Utah’s Attorney General Mark Shurtleff is not, and never has been, a practicing polygamist. But he knows quite a few of them.Like many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, polygamists rest in his ancestral closet. Among his classmates at Brighton High School were members of the polygamous Steed family.
“They were a little bit embarrassing with their long dresses. It was just easier to ignore them,” he says.Not any more.
Bill Paxton’s buttocks aside, whatever artistic merits HBO’s Big Love may or may not have, it has focused media attention at a local, national and even international level on what Utah is doing'or not doing'about polygamy.How the LDS Church feels about this is a moot point. Judging by the church’s Website, it’s less than happy that, 116 years after “polygamy was officially discontinued,” HBO is blurring “the line between the modern Church and the program’s subject matter.” Church-abiding Utahns watching the first episode might well have felt a nervous zing during one scene, when the polygamous hero finished business negotiations in his lawyer’s office. Over his shoulders and through the window stood the LDS temple.
Some argue the Church still tacitly accepts polygamy. They point to the continued inclusion in the LDS Church’s Doctrines and Covenants of Section 132 where, via divine revelation, God espoused polygamy to Joseph Smith. Church members believe in a polygamous afterlife. If a widower remarries, both wives remain bound to him in “the next life.” Fundamentalist polygamous groups scattered throughout Utah, the United States and Canada see it differently. They are the pure Latter-day Saints, they say, while mainstream church members are apostates.“Most LDS people would rather not talk about it,” says Shurtleff. “It makes us look bad. The church hasn’t modified 132, but polygamy is not something that is taught, not something that is hoped for.”
Whether demonized on the Web by supporters of the polygamous Kingston family as a new Hitler, or lambasted by anti-polygamist activists as a Mormon apologist trying to sweep polygamy under the rug, Shurtleff can’t win for trying. But he pushes on regardless.In a recent Salt Lake Tribune editorial headlined “Polygamy should not protect criminals,” he was criticized for being soft on polygamy. His philosophy of building bridges to the polygamous communities through Safety Net meetings with social-service representatives, said the editorial, is all well and good'but what was he doing about the abuse? The following day, however, came reports from St. George of a “Jane Doe IV” from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints stronghold, Hildale, coming forward and testifying against church leader Warren Jeffs. Until then, Arizona had taken the lead in prosecuting the prophet, on the run since last June, after it brought two felony charges against Jeffs for allegedly arranging a marriage between a 16-year-old girl and a 28-year-old man. Now Jeffs faces charges of two counts of rape as an accomplice, brought by Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap. If found guilty, Jeffs could face life in prison.
Utah, it seems, is catching up.Whatever Shurtleff does'whether in terms of prosecutions, trying to end isolation in polygamous communities or promoting education'it’s not enough to placate critics on either side.
Joyce Steed, a resident of Centennial Park, a polygamist community on the outskirts of Colorado City that broke away from the FLDS in 1980, sums it up: “The anti-polygamists think he’s way too friendly. We think he’s got a ways to go.” That way to go, says Steed, is decriminalization.Vicky Prunty, one of the founders of Tapestry Against Polygamy, won’t back down either. “He’s not the guru of state services. He’s the legal watchdog. He has to make sure the laws are enforced and that’s not happening. Utah’s a free zone for polygamy.”
When Shurtleff was a child, his grandmother called him Marcus Aurelius. “I thought she made up the name.” As an adult, his passion for history led him to read the meditations of the Roman emperor. “He understood the true meaning of public service. Even as an old man, he was up north with his troops, fighting against invaders.”On occasion, Shurtleff will refer in speeches to great military leaders like the chivalrous Muslim general Saladin, who fought off the Third Crusade. He’s also been known to quote, wearily, a maxim by Aurelius: “It’s the fate of leaders to do men good and be hated for it.”
“Jane Doe IV” and Orange JumpsuitsShurtleff’s roots lie in the law rather than politics. A native of Utah, he served his LDS mission in Peru. He proselytized in the Amazon jungle for a year, picking up Spanish and a culinary interest in Peruvian cuisine. After studying law at the University of Utah, he worked as a prosecutor in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General (JAG). “I kind of wish I’d stayed in the military,” he says now.
After switching to a more lucrative private practice in Orange County, Calif., he decided to go back to the public sector in his home state: “I’m finally making the money I made 20 years ago.” He took out a second mortgage to pay for his campaign to run for Salt Lake County Commissioner in 1996 and only recently finished paying off his debts. “The worst thing about politics,” he says, “is raising money.”Shurtleff told an audience at the recent Salt Lake City town hall meeting on polygamy that when he ran for attorney general in 1998, he didn’t even mention plural wives. “I turned a blind eye to it.”
