The journalist responsible for casting a national spotlight on polygamist Warren Jeffs says the practice is alive and well in Arizona and the man with 78 wives is still calling the shots from prison.
Author Betty Webb will present, “Polygamy in Arizona” as part of the spring 2014 Humanities Lecture Series at ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus. Hosted by the School of Letters and Sciences, the lecture starts at 6:30 p.m., March 20 at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, 555 N. Central Ave., Phoenix, room 128. The lecture will be followed by a signing of her book, “Desert Wives.”
The lecture series, now in its sixth year, is open to the general public and is free.
Webb was a hard-bitten, tough as nails reporter with the East Valley Tribune for almost 20 years when she decided to retire and write full-time as an author. Her two prize-winning mystery series – the Lena Jones books and the Gun Zoo series – offer a fully realized picture of Arizona, from barrios to mountaintop mansions.
She spoke to Get Out about her research and run-ins with Jeffs’ henchmen and followers in Colorado City, and how her work ultimately brought down the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints.
Q: Your 2002 book “Desert Wives” placed a spotlight on the subject of modern day polygamy in Arizona and helped put Warren Jeffs behind bars.
BW: That's right and one of the things that I knew, because I was a reporter, was that just talking about the sexual abuse of little girls wasn't going to make any difference because nobody cares. At least they didn't care back then. But I knew if I followed the money trail, then people would feel very differently and that's exactly what happened. The officials started to look into Warren Jeffs welfare fraud and that superseded the sexual abuse of little girls.
Q: Why was sexual abuse of no interest to officials?
BW: It never is. It never is. If you go back through history, you will see that rape cases, no matter what the age of the female, are seldom taken seriously. If it happens to a little girl, she's a liar. If it happens to a grown woman, she's a liar. But money, now that’s different story.
Q: Tell us about your first trip to Colorado City to do your initial research for “Desert Wives” and some of the resistance you ran into?
BW: Before I answer that question I had to qualify my answer by saying that the first time I came to Arizona in 1982, I came via New York. I had this attitude of “Freedom of Religion” and “everybody has their own lifestyle.” I took the typical extreme view of polygamy. I came to realize it was a dangerous situation. So before I went up to Colorado City, I bought a wig at Goodwill and rented a car to because I didn't want my license plate tracked down. When I started my research in 1999 and there hadn't been any negative publicity about Colorado City, it was wide open. It wasn't gated like it is now. I was able to drive my car freely around the compound and took pictures. Well, I was caught taking pictures and then I was shooed away. I had picked up a tail on the way through and two guys with a rifle rack drove behind me the entire time. Then one other time when I was taking pictures, a police car pulled up and ran me off at gunpoint. Over time I started amassing materials and names, talked to a couple of the women who had escaped but unfortunately had not gotten their children out. The children were actually considered the property of the males – always the property of the males. Originally I was going to write a non-fiction book on polygamy but then I thought, “Wait a minute...” My research had shown me that that others had written non-fiction books on polygamy and nobody had bought them. Nobody was really interested in a non-fiction book about how polygamy was handled in America. I thought it would be much better to turn it into a mystery novel in my Lena Jones series and that way the information can get out. So I wrote it as a mystery novel but kept all the facts about polygamy correct. I wrote the book, it took off and became a national best-seller. I toured nationwide and handed out the name and phone number of the Arizona Legislature and the Governor’s Office, and the next thing I knew it started to snowball. The Legislature was in an uproar, the FBI got involved because of the financial crimes and that’s what ultimately brought Warren Jeffs down – welfare fraud.
Q: How did you know about the welfare fraud?
BW: I was told by a source, which turned out to be easily proven. Once the FBI got involved, they looked into the United Effort Plan, which was Warren Jeff’s big slush pile. He had millions. He obtained his millions by using the young ladies to receive the welfare checks, who forwarded them to Jeffs. You see, all of the children were considered illegitimate because they were not the children of legal marriages. The Feds then froze the funds. While they’re still not getting as much welfare as they used to, they’re still getting funds. But money now goes to Warren Jeff’s henchmen, who are now running the compound since Jeffs is serving 25 years to life for child rape in Texas. Apparently Texas cares more about rape than we do here in Arizona.
