PHOENIX - Arizona authorities are investigating whether marshals in a town dominated by one of the nation's largest polygamous sects prevent women from leaving the church run by imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs, an allegation the local agency denies.
Attorney General Tom Horne announced the probe Tuesday in Phoenix involving the town of Colorado City, Ariz., near the Utah border, the home base of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
"Women who wanted to escape have been forcibly held by the marshals against their will," he said.
Horne declined to provide details of the 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.
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 spokesman to speak on its behalf, and Jeffs, who is said to still rule the sect, is imprisoned for life in Texas after convictions on child sex and bigamy charges.
The criminal probe announced Tuesday 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.
Horne fought last year 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. He said that money will soon run out, and is again asking the Legislature to take up the bill.
Horne was joined at a 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 of the investigation.