Authorities in northern Arizona have opened an animal cruelty investigation after a kitten was found buried alive in concrete in a bizarre incident that may stem from a conflict between members and former members of a polygamous Mormon sect.
Andrew Chatwin, a former member of the sect, said he found the kitten buried up to its chest in concrete inside a steel support post for a horse shelter he was building in Colorado City, one of two polygamist-dominated towns on the Arizona-Utah border, in late May. The kitten later died.
On Wednesday the Mohave County Sheriff's Office, based in Kingman, Ariz., announced it has launched its own investigation of the case.
Colorado City and neighboring Hildale, Utah, are home to members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS), a breakaway Mormon sect led by now-imprisoned leader Warren Jeffs, convicted or raping two underage girls in a polygamist marriage.
The twin towns made headlines last month when the U.S. Justice Department sued them, alleging that the police agency serving them had deployed deputies to confront sect members about their disobedience to sect rules or to tell them to report to the sect leadership.
Deputies also failed to arrest sect members who committed crimes against non-members such as destroying their crops or trespassing, the suit added. An attorney representing the church denied the allegations.
People who have left the church say dead animals have been tossed on their property in the past in an attempt to intimidate them.
Both Chatwin and his friend, Issac Wyler, are former church members and have worked with authorities to expose alleged criminal and civil injustices within the community, and have previously complained of retaliation.
Chatwin, who left the church after disagreements with Jeffs about a dozen years ago, said he set the 7-foot-high, 8-inch round pole on the afternoon of May 30 and found the kitten the next morning set in concrete up to its chest.
"There's no way that cat could have climbed up there on it's own," said Chatwin. "It's definitely in my opinion a hate message or a death message against Issac, because he's been outspoken."
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) offered on Thursday a $2,500 reward for the arrest and conviction of those responsible in the case.
The incident came to light earlier this month after a heartwrenching video surfaced on YouTube of the effort to free the animal. It shows a small white kitten trapped up to its chest in hardening concrete inside the pipe.
The cat, with its head thrown back and one leg and paw free, mews incessantly. It was freed after six hours but died days later in a Utah animal rescue center.
Over the past seven years, both Chatwin and Wyler have complained publicly of harassment by FLDS members, which has increased scrutiny of the church and the twin border towns, which have more than 8,800 residents, most of them sect members.
A Salt Lake City-based attorney who represents the FLDS on Thursday denied any church connection to the incident and said Chatwin's characterization of the incident underscores the bitter discord that exists between current and former members.
"We know that there is a dead cat and a lot of questions, but that's all there is. Nobody knows who did it, or if it was even done intentionally," attorney Rod Parker said.
"To suggest that the FLDS had anything to do with it is a gross example of how things involving that community are distorted beyond reason," he added.
Chatwin said the May 31 incident was not an isolated event and that dead animals have been found tossed in Wyler's yard or on his front porch in recent years.
In most instances, Chatwin said, the acts occurred after he or Wyler had some disagreement with FLDS member, usually related to the enforcement of a Utah court order that governs property use in the towns.
Those incidents, as well as the trapped kitten, were all reported to the town marshal's office, Chatwin said. "It's uncalled for to use little animals to send a message like this," Chatwin said.
Colorado City police conducted an investigation, but Parker said it has stalled due to a lack of evidence.
Jeffs was convicted in Texas last year of raping two underage girls he wed in "spiritual marriages," and is now is serving a term of life plus 20 years in prison.
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