ST. GEORGE — A town hall meeting brought politicians, polygamists, activists and community members together here to vent and share their feelings about reaching out to victims of abuse in closed polygamous communities.

Hundreds packed the Dixie Center to offer their opinions Tuesday night.

"Why is there a statute of limitations on rape and molestation?" a person identified as "victim" wrote in comments read to the audience. "How can the women and children get justice when the statute exists?"

Others pushed for decriminalization of polygamy.

"I am not a lawbreaker, but I am practicing civil disobedience," said LeAnne Timpson, a member of the fundamentalist community of Centennial Park, Ariz.

Some spoke out against the closed nature of polygamous societies.

"Most of us will not be permitted to see our families or friends again," said Fawn Broadbent, who ran away from the Fundamentalist LDS Church. "Most of us have an eighth-grade education or less. I attended a private school where we were taught mostly history of the church, how to cook, clean and sew."

The forum zeroed in on the troubles of the FLDS Church. Yet no members of the polygamous sect stepped forward to counter a drumbeat of criticism. An FLDS member was seen in the audience, listening to the remarks. He declined comment to a Deseret Morning News reporter.

FLDS leader Warren Jeffs is in jail facing criminal charges of rape as an accomplice. Jeffs, 51, is accused of performing a child-bride marriage.

Security at the town hall meeting was beefed up for the Utah and Arizona attorneys general. St. George police brought in bomb-sniffing dogs to search the Dixie Center and extra officers were on hand. There were no reported threats at the event, Utah attorney general's spokesman Paul Murphy said Tuesday night.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff defended his office's approach to go after abuses within polygamy, noting that men have been prosecuted, resources are being offered to victims and some polygamous societies are working with authorities.

"Have we done enough? No. Have we made a difference? Absolutely," Shurtleff said.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard apologized again for the notorious 1953 raid on the border community once known as "Short Creek," where polygamists were rounded up by police and put in jail.

"We are profoundly sorry that approach was taken ... setting up a situation for tyranny to thrive," he said, referring to Jeffs.

Members of other polygamous groups said the controversy surrounding Jeffs has led to a vicious stereotyping and backlash. Natalie Hammon, a basketball coach for a Colorado City-area school, said her team experienced taunts and even violence at a game against an outside community.

"These kids were getting heckled," she said. "They were saying, 'Go home to your five wives and kids."'

That prejudice works both ways, St. George resident Jane Hawley said.

"In the store, I reach out to smile at a baby from someone in the community and had dirty looks or they gathered their children away," she said. "I'd like to see that change, see mutual trust and respect for each other."

Perhaps as a result of Jeffs' jailing, law enforcement officials said they are noticing some small changes in the rigidly isolated FLDS community.

Washington County sheriff's deputy Darrell Cashin admitted to having "trust issues" with officers in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., when he was put on patrol there last year.

Asked if he was comfortable having the Hildale/Colorado City Town Marshal's Office back him up on calls, Cashin said he had no problem with a simple traffic stop.

"But on a serious incident involving a prominent citizen of their community, I wouldn't let them get behind me," he told the crowd.

Since then, Cashin said both sides have started talking — and working together.

"They turned over a sex offense case involving two FLDS members," he said. "The marshals have introduced me to other members of the community, and now some citizens wave at me and are at least willing to say hi."

Washington County Attorney Brock Belnap, who is prosecuting Jeffs, hopes that cooperation continues.

"People are very sincere in their belief system," he said. "There are very good people. At least for me, the issues that I'm concerned about are not people's beliefs. What I'm concerned about instead is compliance with the law with respect to children."

The FLDS Church does have a member who shows up to meetings of the Safety Net Committee and reports back to leadership on what is said.

The event had the feel of a convention, complete with vendor booths. Only those booths featured advocate groups like Mohave County Victim Services, Principle Voices and the HOPE Organization. The pro-polygamy Centennial Park Action Committee set up a "hospitality room" where it served veggies and cookies and played a DVD featuring members of the community combating negative stereotypes of polygamists.

Earlier in the day, members of polygamous groups, activists and government social workers participated in a training on authoritarian groups and breaking through the isolation.

"There is no official legal or psychological definition of a cult," said Livia Bardin, a licensed clinical social worker and an authority on such groups.

In a presentation that made many members of polygamous groups uncomfortable, Bardin laid out trouble signs of an isolated authoritative group — starting with its leadership and discussing efforts to control members' lives and squelch any criticism or hide from the outside world.

She was particularly critical of the Fundamentalist LDS Church.

"They are a very closed society," she said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News. "The fact that you're in a group where the leader determines the process, can change the process at will, puts you at risk."

Bardin herself faced scrutiny for some of the data she used in her presentation, especially by child protective services case workers.

Heidi Mattingly Foster, a member of the Kingston group, said she had hoped more time would have been devoted to debunking stereotypes of people in plural marriage. Instead, she worried about stereotypes being perpetuated.

"It's the same old problem we're always dealing with everywhere. We're trying to help people understand that you can't judge us all the same," she said.

Marlyne Hammon, a member of the fundamentalist community of Centennial Park, said the discussion and dialogue was a good start.

"Sometimes it helps to stir things up," she said.


E-mail: bwinslow@desnews.com