Tom Green, currently serving a five-years-to-life jail term for child rape and bigamy, brought a halt to that. Juab County Attorney David Leavitt, brother to then Utah Gov. Michael Leavitt, asked Shurtleff for financial help prosecuting the polygamist, who’d been making much of his multi-wife lifestyle on TV talk shows.Prior to Green’s prosecution, polygamists had been largely allowed to get on with their lives as they saw fit. Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle’s 1953 raid on Short Creek, as Hildale and Colorado City were then called, was a PR disaster. Images of children being torn from their parents and of fathers being led off to jail turned public opinion squarely in favor of the polygamists. Politicians and county attorneys had steered clear of the issue ever since. From 1953 until Shurtleff took office, he says there was one prosecution. Since becoming attorney general, he says, there have been four, including Green. Murray-based lawyer Mike Martinez'who’s made a study of polygamy, policy and the press'argues the only reason Green was targeted was because he was bringing media attention to an issue the state'and the LDS Church'preferred ignored.
Shurtleff was only several months in to his new office but, he says, after hearing about a possible child-rape charge, along with bigamy and welfare fraud, he didn’t hesitate. He paid for two investigators. “They told me Green got two of his child brides from Hildale, that it was a widespread practice,” Shurtleff said. So it was that he made the decision of going face to face with Utah’s best-known and largest polygamous community, along with the poisoned chalice that confrontation with polygamists means for politicians who dare take them on.Education vs. Prosecution
The Utah Press Association recently honored Shurtleff with its Service to Journalism award. He’s prompt at returning calls and understands the power of public relations. After the international media circus that the Tom Green trial became, Shurtleff agrees it gave him pause thinking about the possible ramifications for the LDS Church if he continued pursuing crimes related to polygamy. He met with the state’s county attorneys to ask why polygamy wasn’t being prosecuted as a crime. They linked it to fornication and sodomy laws nobody was enforcing, they told him.Which left the decision squarely in Shurtleff’s hands. “I didn’t have to do much soul-searching on it,” he said. He took the unusual move of meeting with an LDS apostle to inform him of his decision: “I knew that every story coming out about polygamy would draw a connection between the practice and the LDS Church. There was going to be an impact and not a positive one.”
Whatever this might say about separation of church and state'Shurtleff says he’s a firm believer in the First Amendment'his prediction proved salient.
He split his approach between public relations and education about abuse on the one hand and prosecution on the other. The prosecutions he admits have been slow in coming, but he says the Tribune’s editorial was neither fair nor factual.
“None of the prosecutions would have occurred if we hadn’t started down this road in 2001. Has it been as I would like? No. There have been statute of limitation problems, jurisdiction problems. But we’ve had two convictions since Tom Green. And a polygamous police officer and a judge no longer hold their positions.”
Reaching out to the polygamous communities may have finally borne fruit with “Jane Doe IV” emerging from Hildale. In the tiny, insular world of the FLDS Church on the Utah/Arizona border, “it’s just huge getting a victim who’s willing to trust the government.” Shurtleff credits Belnap and local law enforcement. How much credit can be given to the Safety Net campaign orchestrated by his right-hand man'former ABC 4 journalist Paul Murphy'is another issue.
Pro-polygamist lobbying group Principle Voices’ Anne Wilde rates Safety Net highly: “Personal prejudices have been put aside,” she says. “We’re building bridges, creating safety for our people.”
Safety Net, while intended to bridge gaps, has for anti-polygamists had the opposite effect. Tapestry refuses to attend the meetings. Prunty says she went to Shurtleff’s office asking for resources to help people fleeing polygamy. But after the 2003 St. George summit called to address the “polygamy problem,” when more than 100 polygamous women invaded the conference, the approach, Prunty says, became focused on dialogue with the polygamists.
For Prunty, who fled two polygamous marriages, the idea of sitting down with people she regards as abusers is intolerable. “How can we advocate for children trapped in polygamy while their parents sit across the table? It would be a futile dialogue. We’re not going to sit there and help polygamists fill out welfare forms.”
Murphy says Shurtleff’s office pleaded with Tapestry to get involved. “They’ve chosen not to participate. They wanted us to create a belief test, where people would have to check their beliefs at the door.”
Prunty remains unapologetic. “The only way I’d sit down with polygamists,” she said at the end of last year, “was if they were in orange jumpsuits.”
