governmental presence in the remote area since National Guard troops and state police staged a highly criticized raid to rout out polygamy 56 years ago. Residents in the area have long mistrusted the government and sometimes avoid seeking help even in times of need.

Marlyne Hammon, an employee in the local school district, said some community members initially were hesitant to use the services offered by the state and generally stayed away from the building that housed county investigator Gary Engles.

Engles, who has developed criminal cases against some polygamists, had an antagonistic attitude toward the community that people didn't find welcoming, she said.

"As far as the FLDS community, they have been under such scrutiny and attack that they probably don't feel comfortable with that at all," she said.

The Mohave County Board of Supervisors, which voted this week to remove the county's property from the campus, would have to OK any selection of a potential lease area.

Supervisor Buster Johnson said some Colorado City residents have relied on services offered through the satellite offices that they otherwise couldn't get without traveling long distances.

"I think even one day without service will show them we really don't care and that the FLDS does have the ultimate power and they don't answer to the laws of Arizona or the United States," he said.

County Attorney Matt Smith attributed the indictments of a handful of men on charges related to marriages with underage girls to the presence of a satellite office in Colorado City. He said it allowed Engles to talk with people directly in the community.

"The Board of Supervisors and county manager, I think they made a very good decision to erect that structure, that trailer on the property up there," he said. "They saw the need for it at the time, and it fulfilled the need. All our fears were justified, and I think to have a continuing presence up there is very important."

In a letter to the Board of Supervisors, state Attorney General Terry Goddard expressed concern that if another location isn't found, it would derail years of efforts by various agencies to aid victims of abuse and provide legal assistance. The satellite offices are an essential part of the efforts, he said.

Goddard said he believed the college had been pressured not to renew the lease that expires April 1. He said his office has heard from many Colorado City residents who value the services provided through the facility.

"They are very concerned about the safety and welfare of the community if the county-state facility is dismantled," he said.

Mohave Community College Chancellor Michael Kearns said a number of things led to the school's decision not to renew the lease, including a decrease in enrollment numbers from more than 800 in 2004 to about 400 this year.

"There is no specific reason, no specific action, event, direction, coercion, anything like that," Kearns said. "My perspective is we don't have to give a reason. This is our property and a lease is expired. It's as simple as that."