PHOENIX -- Law enforcement in a town dominated by one of the nation's largest polygamous sects has been preventing women from leaving, leading to a criminal probe of the church run by its jailed leader Warren Jeffs, Arizona's attorney general said Tuesday.
Attorney General Tom Horne held a news conference in Phoenix to announce that a 26-year-old woman had been granted temporary custody of her six children and had fled the town of Colorado City, Ariz., the home base of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
He said she was forced by Jeffs to marry her brother-in-law at the age of 14, and had since been virtually held captive in the town on the Utah-Arizona border, along with many other women who want to leave.
"What they do is say, `Everybody watch her so she won't run away.' Then she can't leave," Horne said. "Women who wanted to escape have been forcibly held by the marshals against their will."
He said a criminal probe of the FLDS and the Marshal's Office, which serves as a small police force in the twin polygamous towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, is currently under way. He declined to provide details.
Attorneys for the two towns and the Marshal's Office adamantly denied the charges, calling Horne's words "inflammatory."
"I can't speak for the FLDS but the bottom line is the Marshal's Office absolutely does not hold people against their will," said lawyer Blake Hamilton. "The Arizona attorney general, as the highest ranking law enforcement official in Arizona, ought not be making those statements unless he has evidence of it.
"It's just absolutely not true," Hamilton said.
The church does not have a spokesperson to speak on its behalf, and Jeffs, who is said to still rule the sect, is jailed for life in Texas after convictions on child sex and bigamy charges.
Horne fought last for a bill in the Arizona Legislature aimed at abolishing the Marshal's Office in Colorado City, and replacing law enforcement there with deputies from the Mohave County Sheriff's Office. It failed to pass, so he allocated funds to provide for limited patrols by deputies but says the money will soon run out, and he is again asking the Legislature to take up the bill.
Horne was joined at Tuesday's news conference by Flora Jessop, a vocal critic of the FLDS who fled the church in 1986. She was flanked by her sister, Ruby Jessop, and the woman's six young children.
Flora Jessop said her sister, who did not speak Tuesday, had been held captive by the FLDS for years, undergoing sexual and mental abuse at the hands of her husband while not being allowed to leave with her kids. Ruby Jessop finally fled last year, and recently won temporary custody of her children who were being held "hostage" by the sect, Flora Jessop said.
"It's a good day for freedom," she said.
Mohave County Sheriff Tom Sheahan said his agency also is involved in a criminal investigation of the FLDS and the Marshal's Office.
He described authorities there as "security guards for the FLDS church."
"They are corrupt and work only for the FLDS and Warren Jeffs," Sheahan said.
He said it's a dangerous situation for his deputies to be patrolling Colorado City without the cooperation of local law enforcement from the Marshal's Office.
"They are not our allies," Sheahan said. "I wouldn't trust them as backup for our deputies."
Another attorney who represents Colorado City called the allegations outlandish, and said the Marshal's Office works well with Mohave County deputies.
"The Marshal's Office welcomes the presence of the sheriff's deputies because it provides them with backup," said lawyer Jeff Matura. "The more police service, the better protection for everyone."
Last year, the U.S. Justice Department sued Colorado City and Hildale, claiming discrimination against residents who are not FLDS members. Arizona also has a similar ongoing civil lawsuit against Colorado City.
The criminal probe announced Tuesday by Horne and Sheahan mirrors the one that landed Jeffs in prison.
After receiving a complaint of child abuse, Texas authorities in 2008 raided the FLDS' Yearning for Zion Ranch. The move led to a chaotic roundup of 400 children living at the secretive location in what became one of the largest custody cases in U.S. history.
All of the children were eventually returned but 11 men - including Jeffs and other high-ranking FLDS lieutenants - were arrested on charges of sexual assault or bigamy and later convicted.