It's astonishing how much a cult leader can get done while he's on the run from the FBI.
Witness the case of Warren Jeffs, leader of the largest fundamentalist Mormon cult in America, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (or FLDS) whose members number in the region of 10,000.
In the two years since Jeffs has been a fugitive from justice, he has built three compounds from scratch in Colorado, South Dakota and Texas, the latter including a huge white temple. He has rigorously controlled his followers, draining them of $5 million per month by some estimates, and performed scores of marriages in his capacity as 'Prophet', no doubt adding to his own tally of 80 or so wives along the way (no one knows the exact figure). It's also possible that he has raped dozens of children. Jeffs is wanted for sex with a minor, conspiracy to have sex with a minor and rape as an accomplice (of a minor). Were he caught and convicted he could face a lifetime in prison.
That he has been able to do all of this while eluding capture - by not only the FBI but the local police and sheriffs in over six states - might suggest that he's a highly sophisticated fugitive. And perhaps he is. But he can't take all the credit - for most of his two years in hiding, the law enforcement agencies have been as inactive as he has been busy.
I discovered this last October when I set off to try and track Jeffs down myself. I spent a month criss-crossing the country between Utah, Arizona, Texas, Florida and Canada questioning his followers and former followers, his brother and nephew and most significantly, some of his most senior henchmen, or 'bishops'. It was hard going - Jeffs's followers are openly hostile to outsiders. They tail your car, flip you off, yell abuse. Nevertheless I believe I came close. I learned that he had recently performed marriages near the communities I was investigating. And I managed to contact key members of Jeffs's hierarchy, the very people who would know his whereabouts and could well have been harbouring him. But when I mentioned their names to Rob Foster, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation - names like Merrill Jessop, Jim Oler and Lamar Johnson - he told me he'd never heard of them. He'd not heard about the marriages Jeffs had performed either. And he'd never been down to Jeffs's compound in Texas.
|“He told me when he was doing it, |
‘this is god’s will, and this is your way to become a man.’”
– Brent Jeffs, Now 23, who claims he was
sexually abused by Jeffs as a child
That was in October, a good year into the supposed 'man hunt'. The FBI has changed gear somewhat since then. In April, Jeffs was charged with the fresh crime of rape-as-an-accomplice - essentially arranging underage marriages. In May he was elevated to the FBI's Top Ten Most Wanted list, alongside Osama Bin Laden, with a $100,000 reward instead of $10,000 as before. And in the largest community of FLDS members - an exclusively polygamous area called Short Creek, on the border between Utah and Arizona - the battle has commenced. The cult's $107 million trust has been frozen, and collection notices for back property taxes have been posted on every door. Cops and lawyers have swarmed the community, slapping indictments on eight of Jeffs's lieutenants for sundry sex crimes against minors. Last month came the first conviction - Kelly Fischer, 39, was found guilty of having sex with his 16 year old step-daughter, even though the victim didn't testify. The rest of the year promises more of the same.
It has been a while since the authorities clamped down on the polygamists of Short Creek. The last time was in 1953 when Governor Pyle of Arizona raided the community, arresting the 33 fathers and taking the 300 women and children into custody. And it was a dismal failure, a PR disaster - press stories of the state tearing God-fearing families apart played so badly with the public that the Governor wasn't re-elected and the authorities have shied away from confronting polygamy ever since.
Warren Jeffs is in many ways the legacy of those raids. He was born two years later in 1955, at the start of an era in which the remote, secretive Short Creek community was left largely unchecked in spite of its openly polygamous lifestyle, evidence of enormous welfare fraud and a dark reputation for incest and child brides. The population boomed, businesses prospered and the FLDS grew in wealth and authority. It came to dominate the two small cities of Colorado City and Hildale, taking over the schools, the hospital and the key civic positions. Even when the cult established its own local polygamist police force - which effectively served as Jeffs's personal militia (and harassed me constantly while I was there) - even then, the states of Utah and Arizona chose to look the other way. And now, they are faced with a religious despot of cartoonish proportion.