Being Heard Is Everything
Tensions between Tapestry and the attorney general came to a head March 1. Several hours before a town hall meeting on polygamy, Shurtleff stormed past a press conference Tapestry’s Prunty had organized outside his offices. A woman was telling news crews how her husband had allegedly abandoned her and her seven children for fundamentalism after she refused to accept a second wife into the family. Deseret Morning News’ Ben Winslow scrambled after Shurtleff for a quote.
In response to Prunty’s press conference, the D-News quoted him saying, “Typical loudmouth stuff. Vicky wants to make a difference'she can join the fray, not just make headlines.”
Shurtleff says his words were taken out of context and regrets them. He also said he wished Prunty would start making constructive criticism.
“I spout off the cuff sometimes,” Shurtleff says. “I get frustrated. People sit back and look for ways to criticize.”
He acknowledges Tapestry’s role in the late ’90s as, “the only voice out there,” along with Hope for Child Brides, now called HOPE. “They were talking about it back then, but officials weren’t listening. Now they say I don’t listen.”
The “loudmouth” label stung Prunty. “My greatest trial is not polygamists, or my ex-husband, but the AG. I feel like I’ve been re-victimized by the state. I don’t need apologies. I need to be heard, to have a voice.”
Prunty’s anger at the attorney general will not abate: “He reminds me so much of my ex-polygamist husband trying to please two women at the same time.”
The “other woman” is Mary Batchelor, one of three key players in Principle Voices. Currently married to Gary Batchelor, Prunty’s ex-husband, the two were sister-wives for three years. Curiously, two of the three women who lobby so ardently on behalf of polygamists, Batchelor and Anne Wilde, are not currently in polygamous relationships. Only the third, Linda Kelsch, claims that particular mantle.
In contrast to the traditional image of polygamous women as brow-beaten and submissive, Principle Voices projects a kind of suburban ease. It’s the kind of demeanor that former polygamous husband and now Tapestry adviser John Llewellyn compares in a recent book he authored to Vogue models.
Don’t Make a Noise
Whatever the fashion sense of these women, Shurtleff values them for their links with polygamous communities. Principle Voices also has a killer mailing list. “How do you reach people who don’t watch TV, don’t have newspapers?” he asks.
Kelsch lives at the back of Park City, in a house boasting stunning views of a snow-blanketed valley drenched in sunlight. She won’t talk about her polygamous lifestyle but will talk about the 1953 raid. Three years old at the time, Kelsch was smuggled out to a waiting station wagon and told not to make a noise because the whole family could be hurt. Learning to speak up after that wasn’t easy, she says.
“I trained as a facilitator and mediator. But when I’m facing the very kind of people in the state who hurt my family, that voice telling me if you make a noise you’ll hurt the family'it’s still there.”
For Prunty too, being heard is everything. She lives in a house in Parley’s Canyon, the $600 rent paid for by her 21-year-old son Colin, a meat cutter at Albertsons. Her teenage children fly in and out, while she babysits for ex-polygamist mothers. A recent victim of depression, she ballooned in weight to the point she says, in tears, that her children had to help her out of bed. She’s since slimmed down. Her computer, from which she joins in “the fray” as Shurtleff termed it, is a battered, prehistoric object that sits in the corner of her living room, the walls bare of photos or pictures.
Currently, Tapestry assists two women who escaped from polygamous marriages in matters regarding custody of their children. One hasn’t seen her children in two years. Prunty described these women as having fallen through the cracks of Safety Net. They are classic examples, she explains, of how the initiative helps polygamists in polygamy, not those who’ve managed to get out. “These women are trying to protect their children from being indoctrinated into the polygamist lifestyle. But legal services won’t help when it comes to divorce or protective orders.”
Shurtleff says he wants Prunty to join in the debate. “Have a voice, Vicky. Come and join us, stop hitting at us. We’re helping women who want to leave polygamy, doing what you hoped we’d do. We just disagree on Safety Net meetings.”
In recent weeks, Prunty says the attorney general’s office has agreed to let Tapestry talk for half an hour to social-service providers at the next Safety Net meeting, without polygamists and their supporters present. Shurtleff, however, says, “It’s not something that’s been agreed to, as far as I’m aware.”
“Charges Will Be Brought”
Shurtleff describes himself as “a talk-show junkie.” But when he appears on TV chat shows such as The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch, he usually gets squeezed in at the end. “I’m not as sensational as everyone else,” he says.
