Mark Shurtleff, Utah's attorney general, recently held a family meeting to discuss his political future. Should he run for office again in 2008?

His wife, M'Liss, and his children came down squarely against it.

"Daddy, I don't want you to be AG anymore," his daughter Danielle once told him tearfully.

Why would she? Shurtleff is considered the literal Antichrist by some polygamist groups. His Utah State Bar number is only further confirmation in their minds — 4666, or "for" 666.

He has received death threats, one of which led to the arrest of a man with a sawed-off shotgun. At times law enforcement officials have urged him to wear a bulletproof vest and avoid windows in his house. He feels compelled to carry a pistol wherever he goes. (On the other hand, some polygamists reason that since he's the Antichrist, he can't be killed, so why bother.)

His wife and children complain that he is gone too much. M'Liss argues that even if another job took him away from home frequently, at least he would make more money. Recently, the Legislature raised his salary to $90,000, which is what he was earning as a private attorney 15 years ago. Of the 225 attorneys who work for him in the Attorney General's Office, about one-third of them make more money than their boss.

"He could make three times as much if he were a private attorney," says one Salt Lake lawyer.

So will he run?

"I just held a fund-raiser," he says. "My plan is to run. But it's hard. There are things I'm not going to be able to finish in the next two years."

The 49-year-old Shurtleff will try to finish what he has begun, and there is much to finish. He has opened a number of Pandora's boxes in his six years on the job.

Shurtleff is a Republican and a Mormon, but if you think you can label him, you're mistaken. He has taken on polygamy, lobbied for hate-crimes legislation and opposed a proposed amendment to the Utah Constitution that would ban gay marriages, though he said he would defend that amendment after the Legislature passed it. He supported media shield laws and personal gun rights and has sided with illegal aliens on some issues. But the hallmark of his office so far has been his aggressive campaign against polygamy, turning the state's unofficial don't-ask-don't-tell policy on its head.

His stances on these issues have so irritated some fellow Republicans that they threatened to cut funding for his office. He found himself opposing politicians on certain issues who had helped get him elected.

"My brother Kevin is always talking about principles," says Shurtleff. "Don't test the polls, don't worry about whether something will get you votes — that's not the reason to make a decision."

So he expects to run for a third term, which is ironic because after the last legislative session he was so disillusioned by political back-room deal-making — specifically, by politicians refusing to vote for a certain bill because the bill's sponsor once refused to vote for his bill on another issue — that he told his division chiefs, "I'm done. I don't want to do this anymore."

Shurtleff, a former naval officer and a drill sergeant's son, will tell you he is not the same man he was when he first took office, not the same black-and-white, law-and-order man. He says he has become more compassionate and empathetic. Wrestling a knife away from one of your daughters with your bare hands will do that to a man.

So will sitting in a room with a victim of polygamy who is telling her story and sobbing. That's when he has a sense of mission about his job.

Shurtleff risked almost everything to campaign for the attorney general's job. He went into debt, spent the family's savings and cleaned out his kids' college funds, all for a position that offered a $15,000 pay cut.

"It motivates you," he says. "If you lose, you're never going to pay off those debts. If you win, you can get help with fund-raisers."

M'Liss, who has a master's degree in speech therapy, took on extra work to help support the family and their five children.

"We're stressed about money," says Shurtleff. "It's hard. We're not putting away any money."

So why do it?

"It's simple," says Kevin Shurtleff. "We were raised on public service and making a difference."

Their parents, Leonard and Sandra, were both school teachers and active in grass-roots politics. They served five missions for their church. Leonard served in the National Guard and became principal of Bingham High School.

"We debated issues constantly around the house," says Kevin Shurtleff. "We picked a topic at dinner or family gatherings — Vietnam, abortion, death penalty, whatever — and tried to find solutions.

"We were real loud and opinionated, and Dad was in the middle of it. We still do it. Now our kids want to join in on the topic of the day."