Jeffs's tyranny is extraordinary in its details. He didn't just ban television, newspapers, radio and any kind of media, including the internet. He also banned holidays, the colour red, stripes and competitive sport. He banned all books but the Mormon scriptures, particularly those that portrayed animals with human characteristics, like Dr Seuss. Even laughter was forbidden because, as he told his followers, it caused "the spirit of God to leak from their bodies." So now, you don't hear laughter in Short Creek, or muzak in the supermarket. Kids don't shoot hoops in the yards. But there are trampolines. They're one of the few pleasures kids have left. So every corner you turn you see children bouncing up and down in their yards, their heads bobbing up over the fences.
It's astonishing just how much authority Jeffs wields over his followers, despite his exile. He has so successfully filled his flock with fear - primarily the fear of losing your place in heaven, for which he is gatekeeper, but also the fear of the outside world and fear of each other, especially those closest to you - that being in hiding has proved no obstacle whatsoever. Like his fellow Most Wanted fugitive, Osama Bin Laden, he records tapes of his speeches and has his men distribute copies to his followers. The similarities go on - they're both well over six foot (Jeffs is six-four), unfeminist to say the least and it's believed that Jeffs may even have spent time hiding in a secret cave. Certainly investigators discovered one near his old house, complete with two working bathrooms and some canned food.
The fear of outsiders in Short Creek is immediately apparent. It's something of a tradition among polygamists, who have for so long been on the outside of the law. Certainly Jeffs's followers are taught from infancy that all outsiders are hell-bound devils - especially the dark-skinned ones - from whom only lies, harassment and persecution can be expected. When I first arrived, I could clear a street in seconds - children were rushed indoors, blinds were drawn, shop owners would turn the sign to "Closed". I began to sympathise with Jehovah's Witnesses and Encyclopaedia salesmen.
And yet, the fundamentalists are wary of each other too. Jeffs has infected his flock with a culture of snitching. An air of mutual mistrust pervades. This came to its peak when he enlisted a group of teenage boys specifically to spy for him. Known as the Sons of Helaman, they would come knocking on a fictitious pretext, invite themselves into your home and then report back to Jeffs if they spotted any infractions to his myriad laws. His people were terrified. They still are, even though the Sons have since been disbanded. They know that the consequences of a violation are often devastating and that exile has done nothing to dim Jeffs's taste for punishment. Should a man displease him, he commonly throws him out of his home and business, since both are often built on church property. Then he 'reassigns' his wives and children to a 'worthier' man - a man whom his children will now refer to as 'dad' and whom his wives will dutifully sleep with and bear more children. It's a practice that decimates families and terrifies and disorientates everyone concerned. And yet, for Jeffs, the distribution and redistribution of wives is a routine matter. One former member, Ross Chatwin, told me of a time when Jeffs 'awarded' a man a number of wives because "he laid the carpet down in his house. It was a pretty extensive job. He's got a big family, you know."
In most cases of reassignment, the beleaguered father is so desperate to win his family back that he dares not speak out against the Prophet. But Richard Holm, a prominent businessman in Short Creek, told me about his experience. In 2004, Warren sent him away to repent - for no reason other than it was as the Lord's wish - and the next thing Holm knew was that his wives were remarried to Holm's own brother. Incredibly, both his brother and his wives went along with it - after all, heaven awaits - leaving Holm to live in a rented apartment miles from town, fuming over his brother's treachery, while trying to persuade his former wives to let him see his former children who were all now living in his huge former house.
