Lawsuits increase pressure on polygamist sect
Dr. Dan Fischer, a former polygamist who turned a dental practice into a multimillion dollar company that develops and sells advanced dental equipment and materials worldwide, and Joanne Suder, a crusading attorney from Baltimore, are working together on lawsuits against Jeffs and the church alleging child sexual abuse, abandonment and financial fraud.
Suder, well known for taking on decades-old, multimillion-dollar sexual abuse lawsuits as well as medical malpractice and financial fraud cases, has hinted more legal action is to come that would focus on the financial trust that controls the FLDS church’s estimated $100 million in assets.
Fischer, president of Ultradent of South Jordan, Utah, employs more than 600 people and has spent millions on charitable dental work through his nonprofit organization Smiles for Diversity and a pledge to the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Besides continuing his company’s quest for the cure for tooth decay, he now has turned his philanthropy toward hundreds of boys and young men aged 13 to 21 who’ve been forced out of the twin border cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Fischer has housed some of these young men in apartments built in remodeled Ultradent buildings and helped many of them financially. He introduced Suder to some of the FLDS members she now represents, as well as others helping her gather evidence for her cases.
Suder in turn came up with the idea of a mentoring program for the boys and young men, which they dubbed Get-a-Dad. Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has pledged to be a mentor, as has best-selling author Jon Krakauer, whose 2003 book “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” dealt with the FLDS community.
Fischer believes exposure as a former polygamist could affect Ultradent’s $75 million in annual sales. But his history with the FLDS and animosity toward Jeffs has trumped his financial fears.
“I’ve kept low-key because of my business,” Fischer told The Associated Press in an interview. “I finally felt that to be responsible, I had to come out more.”
But when he tells associates of his history, “they think I’m from outer space, or maybe I’m crazy,” he said. “And some are terribly shocked.”
He grew up in a Salt Lake County FLDS family, the oldest of 36 siblings.
FLDS members consider themselves fundamentalist practitioners because they continue to practice polygamy as they believe Joseph Smith, founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commanded.
The mainline LDS church disavowed polygamy in 1890 and excommunicates members who practice or preach it.
An estimated 30,000 polygamists live in Utah and parts of the southwest, Mexico and Canada. Hildale-Colorado City’s estimated 10,000 members make it the largest polygamist group in the West.
The community has largely run itself without outside intervention since a raid in 1953 that created a public relations disaster for the Arizona governor who ordered it. But during the past three years, investigations have revealed disturbing allegations of lawlessness that include church leadership and the twin towns’ police force, whose members often take orders from Jeffs and may be improperly using their authority.
“The more victims come out, the more victims I hear (say) it’s a theocracy, and there is no protection (under) the law,” Shurtleff said.
Living in the FLDS
FLDS teachings require members from early childhood to clothe themselves from wrists to ankles, even during summer’s hottest days. FLDS girls wear long pioneer-style dresses, and style their long hair into elaborate braids. Fischer attended Murray High, where none of the FLDS kids — called “pligs” — took gym class or went to school dances.
Despite being an oddball, Fischer was an academic standout in industrial arts. He graduated in 1967, and majored in premedical studies for dentistry at the University of Utah. In 1968, at age 19, he was a dental student at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, Calif., when he reluctantly married his first wife. By then, his parents had moved to Colorado City. He married his second wife — his first wife’s sister — in 1973, again against his will.
At the time, Leroy Johnson was the FLDS prophet. Fischer, who considered Johnson a benevolent leader, said it was the prophet himself who ordered the second marriage.
All through his remaining time at dental school, Fischer feared someone would discover his plural marriage and he wouldn’t graduate.
In 1981, Fischer married again. In 1998, after repeated run-ins with Jeffs over what he described as Jeffs’ cruelty and manipulative leadership, Fischer left the church.
He disavowed polygamy, but remains married to his second wife.
That year, Jeffs, whose father and church prophet, Rulon Jeffs, was slowly dying, ordered the Salt Lake County FLDS to move south to Hildale-Colorado City and to end all association with “apostates” — anyone not a member of FLDS in good standing. Rulon Jeffs died in 2002, and Warren Jeffs took over.
Since then, the number of boys and men told to leave has steadily increased.