Of Shurtleff's three brothers, Mike is a teacher and director of religion at the University of South Carolina; Keith is an Army chaplain and law school student; Kevin is an inventor, chemist and entrepreneur. All four of the brothers served LDS missions and were Eagle Scouts.

As a boy, Shurtleff was passionate about history, books and the military. He joined a military book club at 12 and dreamed of attending West Point. He awaited the arrival of the bookmobile in his Sandy neighborhood the way most kids looked for the ice cream truck.

No one would have described him as bookish, though. At 6-foot-4, one inch under his current height, he was a center on the basketball team and an offensive tackle (and team captain) on the football team at Brighton High School. During his senior season, an opponent delivered an illegal block into the back of his legs, tearing the knee's anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL. He put off surgery, strapped on a brace and managed to finish the season.

It wasn't until years later, after tearing the medial collateral ligament — the MCL — and the ACL, that he underwent the first of three surgeries to repair the knee. While running for attorney general, he was eating Motrin to stave off knee pain; after taking office he underwent knee replacement surgery. The surgery was successful enough that he was able to sky-dive as part of a fund-raising event for Boy Scouts, but since then he has injured the right knee in a game of beach volleyball and faces more surgery.

After graduating from high school, Shurtleff was nominated to West Point, but he scrapped his plans to attend the academy because, at the time, the Army wouldn't accommodate a church mission first. He served an LDS mission to Peru and took an undergrad degree from Brigham Young University and a law degree from the University of Utah. Then he was lured into the Navy by the promise that he could try cases in court immediately.

After serving in the Navy's Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG), for five years, he worked in private practice in California for four years and then returned to Utah to serve as assistant attorney general and eventually deputy Salt Lake County attorney and commissioner before winning the state attorney general's job.

"I love elected office and the law, and AG was the perfect combination of that," he says.

Shurtleff packs a gun. He has a concealed weapons permit, and the pistol is always with him, either holstered on his side or placed in his briefcase.

"I hate it," he says. "It's an awesome responsibility to carry a gun or to think you might have to use it and make sure it's secure. I've got a gun safe."

He carries it to protect himself and his family. At the height of the hate-crimes controversy, he received threats on his life.

Police learned that a white Aryan-nation group had sent an order to an ex-con to firebomb Shurtleff's house.

"They caught the guy who had the note," says Shurtleff. "Stupid criminals. He had a sawed-off shotgun but no bomb."

Since taking the job, Shurtleff has made waves and enemies. He issued an opinion on the anti-gay marriage amendment to the Utah Constitution, saying it went beyond defining marriage as a man and woman; he contended that it denied basic rights for gay couples and therefore was potentially unconstitutional. To some, that made him anti-traditional family.

He waded into the gun fray at the University of Utah, announcing that the school's ban on guns, even by those with a concealed weapons permit, would be found unconstitutional.

The university sued him twice before capitulating.

"I was called a gun nut," he says. "But it's the law."

On the other hand, after he told the small town of Virgin that it was illegal to pass a law that made it unlawful not to carry a gun, he received angry e-mails calling him anti-American, one from a man who signed it, "One man and many bullets."

He also took up the cause of shield laws, which protect news media being forced to reveal confidential sources. He was recruited to lead a group of state attorneys general to file a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case of New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who was jailed after refusing to divulge her sources for a CIA identity leak.

"I started reading everything I could," he says, "and I really became converted. There are so many occasions in which a reporter was able to use an anonymous source and ultimately truth came out and major corruption was revealed."

Because Utah is one of only two states that doesn't have a shield law, Shurtleff began pushing for legislation. "I met with opposition ... from cops and prosecutors," he says. "I got nasty e-mails. They're saying, 'If I'm a cop and you have information, you have to give it to me.' But justice is better served in the end. We got the bill going in the Legislature. It met with so much opposition. Legislators and cops are asking me, 'Why are you doing this? Are you out of your mind?"'

