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Utah detective has chased polygamist outlaws to Sundance

Published January 28, 2015 10:05 am

Documentary "Prophet's Prey" will introduce Sam Brower and the FLDS to a new audience.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2015, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Colorado City, Ariz. • Black cowboy boots swung from the sports-utility vehicle and landed on the red dirt road. Sam Brower started walking toward the man who was blocking his way.

Brower and Andrew Chatwin had been photographing and filming workers at a granary a few days before Thanksgiving 2014. Boys who appeared to be ages 10 to 16 poured grain into barrels and drove forklifts to load them onto trucks.

Colorado City and adjacent Hildale, Utah, are home to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamist sect that has a history of using boys as laborers.



As Brower and Chatwin tried to leave, a man pivoted a livestock gate across the public road ahead of them while an oversized pickup truck with tinted windows — what Brower calls a "Pylg Rig" — blocked Brower's SUV from behind.

The man at the gate was wearing ear buds and talked as though he was on his cell phone. Brower assumes he was talking to the marshals in Hildale and Colorado City. But Brower wasn't waiting for them.

"Move your hands or I'm going to move them for you," Brower said politely.

Then Brower, who in his boots stands 6 feet 4 inches tall and weighs about 200 pounds, pushed the man away from the gate, opened it, got in his SUV and drove away.

"He is fearless and doesn't shy away from confrontation," author Jon Krakauer said of Brower in an interview last week. "I worry that he won't back down."

Brower has had numerous confrontations with FLDS members over the years while working on behalf of people he regards as victims.

Soon, a new audience will see what Brower has been doing in Hildale and Colorado City, collectively known as Short Creek.

"Prophet's Prey," a documentary based on his 2011 book of the same name, premieres Monday at Sundance.

The film features Brower and reflects his view of the FLDS Church — that it's a criminal organization, like the Mafia or a drug cartel, which trafficks in child brides and child labor with the aid of corrupt members of the local police and government.

The film may move people to ask, "Why isn't more being done about the FLDS?"

The 60-year-old private detective believes he knows the answer and hopes the film will lead to a solution.

The hunter • Brower's interest in the FLDS started with sympathy and curiosity for its outcast members. It has turned into a career.

In addition to writing the book and working on the film, Brower has helped the U.S. Department of Labor and the Department of Justice investigate FLDS-owned businesses for possible child labor and civil rights violations. He previously has been an investigator for a variety of FLDS-related lawsuits.

Brower insists his investigations into the FLDS have not been lucrative. He still has other clients, though the FLDS consume most of his time.

"I'm an activist more than a private investigator," he said recently in a Cedar City restaurant, a few miles from where he rents a small, cluttered office with walls displaying artwork of John Wayne and American Indians and photographs of FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs and his brother, Lyle Jeffs.

Brower is from Southern California. His mother was Mormon and in the late 19th century a great-grandfather served prison time in Utah for being a polygamist.

Although Brower had an interest in criminal justice, he wound up working in construction. He married his wife, Rita, in 1984. They decided they wanted a better place to raise their children and moved to southwest Utah despite having no connections there. Today the couple has three grown children and four grandchildren.

Six years after the move to Cedar City, Brower graduated from Southern Utah University with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice. He went to work as a bail bondsman and a bounty hunter pursuing people who had jumped bail.

Brower also investigated the 1975 murder of a friend, helping to discover evidence that hadn't been tested with new technology. The killer took a plea deal that resulted in an eight-year prison sentence.

The jobs gave Brower access to law enforcement databases and taught him how to find people.

Circling • A few days after the confrontation at the livestock gate, Brower and Chatwin took Department of Labor investigator Joseph Burgess to the granary. Another confrontation ensued with the same man, who said he wanted the Short Creek marshals to arrest Brower. Burgess persuaded the man to let them leave.

Brower, Burgess and Chatwin went to the Merry Wives Cafe, located on State Road 59 as motorists arrive in Hildale. They were joined by Issac Wyler, who long ago stopped following Jeffs and has helped gather information about the FLDS for law enforcement.