Q: Many contend that Warren Jeffs still runs the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints from prison. Is that your take as well?
BW: He is. Unfortunately he is allowed a telephone and he’s on speakerphone when he delivers his wacko sermons to his henchmen. I believe the guy is probably schizophrenic. He has all sorts of hallucinations. Before he was arrested, he led his flock out into the desert for Judgment Day. He thought they were all going to be lifted up by the angels and they stayed out there for three days. Of course, they didn’t get lifted up by angels because they’re still here. The people are so brainwashed there and they believe everything Jeffs tells them. He is their Lord, their master, and so when he gives his sermons via telephone from prison, they’re all there listening to him in the meeting hall they have up there in Colorado City.
Q: I’ve heard you’ve received death threats after the book was published?
BW: I would get death threats and handwritten notes that would be sent to my publisher, who forwarded correspondence to me. Of course, they didn’t know what was in my mail. I also received a lot of emails. The interesting thing is when I first started my signings for the book here in Phoenix, I had three polygamist men come to them and try and intimidate me. You can easily tell who they are because there’s been so much inbreeding and incest up there. Their dress too is a little different. So they would sit in the front rows where I would be giving my talks and on a couple of occasions, they’d follow me out to my car. It was just to intimidate me. I didn’t ever think they’d do anything. That all stopped when I had a signing in Chandler and the same three guys were there with scowling faces and arms crossed. I just got irritated with them and I introduced them to the audience and told them to stand up. I said, “These three gentlemen are from Colorado City and they’re here to intimidate me.” Then they all got up and they left. I never saw them again.
Q: Other than the Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints, is polygamy practiced in sects other than Warren Jeffs?
BW: Yes, but not to the extent that it has been practiced in Colorado City. It does continue but I also have to say that not every polygamist situation is that abusive. Not every polygamist situation is tending towards child abuse and child rape. The other interesting thing is in Centennial City, the women there are allowed to get jobs. The thing to remember in all polygamy compounds is the woman will devote her whole life to the children and so-called spouse. I say that because there's no legal marriage with the spouse and then when the man dies, these women have no right of inheritance so they’re kind of strung out and left to dry. All abuse goes along to some sort of severity chart and most of it is pretty bad as far as the women in polygamy goes.
Q: What does the LDS community think of polygamy and more to the point, “Desert Wives”?
BW: It’s funny you ask me that because I got some pretty good reviews in the LDS publications. They have no problem with my book. You know how they really feel about Warren Jeffs? He’s the crazy uncle in the attic. Really. The crazy uncle in the attic. I have to say Utah and the LDS church has done more to combat modern polygamy than Arizona ever dreamed of. I’d still like to see Arizona arrest someone, but they have not.
Q: So why is Arizona opposed to making arrests and Utah and Texas were not?
BW: Do you remember when Janet Napolitano was Arizona’s Attorney General? She actually read “Desert Wives” when it was in manuscript form. As it turned out, the editor in chief at Poisoned Pen Press, who published my book, was a friend of Napolitano’s. She said that the fear was that if they went in with troops or police they would have another David Koresh-Branch Davidian situation on their hands. Apparently the polygamists had been storing arms in the caves and barns outside the compound. Our law and order officials were afraid that there would be major explosions and fires and killings if they ever went in there.
Q: Seems to me that Texas didn’t have a problem taking on Warren Jeffs, the state where the David Koresh incident took place.
BW: Let me tell you something, and you can quote me on this if you want, but Texas has balls. Yep, they got balls.
If you go:
What: ASU Spring 2014 Humanities Lecture Series featuring Betty Webb
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 20
Where: The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, 555 N. Central Ave., room 128