FLDS prophet Warren Jeffs likely succeeded his father Rulon T. Jeffs in 2002; this information is disputed, and Warren recently claimed that he was not the true prophet, but rather had been deceived by evil powers into believing this heresy. The Eldorado Success newspaper, however, has tracked both the development of the YFZ compound and the power struggle within the FLDS, and offers the view that Warren fought off challengers to assume his father’s preeminent position.
Dying of natural causes at age 92 or 93, the elder Jeffs left behind an estimated 19 widows (the number may be as high as 75), all but two of whom Warren is said to have eventually married. Warren also inherited control over an empire, based on property owned by the FLDS under a church trust, mostly located in Hilldale, Utah and Colorado City, Arizona, both locations of other compounds. Conservatively, at the time of Warren’s ascendency, the FLDS controlled assets of 100 million dollars, though some believe the church trust was worth billions. The secrecy of the FLDS makes accurate information difficult to obtain on the sect’s finances and other matters.
The FLDS is one splinter group among many of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) that had rejected polygamy in the 1890s, in a bid for Utah statehood. Many Mormon polygamists who refused to submit to the modified LDS doctrine continued with their now-illegal marriage practices often in remote outposts, such as in Short Creek, Arizona, renamed Colorado City. There, the badlands of desert and canyon insulated the sect from investigation until it was raided first in 1944 by the FBI, and then again in 1953 by the State of Arizona. While polygamy was an issue in these raids, so was the use of taxpayer money to fund the sect’s religious schools and to pay child welfare costs in the millions of dollars. But the raid of 1953 produced images of mothers separated from children, sparking public outcry and political fallout. Afterwards, the polygamists were “given a pass” by law enforcement (also some officers were FLDS members). The same kinds of heart-wrenching imagery have saturated media coverage of the YFZ compound and have been posted online by the FLDS, but the toxic culture of this fundamentalist Mormon sect is at last being given due scrutiny.
The majority of the faithful in Eldorado were likely relocated from the Arizona and Utah colonies, including the eldest son of Warren Jeffs, who was arrested during the YFZ raid. There may be five Canadian women and their children among the ranks as well. According to the April 22, 2008 Vancouver Sun, a former member of the FLDS, Teresa Wall Blackmore, said she can name five girls sent from a compound in Bountiful, Canada, to Eldorado; two of the girls are married to Warren. In the years Warren fully controlled the FLDS as President, Prophet and Revelator, he may have broken up 100 families and reassigned the wives and children to other men, making it more and more difficult to trace activity that amounts to international trafficking in humans. Warren Jeffs is not a monster, but rather an autocrat who benefited from protections afforded religion, here in the U.S. under the Constitution and in Canada under The Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The FLDS is usually associated with the mental and physical abuse of women, including the rape of girls as young as thirteen and fourteen. If you harbor any doubts about the travesty of taking child brides, examine this photograph of Rulon Jeffs with two wives young enough to be his granddaughters.
In fact, even as I write, various news outlets report that thirty-one of fifty-three YFZ girls aged 14-17 have either given birth or are currently pregnant. It is customary to become a “celestial bride” soon after puberty. According to several women who fled the FLDS, their main value was in “keeping sweet,” protecting their virginity until marriage; they were disciplined for flirting with or even smiling at boys. One young woman shared her memories of Warren Jeffs with CNN, and described his manipulations. “Are you keeping sweet, or do you have to be punished?” Warren asked her, while seizing her by the back of her neck.
The first sexual abuse lawsuit filed against Warren Jeffs, however, was by his nephew Brent Jeffs in 2004. Brent pursued legal action after his brother Clayne (also likely abused) committed suicide. The lawsuit accused Warren and two of his brothers of sodomy. Brent Jeffs traveled to Eldorado, Texas to testify at hearings after the YFZ raid, and spoke to ABC News near the compound, alleging the following: “When I was a little boy, around 5 or 6, just attending the regular Sunday school, even when my grandfather [Rulon Jeffs] was the prophet at the time, behind closed doors, Warren was sneaking around behind and would come down and escort me down the hall and into the bathroom and molest me as a kid. Threatening me with eternal damnation if I did not do exactly what he said.”
The control of children begins at infancy, according to Carolyn Jessop, whose autobiography “Escape” calls Colorado City “a police state” where everyone was monitored. As previously noted, Carolyn was forced at age eighteen to marry the fifty-year old Merril Jessop, already with three wives. She bore eight children by him, and watched her husband methodically gain control of infants through water torture. After the YFZ compound was raided, in an April 8 interview with NBC’s Today Show, Carolyn detailed her husband’s practice of “breaking” babies: “He would spank the baby until it was screaming out of control, and then he would hold the baby face-up under a tap of running water so it couldn’t breathe. He would do this repeatedly. Sometimes, it would go on for an hour, until the baby was so exhausted it couldn’t cry anymore.”
Issues of civil rights and separation of Church and State were raised after the YFZ compound was raided. Merril Jessop, the compound’s leader, compared the police to Nazis: “The nearest thing I have ever seen comparable to this, even on the TV shows, is Nazi Germany,” Jessop told Salt Lake City’s Deseret News. Lawyers are defending the FLDS and investigating police action during the YFZ raid. However, the behavior of church patriarchs, like Jessop, who tortured infants, also deserves the full focus and brunt of the law. The abuses of children, women, and of any man who fell out of favor with Jeffs and his crony “bishops” are too numerous to explore in this essay. One particular subject that deserves attention is that of the “lost boys,” teenage males expelled from the sects’ compounds, to keep young women available as brides for older men. Salon profiled these boys in 2006, noting that their restricted, disciplined lives and indoctrination under Jeffs’ rule made them the ultimate outsiders in civil society.
Warren Jeffs is currently serving 10 years to life in a Utah prison, on two counts of being an accomplice to rape. By some reports, he has tried to commit suicide by hanging himself and banging his head against his cell’s walls. Recently, he attempted to appeal his conviction, on the technicality that a juror had not disclosed that she had been raped, but this legal action was denied. Before his capture outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, while he was on the FBI’s most wanted list, he had been spotted at the dedication ceremony for the YFZ compound, a place that might have provided sanctuary for him—temporarily. But the increased political activism of former FLDS women has aimed hot spotlights on several notorious patriarchs, including Jeffs.