Help little guys: They say big-name offenders get all the focus, to the detriment of many everyday victims
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An anti-polygamy group says the Utah Attorney General's Office is focusing too much effort on high-profile polygamists such as Warren Jeffs while ignoring cries for help from people who believe themselves victimized by the practice.
Using two custody battles and a plural marriage as examples, Vicky Prunty of Tapestry Against Polygamy said people who come forward find little help from state leaders and agencies, in particular Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Prunty said Tapestry is trying to assist in each of these situations and asked for public donations to help.
"We are tired of waiting," said Prunty, whose group helps women and children escape polygamous homes. "These cases don't fit the norm and we need to look at them differently than we do other cases."
But Paul Murphy, a spokesman for Shurtleff, said Tapestry is confused about the AG's role in some cases and giving short shrift to its efforts in others. "The Utah Attorney General's Office has done more than any law enforcement agency in this state on this issue for years," he said.
During a Tapestry news conference at the Capitol, Rachael Strong of Fairview said she has tried without success to interest law enforcement in her case for six months.
Strong said her first plural marriage ended when she was 19, and that she then agreed to become the 17th wife of Jim Harmston, leader of The True & Living Church in Manti. She said Harmston convinced her that her salvation depended on it.
But Strong said she found the relationship "revolting and dehumanizing" and fled within five months.
Tapestry says efforts to get the state to prosecute Harmston for "rape, bigamy and unlawful marriage" have so far been rejected.
"I am absolutely willing to testify to bring these people down," Strong said.
Sanpete County Attorney Ross C. Blackham said he declined to take up Strong's case because she was an adult when she entered the relationship with Harmston and "there was no question" she had consensual sex with him.
"It's as simple as that," Blackham said.
The Attorney General's Office is reviewing Strong's case, Murphy said.
One of the custody cases involves Robbie Sweeten of Three Rivers, Calif., who is waging a court battle over his 4-year-old daughter with former girlfriend Anazella Swapp. After living together for five years, the couple broke up and Swapp entered a plural marriage to an independent polygamist in southern Utah - which Sweeten said should result in him getting custody of their child. Swapp's father is Addam Swapp, who is in prison on federal bombing and state murder charges stemming from a 1988 standoff with law enforcement officers in Marion, Utah.
Murphy said Sweeten's only request to Shurtleff was for a referral to a lawyer.
In a telephone interview, Swapp said the judge in the couple's custody case is not making plural marriage an issue, but instead was evaluating which parent will make the best custodian of their daughter.
Sweeten pointed to a Pennsylvania Superior Court order barring a divorced father from sharing his views on plural marriage with his children during visits. The Utah Supreme Court, however, has previously ruled that polygamy in itself is not reason to deny custody.
In the other case, Kathleen Covington alleges the state has conspired with her former husband, a member of the Apostolic United Brethren, to keep her from moving their eight children out of state. Murphy said Covington's request for help from the Legal Aid Society was turned down because of abuse allegations against her.
Warren Jeffs, who leads a widespread polygamous community centered in the twin cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., was charged last week with child sexual abuse by the Mohave County, Ariz., district attorney. Warrants were issued for his arrest, but Jeffs has not been seen publicly for some 18 months, and his whereabouts are unknown.