COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Utah and Arizona law enforcement officers served search warrants Tuesday on the fire department serving a polygamous community that straddles the two states’ borders.
Approximately 25 officers and investigators arrived in Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., around 7:30 a.m. MST and served six warrants on the Colorado City Fire Department station, three substations and homes of the department’s fire chief and town manager.
A majority of the towns’ 8,000 or so residents are members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which has been under intense government scrutiny for the past eight years.
A press release issued by the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office said the investigation was for “obtaining evidence of misuse of public funds as well as fraudulent schemes in connection with the city government and the fire departments.”
Molly Edwards, spokeswoman for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, said that she could not comment because the state was involved in an “ongoing investigation” and referred calls to the Mohave County Attorney’s Office.
Mohave County Attorney Matt Smith did not immediately return a telephone call seeking comment, and a secretary said it was unlikely he would talk about the investigation.
Both Fire Chief Jake Barlow and Town Manager David Darger, who also serves as the fire department’s secretary/treasurer, are currently out of town.
It was unclear how the fire department would respond to emergencies while the operation was underway, said Barlow, reached by telephone.
“They will not let the volunteers into the stations or the offices where they are taking information,” said Barlow, reached by telephone. “This is over the top for anything they have the right to do. They are interfering with the public safety of thousands of people. I’m trusting that the staff and battalion chief have it under control.”
However, investigators had fire personnel move their equipment outside the buildings so they could respond to any calls that may come in.
Barlow said that over the past two years the department has complied with numerous subpoenas for information by Arizona authorities based on an unspecified allegation.
The warrants apparently authorized removal of computers and records and, while the investigation was launched by Arizona officials, were signed by judges in both states, said Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney. Parker does not represent the fire department but has represented other FLDS members in court matters.
The Colorado City Fire Department serves the Utah side of the community through an interlocal agreement. In addition to the main station, there are three substations — two in Colorado City and a third in Hildale. The fire department has about six full-time staff and 100 trained volunteer emergency medical technicians, firefighters and paramedics.
Law officers from Mohave County and Washington County sheriff’s offices are participating in the search. Also assisting are investigators from the Mohave County Attorney’s Office and forensic computer experts from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Police dispatchers in the town fielded dozens of calls from panicked residents as word about the investigation spread through the community.
“People are freaking out that officers are there to take kids,” said a town deputy who declined to give his name.
The investigation comes also two years to the day after Texas authorities raided the sect’s Yearning For Zion Ranch in Eldorado, Texas, and removed over 400 children. Those children were later returned to their parents.
At the main fire station, officers were seen carrying boxes into the building hours after arriving the towns.
Onlookers, including some of the department’s volunteer firefighters, gathered outside the main station this morning, photographing and videotaping the operation. Many other residents were driving by the station.
“We’ve always been good for the county and the state and now they want us to go away,” said Brian Meldrum, a volunteer firefighter.
Glen Jeffs, also a volunteer firefighter, said authorities were “on a fishing trip looking for something.”
Attorneys general in Utah and Arizona backed a court takeover of the community’s United Effort Plan Trust in 2005. The trust holds virtually all property in the two towns.
Arizona authorities have suggested in recent court filings that it needs access to records to understand what has gone on with the property trust. In 2005, Arizona seized records and then took over the Colorado City Unified School District based on allegations of financial mismanagement, though no charges were ever brought against FLDS members who then oversaw the district. The district is now again under local control, though no FLDS members serve in its administration.