PRESCOTT, Ariz. (CN) — Tensions have flared again in twin towns dominated by a fundamentalist Mormon sect on the Arizona-Utah border, where three businessmen say they were arrested and prevented from operating a farm for not sharing the towns' majority religion.
The Oct. 12 lawsuit in Prescott Federal Court came the week before a hearing in a Department of Justice lawsuit accusing Colorado City, Ariz. and Hildale, Utah of discriminating against non-members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. That case, originally filed in 2012, already has brought a $1.6 million settlement for non-members who were denied basic utilities.
The Fundamentalist Church, run by imprisoned "prophet" Warren Jeffs, also is a defendant. Jeffs is serving a life sentenced for child sexual assault. Jeffs' actions, and the operations of the twin towns, have broughtnumerouslawsuits and indictments in recent years.
In this case, plaintiffs Patrick Pipkin and Andrew Chatwin say the Colorado City Marshal's Office arrested them in October 2015 as they sought to gain access to property they had leased from the United Effort Plan Trust to run a farm. The trust holds and manages all the properties in Colorado City and Hildale.
Pipkin was a member of a joint venture with lead plaintiff Prairie Farms LLC, whose sole member is the final plaintiff, Claude Seth Cooke. Chatwin was a business invitee when they were arrested.
According to the lawsuit, Pipkin, Chatwin and Cooke met with members of the Marshal's Office on Oct. 13, 2015 to discuss damage to the property. An officer told them, on orders from defendant Chief Marshal Jerry Darger, that they had no right to be on the property because a man named Chad Johnson was its legal occupant. Johnson was living in the tack shed on the property and had no right to the property, according to the complaint.
"They had a legitimate commercial lease," the plaintiffs' attorney Bill Walker told Courthouse News. "Signed, sealed and delivered."
Mohave County Sheriff's officers arrived, and told Marshal's Office officers that the three men had the right to occupy the property, which was commercial and not residential.
Darger disagreed, and told the men that according to City Attorney Ken Brendel, also a defendant, Johnson had the right to the property until he was evicted.
Darger told the group they would be arrested if they didn't leave, and "deliberately and maliciously shoved plaintiff Patrick Pipkin," the complaint states.
Then Pipkin and Chatwin were arrested and charged with first-degree trespass, arrests they call illegal and "clearly discriminatory."
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Chatwin and Pipkin appeared in court the next day and were released on their own recognizance.
The three men returned to the property on Oct. 17, "in an attempt to conduct commercial business," and Pipkin and Chatwin were arrested again on trespass charges. This time they were jailed under $3,500 bond each, and ordered not to return to the property until their cases were resolved.
"They were arrested in October and once they were arrested they were forbidden from going on the very property that they had a lease for," Walker said. "They lost a whole season. They lost a year of revenue."
Despite evidence that Johnson was trespassing on the property, the Marshal's Office took no action against him, the men say.
"Why would they arrest these people because of the word of a trespasser?" Walker asked.
When the plaintiffs tried to get water and garbage service at the property, they were told to pay a $500 deposit. After paid the deposit, they say, Colorado City told them the services would not be connected because they did not have the permission of the prior registrant.
"The prior guy was Fred Jessop, and he'd been dead for 10 years," Walker said.
Services were connected after five months, after the Justice Department obtained a settlement against the two towns.
The men seek compensatory damages for lost earnings and punitive damages for conspiracy and civil rights violations.
An attorney for Hildale did not respond to a request for comment.
Attorney Walker's office is in Tucson.