As they ate, the group could see the marked trucks from the marshal's office circling the restaurant and attached gas station. So, too, were the tinted-window pickup trucks of what's known in Short Creek as The God Squad — FLDS security.

How to find Jeffs • The FLDS in 2004 tried to evict Ross Chatwin from his home in Colorado City for the offense of trying to take a second wife without permission of church leaders. Brower saw a photo of Ross Chatwin in a newspaper. He was holding up a copy of "Rise and Fall of the Third Reich" to compare the FLDS to the Nazis.

The photo spurred Brower — for the first time — to drive to Short Creek. He found Ross Chatwin's home, knocked on the door and offered help. For $1 — and Brower had to loan him the dollar — Brower went to work for Ross Chatwin, researching Arizona's eviction and housing laws and documenting the harassment the FLDS allegedly perpetrated on Chatwin, his wife and family.

Ross Chatwin would eventually prevail. Brower, incensed at what he saw as lawlessness and tyranny in Short Creek, continued investigating the FLDS.

By then, Jeffs was on the lam while trying to avoid process servers in connection with several lawsuits.

Krakauer wrote about the FLDS and other polygamists who claim to be fundamentalist Mormons in his 2003 book, "Under the Banner of Heaven." Brower read the book, spoke to Krakauer by phone a few times, and in the fall of 2004 invited Krakauer to join him near Mancos, Colo., in a hunt for an FLDS compound used as a hideout. They found it.

Later, they discovered another compound near Pringle, S.D.

In 2006, the Washington County attorney charged Warren Jeffs with rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony, for allegedly forcing 14-year-old Elissa Wall to marry her 21-year-old cousin.

After the charges were filed, Krakauer said, Brower did more than just lobby for Jeffs' inclusion on the FBI list of 10 most wanted. He supplied the FBI and U.S. marshals with information about how to find Jeffs — the people to follow and the places to look.

Jeffs went on the list in May of 2006 and was captured near Las Vegas about three months later.

One secret of Brower's success, Krakauer said, is his ability to recall the complicated family relationships within the FLDS.

"That photographic memory served him well in forming relationships with followers and apostates," Krakauer said.

Unlike in a conventional American community, the FBI couldn't count on law enforcement in Short Creek for help, said Timothy Fuhrman, who was the special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Salt Lake City in 2006.

After Brower's book was published, Krakauer introduced him to Imagine Entertainment, whose co-founders include director Ron Howard, to put the documentary into gear. Krakauer assisted during three days of filming in Texas and two days in South Dakota.

"He takes it seriously," Krakauer said of Brower's FLDS investigating. "He's not doing it for kicks."

Making friends • After finishing the meal at Merry Wives Cafe, Burgess had to return to St. George. Brower, Andrew Chatwin and Wyler decided to get in Wyler's truck and drive to the nearby home of Ron Rohbock.

Rohbock is an example of Brower's ability to make connections among the people who were once loyal to Jeffs.

Brower's book describes Rohbock allowing his teenage daughter to be married to a much older man.

Then, in 2003, Rohbock became one of the first of hundreds of men Jeffs evicted, as the leader sought to concentrate his power by reassigning wives to himself or to men he sought to reward.

Rohbock appears in the documentary to discuss what he saw in the FLDS. Brower describes Rohbock as "rehabilitated."

At Rohbock's home, Chatwin spotted a marshal watching the house. The group suspected the Short Creek marshals planned to arrest Brower as he left town.

Bad guys in charge • For all his pursuits of the FLDS, pushing the man from the gate was the closest Brower has come to violence, he said. That doesn't mean there haven't been confrontations.

Every once in a while, someone driving a truck in Short Creek will see Brower parked or standing, stop in front of him and spin the truck's wheels, sending pebbles flying. Brower said he has replaced a few windshields.