Prosecutors convened to discuss the issue without inviting Shurtleff and elected a delegation to visit the attorney general to tell him to back off. As a compromise, the issue was turned over to the Supreme Court Rules of Evidence Advisory Committee to formulate a reporter's privilege law.

But of all the issues that Shurtleff has undertaken, the one he never saw coming was his prosecution of polygamists. Like everyone else in the state, he had simply ignored polygamy in a tacit agreement of live and let live. The predominantly Mormon population was certainly nervous about anything that smelled like religious persecution.

"I challenge you to find one time during my first campaign that the word polygamy crossed my lips," says Shurtleff.

But shortly after Shurtleff took office, Tom Green began to turn up on national TV talk shows boasting of his polygamist lifestyle. He was flaunting it, rubbing it in the faces of prosecutors and the law. Juab County wanted to prosecute but didn't have the funds. Shurtleff provided funding and investigators, who were surprised by what they found.

"Did you know Green married his wife when she was 13?" they asked their boss. "And that this practice is widespread?"

Shurtleff had stumbled upon a practical way to take on polygamy; it was one thing if men were taking multiple wives to live their religion — even if it was against the law, nobody wanted to take on religion. But sex with minors was another matter.

"We wanted to get him for child rape," says Shurtleff, "and there was a baby to prove it."

Shurtleff met with county prosecutors and offered to let them have the first crack at prosecuting polygamists on the rape charges. They declined. It was a political hot potato, especially for prosecutors in Washington County, where polygamists constitute a large voting block.

It fell to Shurtleff to prosecute. A group of polygamists from Hildale met with Shurtleff to try to head him off. "We think this is a gray area," they told him. His reply: "No, this is a crime, and you'd better stop. I'm going to prosecute every case."

Later, law enforcement officials discovered recordings of polygamist meetings in which one leader, Warren Jeffs of the Fundamentalist LDS Church, told them to destroy records and photographs of weddings that showed children marrying adults.

Says Shurtleff, "We had to make the choice early on: Is this about polygamy or is this about crimes being committed in a polygamous sect in the name of religion? We chose the crimes, the more serious of the two. This was child abuse — we didn't want to be accused of religious persecution. And it was practical. If you prosecuted one polygamist for polygamy, where do you stop? You can't prosecute 20,000 people."

Shurtleff's resolve grew with each victim's story. Carolyn Jessop, who was married to Jeffs' No. 2 man, escaped with her eight children in the middle of the night. She sat in Shurtleff's office and told him stories of children being forced to kill animals with their bare hands to demonstrate obedience, of children being forced to quit school, of women being told that they don't need a job or an education because their only purpose is to marry and please their husband and have babies; of economic hardships and women having no way out of polygamy.

"I'm thinking, here's my witness," says Shurtleff. "But she told me she can't be a witness until she gets custody of her children, until she has a place to stay, a job, schools for her kids. That was an awakening for me. There aren't services available for people who are being victimized. They can't leave. They won't leave. So we created a safety net for the victims."

Others have sobbed in Shurtleff's office as they related life in Jeffs' cult — boys kicked out of their homes and community in the middle of the night, families having their houses taken and sold or given to someone else, men having their jobs taken on a whim. Jeffs was able to do much of this under the guise of a charitable trust the FLDS Church had filed with the state, Shurtleff says.

The trust was supposed to distribute property, profits and funds to the community according to need, but in reality Jeffs was fleecing the $110 million trust to enrich himself and to reward those in his favor, Shurtleff believes. The state courts have taken control of the trust.

"It's ironic," says Shurtleff. "Even though those people hate me and think I'm trying to hurt them, I've made it so Jeffs can't kick them out of their house and job. We've protected their rights. We had been turning a blind eye to it, thinking it's just adults and nobody's getting hurt. That might be true for most, but there are a lot who don't have the protection of the law."

So Shurtleff has found himself on a personal crusade against polygamy, which has earned him more enemies than friends. There are those who think he gives the state a black eye by putting polygamy in the news; there are those who think he persecutes polygamists; and there are those who criticize him for not prosecuting the actual practice of polygamy.