Indeed, amid all the mudslinging for forces supporting and attacking polygamy, it’s difficult to get a clear take on his views about polygamy.
Ask him if polygamy is by its very nature abusive, if it demeans women, and he says for some groups, “that’s very true.” He points to the FLDS and the Kingston family, aka The Order. “My personal feelings are that polygamous fathers with lots of kids, the sheer numbers can’t be good.”
Watch Shurtleff on one of the talk shows though, jockeying for sound bites between the all-female choirs for and against plural wifedom, and what stands out is how he and Llewellyn are usually the only men speaking on the issue.
On a recent episode of Primetime, when a polygamist spoke out, he did so literally from the shadows. Depending on your perspective, that could be attributed to fear of becoming the next Tom Green, or it could be a sinister reflection of the power men hold in polygamist communities.
But Prunty offers another take. “Men in polygamy are cowardly. They have women do their bidding for them. They get satisfaction from pleasing their husbands, from furthering the cause.”
Shurtleff, the last to skulk in the shadows, says his satisfaction comes from service. But how would Utah best be served on polygamy? “What do we do? We can’t lock them all up, put all the kids in foster care. There aren’t the resources. So as with immigration, we pursue those who are committing crimes,” he said.
Are major prosecutions in the works? “We’re investigating cases. Charges will be brought.” And that’s all he’ll say.
“Decriminalization.” That was the buzzword at the recent town hall meeting, coming from, among others, Lost Boy benefactor Dan Fischer. “If legalizing polygamy would get accountability for children, I’d go for it,” said the former FLDS member and millionaire dentist.
Shurtleff is less encouraging about decriminalization. “I don’t think it’s realistic in Utah. There are major issues of family law, custody. Child law was developed around monogamous relationships.”
If you want change in the law, he says, see your legislator. His job is enforcing it.
As for his own future, he hasn’t decided about running for a third term. “I don’t have a plan. The only office that’s ever intrigued me is the U.S. Senate. But we’ve got two people in there already,” Shurtleff says. “It’s not time for me.” And there’s one thing he doesn’t want to go down in the history books as: the polygamy crusader.
Compelled to Monogamy
Big Love, it might well be argued, is not about polygamy.
There’s no prayer circle at 6:30 a.m., no hourlong sermon from polygamous dad Bill Henrickson to his three wives and offspring. Religion barely plays a part in the show. For polygamists, the principle, as they call polygamy, is based on fundamentalist religious belief. That doesn’t mean the show doesn’t bring a fair dose of Hollywood glamour and good PR, including for Shurtleff'one minor role in the show is a Utah attorney general.
“It’s trying to present polygamists as being like anybody else,” says Batchelor. “People don’t believe that, so it’s positive for us. We don’t want to threaten the traditional family. But why should monogamy be compelled on people who don’t want to live it?”
Shurtleff sees the show differently. “It’s adult consensual bigamy. And you still can’t see how he can be a spouse to all three women.”
Whether thanks to Big Love or criminal prosecutions, that polygamy is a matter for local and national debate irritates some, who put the blame squarely on Shurtleff’s bearish shoulders. “There are major radio organizations who say all this talk about polygamy is my fault, that I should have kept my mouth shut. What do they want, to go back five years? I’ll never go back to turning a blind eye.”
For those who daydream about a future Mormon president, concern about polygamy’s visibility must also be an issue. If Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ran for president in 2008, would questions about polygamy hound him to the election box? Shurtleff would offer Romney the same advice he himself follows: You can’t avoid it, so you must have a response ready, and stick to it.
For Shurtleff’s harshest critic, Prunty, it’s his perceived reliance on spin that irks her most. “He’ll go down,” she says, “as the attorney general who listened too much to his own PR man.”
An effective PR tactician herself, she calls Safety Net nothing more than a diversionary tactic, symptomatic of an office that takes its image more seriously than the substance of its policies. The choice Shurtleff must ultimately make, she seems to say, is between her and Mary Batchelor, Tapestry Against Polygamy or Principle Voices, anti- or pro-polygamy.
In his acceptance speech to the Utah Press Association for his recent award, Shurtleff made light of the constant name calling, cartoons, and jeers in print and TV.
“Sure, my feelings get hurt,” he says. “Ask my wife. I get gloomy, sad, weepy, mad.” But if he cannot please neither those who shape opinions nor those who seek to shape public attitudes on this issue, perhaps he can take some relief from another quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Have I done something for the general interest? Well, then, I have had my reward.”
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on polygamy by Stephen Dark.