In a deposition taken last year, former Short Creek marshal Helaman Barlow said he and Willie Jessop once followed Brower to a crime victims conference in Colorado to intimidate him. Brower spotted the FLDS group, and organizers asked them to leave.

After Jeffs, no one associated with the FLDS makes Brower angry like Jessop. A man even larger than Brower, Jessop was a bodyguard and enforcer for Jeffs. He ran FLDS security, surveilling and evicting people at Jeffs' command.

Jessop has since said he stopped following Jeffs shortly before the leader's 2011 trial in Texas, after learning Jeffs had sex with a 12-year-old girl. Brower says priesthood records and other witnesses say Jeffs evicted Jessop.

Since the falling out, Jessop has sued FLDS leaders over a burglary at his excavation business, winning a default judgment and seizing Jeffs' compound in Hildale. It is now a bed and breakfast.

Jessop has made new allies, too. He has started assisting the United Effort Plan, the trust once operated by the FLDS, which the state of Utah seized in 2005. The UEP owns most of the homes and commercial properties in Short Creek and has assets of about $110 million.

Jessop has told UEP attorneys about other assets that the FLDS allegedly stole or hid, including water rights. Jessop also revealed a secret settlement between Wall and her ex-husband, who sexually abused her. UEP attorneys believe the agreement should have been disclosed sooner, and could relieve the trust of liabilities in Wall's suit, which claims Jeffs forced her into the marriage.

In return, Jessop has been given some water rights and property in Short Creek, including the deed to his home in Hildale, something few other UEP beneficiaries have received. A state court judge has approved the arrangements.

But Brower contends Jessop has been rewarded for wrongdoing, and that he is doing for a new team the same thing he did for Jeffs — abusing power. He sees Jessop as an example of how the bad guys — whatever side they are on — are still ruling Short Creek.

"He's never apologized for anything he's done," Brower said.

Jessop's attorney, Mark James, said he doesn't know what Brower wants in the way of an apology. Jessop, James said, has explained that he once believed Jeffs was the prophet of the church, then realized he made a mistake.

"Willie has made very clear his change in views and beliefs and made clear why he changed his views," James said.

Under investigation • Some local, state or federal agency is always investigating something in Short Creek, be it the actions of the marshals, allegations of child labor, fraud or civil rights violations, or claims that teenage girls are being shipped across state lines or to Canada to marry.

But Brower believes some of the guilty get away.

In Texas, Jeffs and about 10 of his followers were convicted of various crimes related to bigamy and child brides. Brower believes state and federal prosecutors have opted not to prosecute FLDS women, including registered nurses who are required by law to report sex abuse and didn't do so, because prosecutors view the women as victims. Brower wants the women prosecuted.

Many investigations grind to a halt when investigators can't find witnesses willing to testify or other documentation of crimes. The obstacles persuade law enforcement to quit on cases, Brower says.

Brower believes the solution is for witnesses to come forward. He hopes the documentary shows people in and out of the FLDS who have been taught since childhood not to speak out that they can come forward about crimes.

"The FLDS Church isn't going to go away," Brower said.

Not Sam Brower • It was dark outside when Brower and the others decided to leave Rohbock's house. Rohbock put on Brower's baseball cap and he, Chatwin and Wyler walked outside to Wyler's truck. Brower remained in the house.

They drove south. From four blocks away, they saw the flashing blue and red lights of a marshal's pickup. Wyler pulled over.

Moments later, Brower followed Rohbock's wife to the garage and into Rohbock's truck. They pulled out and turned north. Brower would be about 15 miles up the road — and safe — when he received a phone call from his friends.

Marshal Hyrum Roundy approached Wyler's truck and said he was there for Brower. Eventually, Wyler allowed Roundy to open the truck's rear passenger door.

Roundy looked inside. Rohbock raised his head, still wearing Brower's cap.

"Oh. Hi, Ron," Roundy said. "You're not Sam Brower, are you."

ncarlisle@sltrib.com Twitter: @natecarlisle

 

 

 

 

 

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