"Aurelius said it's the fate of a leader to do men good and to be hated for it," he says.

Sitting in his office late one afternoon, Shurtleff is affable, friendly and surprisingly candid. He speaks freely and openly. When he took office, he told his official spokesman, Paul Murphy, not to manage him; he was going to speak his mind.

Says Murphy, "It seems like in half his press conferences he says, 'Paul told me not to say this, but....' I learned that he's going to speak from the heart and say what he thinks is right. That's just Mark."

There is a tuxedo hanging on the back of the office door, ready for the many speaking engagements that are asked of him. He usually shows up at such functions alone. M'Liss rarely appears with him in public.

"I'm sure some wonder, 'Where's his wife?"' says Shurtleff. "The deal was, someone has to be at the soccer games and school plays. If it comes between that and a fund-raiser, she's going to be with the kids."

He has five children. The oldest — Ambra and Heath — are 24 and 21, respectively. The other three children — Danielle, 14; Tommy, 12; and Annie, 9 — were adopted as so-called drug babies — babies born to drug-addicted mothers who have addictions themselves. It took months to wean them from their addictions.

Danielle faces another challenge — depression. On one occasion she was found holding a knife, threatening to kill herself. Shurtleff grabbed the blade and told her he would not let go. He was still holding onto the blade when police arrived and restrained her.

"She knew she couldn't do anything without cutting me, and I knew she wouldn't do that," says Shurtleff, who was cut, but not seriously.

His experiences with Danielle, he says, have forged a strong bond and softened him in many ways. "She's a good little companion and friend," says Shurtleff. "She's doing better."

He recalls that after she ran away on one occasion, he caught up with her in a parking lot and ordered her into the car. She defied him. He grabbed her and forced her into the car.

"I soon learned that's not the way you dealt with her," he says. "She didn't have control over this. I've changed in a lot of ways. I was a law-and-order guy, like my dad. I believed in obedience and rules. But maybe I've become less judgmental and more willing to look at all sides of an issue, trying to understand another point of view and empathize with them."

Danielle tends to be defensive of people on the periphery — the tattooed, the pierced, the different — and that has rubbed off on her dad. She knows what it's like to feel isolated. She has changed schools three times to escape the cruelty of classmates who know about her problems.

"When someone has diabetes or cancer, people rally around you," says Shurtleff. "They shave their heads, things like that. But when you have a mental illness — do you know what they said to her? 'What are you going to do, kill yourself?' I've learned to be more tolerant of people, especially people who might be hurting.

"The Republicans were mad at me over my stance on Amendment 3. I support traditional marriage and define marriages as a man and a woman, but the second part of that amendment was mean-spirited and hurtful. It wouldn't allow basic rights for gay couples — visitation, remains, funeral plans, financial matters.

"They wrote them out of the Constitution, which meant they couldn't go to the Legislature with an issue. I talked to a gay man who had just lost his partner to AIDS. His partner's family kicked him out, had him escorted out of the hospital and got a restraining order. These are real people."

Shurtleff is passionate about many things beyond the scope of politics. He has written several unfinished novels. Now he is writing a historical fiction account on the life of Dred Scott that he is determined to finish in time for next year's 150th anniversary of the slave who sued for his freedom.

Shurtleff has been researching the book for five years. During his travels on the job, when his business is concluded, he stays an extra day to conduct research in Missouri and Alabama and other places where Scott's life unfolded. To write the way slaves would have talked, he reread "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and similar books to try to capture the flavor of the speech. After work and after the family is asleep, he writes from 11 p.m. until 2:30 or 3 a.m.

"I want everyone to know that Dred Scott was a hero," says Shurtleff. "It's hard, at the end of the day, to sit down and be creative."

A voracious reader, he usually has several books going at once and quotes freely from Cicero, Aurelius, Adams, Jefferson, Coolidge, Kipling, often making a point to memorize passages.

