“This community has always been a theocracy,” Helaman Barlow told ABC News' “Nightline” in an exclusive interview.
For years, Barlow said he was the head of the marshals that patrol the twin towns of Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah -- because the community straddles state lines they have town marshals. Barlow is now divulging what he says are church secrets to federal investigators, who are suing the local town governments, accusing them of being wholly controlled by the church. It’s a charge local officials in both towns deny.
“To be a police officer in this community and to be hired by the marshal’s office is a calling from the church,” Barlow said. “You had to get permission to go to the police academy from the church.”
Even though Warren Jeffs, the leader of the FLDS Church, is serving a life sentence in prison for marrying and sexually assaulting two 12-year-old girls, Barlow alleged that Jeffs still controls every aspect of life for most of the roughly 10,000 members of the community, from what they believe, to what they own, to who they marry, even what they eat. The group known as the FLDS or the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints is a sect that splintered off from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormon Church, more than a century ago. The Mormon Church, with over 15 million members, is not connected to the smaller polygamist sect.
But now there is a small but growing movement to wrestle control away from Jeffs, and Barlow is one of the key players in doing that. Since leaving the church, Barlow has grown out his hair and grew a mustache, and now rides a motorcycle, all of which he said is to show he is in defiance of church rules.
“It’s more of statement to show that I’m not with the church, I’m not with the Jeffs. I’m obviously out,” Barlow said. “For me, it was an outright overt act to show everyone I’m done with it. I’m done.”
As the chief marshal, Barlow said his job was to “protect the church.” He joined the force 20 years ago and said he quickly learned that the marshals work hand-in-glove with FLDS Church security, known as “The God Squad,” who keep a close eye on outsiders.
“They have a huge network of cameras in this community,” Barlow said. “They can watch every street.”
Serving under Jeffs, the former chief said he was asked to do things he now regrets, but he isn't willing to publicly admit all of those things yet because he is still working on an immunity deal with federal investigators.
“I knew it was wrong, but it was a way for me to keep my value up,” Barlow said.
Barlow said he lived in constant fear that the Jeffs could take his wife and kids away from him if he didn’t do what the prophet asked.
“With one phone call, he could call me and say, ‘yeah, you’re out,’ and I would say, ‘I’m not going,’ but then he could call [my wife] and say, ‘he had no priesthood, he has to go, you have to leave him,’” Barlow said.
He and his wife explained that it was the belief of the church that if the prophet told a wife to leave her husband and she refuses, then she has “spiritually murdered” her children.
Barlow said he witnessed the church’s power firsthand in one particular case of a family being “out” -- Ron and Ginjer Cooke, two non-church members who moved to the community. They say that for six years they were subject to a relentless campaign of spying, vandalism and the refusal of local governments to give them basic utilities, such as power, water or sewage.
“It’s like being terrorized,” Ginjer Cooke said. “You’re always on edge, ‘What’s going to happen next? What are they going to do?’ ... They are really good at driving people away. A lot of people leave.”
But the Cookes didn’t leave, Ginjer said, because they wanted to stand up and fight for their right to live there.
“I can’t let someone abuse my family like that,” she said. “You can’t teach [your kids] that it’s OK to let someone do something like that and get away with it.”
The Cookes recently won a $5.6 million lawsuit against the local government, and they now have water and power. The local government denied the harassment, but now that Barlow is out of the church, he told a different story.
“The Cookes were coming in against the wishes of the church, so if there was an opportunity to do something to either force them to leave or inconvenience them or discourage them, maybe they will go away,” he said. “They would do it, I would do it, at that time in the church, and any church member today would do it.”
Barlow insists he did sometimes use his position to try and prevent persecution against non-members, specifically in the case of Willie Jessop, the former bodyguard and spokesman for Warren Jeffs, who very publicly quit after Jeffs confessed to marrying underage girls.
“Mine was a terrible crisis of faith,” Jessop told “Nightline.” “I was very passionately defending Mr. Jeffs and the community ... but what I never saw coming, the shot that I got hit in the back with, was what he was doing in secrecy.”
Leaving made Jessop a deeply unpopular man within the church. In his deposition with the Department of Justice, Barlow said he prevented his officers from charging Jessop with crimes he didn’t commit.
It wasn’t only the things that he said he felt forced to do as chief, Barlow said, but it was also the increasingly arbitrary and strange rules being imposed by Warren Jeffs that made him and his wife question the church. Rules that included eating only beans for protein, then beans were suddenly forbidden, or only being allowed to turn on the bathroom faucet with the right hand, the “clean hand,” because the left was “dirty.”
The community, the Barlows said, is forbidden from reading newspapers or watching TV. They are only given information over the pulpit, they said.
Finally, after years of doing Jeffs' bidding, Barlow decided to leave the church.
“I stopped and realized that the religion that I was trying to go to, the church I was trying to attend, was nothing like the church that I was raised in, that I was born into, that I was married in,” Barlow said. “It was entirely different ... then I stopped and went, ‘why am I trying to go to a different church than I believe in? I’m done with that.’”
The Barlows and their friends have been out now for about two years, and all agree their lives are much better than they were before when they were under the church’s eye.
There are signs of hope emerging in the community, they say. A new public school, something Jeffs had once banned, has opened and now hundreds of children of former church members are getting a proper education. A new Subway restaurant opened. Property once controlled by the church is now being auctioned off. Willie Jessop purchased one of Jeff’s compounds and turned it into the “America’s Most Wanted” bed and breakfast.
But many allege that the church still maintains control of the local governments, which town officials continue to deny. "Nightline" went to a town council meeting to confront the council and ask if it was controlled by the church. There, Hildale City Council Member Carlos Jessop said, "I personally deny that. I would hope you would give us the respect of allowing each person in this room their personal beliefs. ... We are here to serve the public."
In a statement, the attorney for Colorado City town officials denied that the officials are controlled by the church, and with regards to the former chief, Helaman Barlow, the attorney said, "We question his credibility, since he repeatedly lied under oath."
Barlow admits he has perjured himself while defending the church in the past, but insists what he is saying now is true.
Even though the community is changing, it is still very tense and very much divided. Barlow said he swings between being optimistic that the community will slowly join mainstream America and being darkly pessimistic about worst case scenarios, either through violence erupting from a church unwilling to relinquish control or from followers who feel betrayed.
“When people do wake up like we did, when people realize, ‘hey this is broke and we got tricked, this isn’t real, yet this person or these people caused me to do this much hard to my own family,’ I think you cannot underestimate the kinds of emotions and anger and violence that is possible,” he said.