Legal action against the sect and its leaders
Meanwhile, Suder got involved. She won’t say exactly how, only that she was contacted at least three times by FLDS members, one of them a girl who said she was sexually abused, before she decided to take a case. Fischer’s brother-in-law, Deloy Bateman, an excommunicated member and school teacher who still lives in Colorado City, introduced Suder to Fischer. Bateman also was one of Krakauer’s principal sources for “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
On July 29, former FLDS member Brent Jeffs, 21, sued Jeffs and his brothers Blaine Jeffs and Leslie Jeffs, claiming the three men sodomized him when he was a child while telling him that was how he would become a man.
Two days later, Fischer and his newly named nonprofit organization, Diversity, organized a news conference on the steps of the Utah Capitol to introduce the FLDS “lost boys” to the world. In the past four and a half years, he said, more than 400 teenage boys have been banished or excommunicated — with the full complicity of police, who allegedly have arrested or cited the boys for such infractions as wearing their sleeves rolled up or talking to girls.
“Too many children have been exploited, victimized and discarded,” he said at the time.
On Aug. 27, six banished “lost boys” sued Jeffs and Sam Barlow, a former Colorado City police chief and close associate of Jeffs, using portions of federal racketeering laws to claim conspiracy and a pattern of unlawful activity aimed at ridding the sect of surplus boys and men.
Plaintiffs in the cases allege the banishments have cost them lost wages, lost educational opportunities and lost benefits from the United Effort Plan Trust, a communal organization that holds real and personal property for the Utah and Colorado FLDS members.
Officials now have their eye on the latest UEP purchase: a 1,300-acre compound known as the YFZ ranch, 100 miles north of the Mexican border near the small town of Eldorado, Texas, which FLDS leaders at first tried to pass off as a corporate hunting retreat. YFZ stands for “Yearn For Zion,” from a song Jeffs wrote.
Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran, who has maintained a cautious peace with the new community, two weeks ago tried to get the church people to allow him to meet with Fred Jessop, a former FLDS leader now the subject of a missing-person report. An “elderly-sounding” man called Doran claiming to be Jessop, but Doran says he’s not satisfied with the call.
But neither can he do much to force the issue, or to find out what the church plans for the compound. “We know there are problems that are potential from this community,” he said. “But they legally bought the land and they have constitutional protections.”
It has long been rumored Jeffs plans to take some of his most faithful followers and move to a private compound in Mexico. Hildale-Colorado City residents have told investigators that Jeffs has promised to take the most worthy members of the twin towns to live on the YFZ property.
Understanding the issues
Suder is lead attorney on both cases against Jeffs and the FLDS church. A petite 54-year-old who chain-chews Nicorette gum and drives her private investigators as hard as she pushes herself, Suder talks about her role in the cases only obliquely. “I file my lawsuits on Fridays at four o’clock so the media won’t know,” she said.
But somehow, they always know.
Rodney Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who has represented the FLDS in legal matters and regularly serves as spokesman for the church and its leaders, has denied all the allegations in the lawsuits, which he says lack merit because the church, not the courts, has the right to make its own membership decisions.
The plaintiffs in the civil cases — and their attorneys, who along with Suder include lawyers in Texas and Salt Lake City — stand to reap huge financial rewards from the lawsuits. But taxpayers also could benefit because Suder and her associates are sharing their information with public law enforcement agencies, including the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona, county prosecutors and sheriffs in the two states plus Texas and Canada.
Members of the FLDS community have received millions of dollars in welfare, state and local taxes and federal Homeland Security funds. It’s called “bleeding the beast,” Shurtleff said.
Authorities are investigating possible fraud as well as the church’s trust, the United Effort Plan.
“We’re slowly getting people to understand what the issues are,” Shurtleff said. “Part of our target is UEP. That’s what is making Warren all his money.”
Next week, the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training Council will discuss findings of its own investigation of the Hildale police force following review of the findings of an 8-month investigation by Shurtleff’s office.
POST director Maj. Sid Groll said that while the POST investigation isn’t entirely complete, “I would expect the council to make some decisions.”
Possible actions include decertification of officers and recommendations to the Washington County Attorney for further action, Groll said.
Shurtleff said he wants to make people understand the investigations aren’t just about polygamy. “We’re talking about all different kinds of crime here,” he said, including child abuse, abandonment, tax fraud, welfare fraud — all so-called predicate offenses that can lead to prosecution under organized crime statutes, focusing on FLDS leaders.
“It’s frustrating,” Shurtleff said. “I want to get more done, but it’s hard. It has to be done right.”
This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page B7.