LDS author "Sterling W. Sill wrote that we ought to keep an idea bank," says Shurtleff. "When we hear a saying or a poem, we should put it our bank. So I try to memorize some things."

It has paid some big dividends. After visiting the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., he was struck by the words from Elie Wiesel's memoir, "Night," recorded on a wall in the Hall of Shoes. Shurtleff already had a soft spot for the Jewish people, having lived and studied in Israel for six months during a BYU study-abroad program. He memorized Wiesel's words on the spot, standing there in the Hall of Shoes. Then he bought Wiesel's memoir and reviewed it to keep it fresh in his mind.

A year later he was invited to Israel and was granted a meeting with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He was promised just enough time to shake Sharon's hand and get a picture, but Shurtleff wasn't content with this. "If I may take a minute," he told Sharon. "I want you to know I'm not Jewish, but I love this country and I want to give you a gift." He proceeded to quote Wiesel's words from memory and teared up as he did so.

Sharon, too, began to weep. After Shurtleff was finished, there was silence. Sharon then postponed his next meeting so he could visit with Shurtleff.

The way Shurtleff remembers it, Sharon, a former general, told him, "My whole life I've killed people, my friends have died on my left and right, women and children have been killed. I'm so tired. I want peace. But if Arafat kills my people, I have to strike back."

A year later, Sharon suffered a stroke that left him in a coma, in which he remains. Jewish people in the United States saw a videotape of his meeting with Shurtleff and invited him to speak to a gathering of wealthy Jews in New York. He shared his meeting with Sharon with the audience, explained his passion for Israel and then dazzled them by singing an ancient Jewish song to them in Hebrew — "Vi Juda le Olam Teshev." It has fostered a unique connection with the Jewish community.

Shurtleff has started a Utah chapter of the American-Israel Friendship League and facilitated several exchanges between the United States and Israel and the LDS Church.

He wears a blue bracelet on his right wrist with the names Udi, Gilad and Eldad engraved on it, along with the Jewish star of David. The bracelet was given to him by the family of Ehud (Udi) Goldwasser, an Israeli soldier being held captive by Hezbollah militants. Shurtleff visited Israel again earlier this fall on a fact-finding mission; the trip was paid for by Jewish groups.

Shurtleff also has cultivated strong ties to the Latino community because he has been sympathetic to the plight of illegal aliens. He has weighed in on various issues, such as allowing the children of illegals to have drivers' licenses and to pay in-state college tuition. As a result, he has been criticized him for being pro-illegal aliens.

"I'm not," he says. "But we have a problem. I'm for resolving that problem in a way that is humane and workable. Kids didn't have any choice in this. What do you want them to do, join a gang? Let's have them learn English and get an education. They're going to drive anyway, so why not give them a license with their names, addresses and insurance on it? It's like the polygamy thing. They're here; we've got to deal with them. You can't deport 12 million aliens.

"Let's prosecute gangbangers, drug dealers and ID theft," he says.

He claims an affinity for the Latino culture. He speaks Spanish fluently, a carryover from his LDS Church mission, and two of his adopted daughters are from Mexico. Shurtleff has made stirring speeches to the Latino community.

Then-Mexican President Vicente Fox, who was visiting Utah at the time, was in the audience for one of those speeches and was so moved by it that when he returned home he started an official process to honor Shurtleff. Last month, Shurtleff flew to Mexico City to receive the Order of the Aztec Eagle, the highest award a Mexican president can give to a non-Mexican.

Once again, Shurtleff found himself on the front page, this time receiving an award from another country. Given Shurtleff's high-profile performance to date and his aggressiveness in office, there are some who think he is using the Attorney General's Office as a stepping stone.

"I can honestly say I have not looked that far ahead," he says. "I've always thought the Senate was it as far as political offices go. If there's any other office, maybe it will be the Senate, but not in the near future. My wife says the kids have to be grown."

Meanwhile, he will tell you he has uncompleted work to finish.


E-mail: drob@desnews.com