Polygamy is commonly accused of demeaning and devaluing women, and certainly within the FLDS they are traded like commodities. But they are commodities with value, to be hoarded and guarded. Females are not thrown out of the community, they are regarded as assets of the 'Priesthood' to be employed and distributed as the Prophet sees fit. It is the surplus men in the FLDS who are deemed worthless and discarded like trash. Not only fathers but teenage boys, hundreds of them, have been expelled from the FLDS to leave more young girls for the older men. And as with Richard Holm, the betrayal for these so-called Lost Boys comes from the closest family members. When Jeffs demanded that John Jessop be thrown out at the age of 13 - for a trivial violation such as smoking a cigarette or reading a magazine - it was his brother and mother who sent him packing. And not to live with relatives, either. For the Lost Boys, the abandonment is often absolute. There may be no clearer illustration of just how fanatical Jeffs's followers are than the hundreds of cases of parents depositing their own teenage sons on the streets at the city limits, or at a bus shelter in Las Vegas, some 4 hrs drive away, and then turning their backs on them forever.
As for Jeffs's personal sociopathy, however, I believe the truest picture lurks in his alleged crimes against children. I met with Warren's half-brother Ward, at his home in an outlying suburb of Salt Lake City and he shook with grief, this huge and hearty man (he's six foot ten) when he described how his children had suffered at Warren's hands. He believes at least four of them were raped by Warren and his brothers Blaine and Leslie - all of them boys around the 5-6 year old mark, all sodomised not once but routinely, in the toilets at the school where Warren taught and the boys were his students. For years the boys said nothing. Then the first victim, Clayne, revealed the abuse under hypnosis.
Still, it was only after Clayne's suicide in 2001 that his two brothers, Brent and Brandon decided to come forward.
"He told me when he was doing it, 'This is God's will, and this is your way to become a man,'" said Brent, 23, sitting beside his father on the sofa. Brent has filed a civil case against his former uncle, but it is yet to become a criminal case. "I just want to expose him for who he is, however I can."
For Ward, the heartbreak will never end. "We didn't see the signs," he said, shaking his head. "But now I remember that when Brent was young he suddenly started having a problem with soiling his pants. The signs were there."
He and Warren had grown up together in the Salt Lake Valley, some 400 miles from the polygamous compound of Short Creek. Their father Rulon Jeffs was an affluent businessman who became the Prophet before Warren. And still Ward does not understand why Warren may have singled his children out. "I know I had 3 wives before he did," said Ward. In the FLDS, three wives is the minimum number needed to enter the kingdom of heaven. "And I know he had an interest in my second wife. Maybe he looked at her in an enviable way. That's all I can think of." The picture Ward paints of the younger Warren is that of a quiet, nerdy type who was never particularly popular among all the brothers. He was born to his father's fourth and favoured wife, Marilyn, and rarely got in trouble, though he reportedly developed a habit of ratting out his siblings. And according to Ward, he developed a "very self righteous manner" as a teenager. After high school, he worked with his father as an accountant for a while, and then became a maths and science teacher at the FLDS's private school, the Alta Academy. Three years later he was made principal, a position he held until the school closed in 1998. It was here that his penchant for power and paedophilia began to manifest itself.
He developed an obsession with obedience - his best known maxim remains "perfect obedience leads to perfect faith". He was known for cruel public canings and for taping his droning lectures about church history and Mormon scripture. (Years later, as Prophet, these tapes would be compulsory listening for his followers). And yet, this stentorian bore and maths geek also saw himself as a wag, an entertainer. Looking through the Alta Academy yearbooks with Brent Jeffs, I saw pictures of Warren in full costume spoofing Sherlock Holmes or impersonating Jerry Lewis. He would sing at school functions and even wrote a few songs of his own.
"Oh, he thought he was a hoot," says Brent. "He was always cracking jokes, and we all had to laugh." Warren Jeffs wouldn't be the first failed artist to become a despot - Saddam Hussein wrote romance novels. Hitler was a dismal painter. By the time Rulon and Warren moved to Short Creek in 1998 - convinced that the Apocalypse was near - Rulon's health was beginning to suffer. Nearing 90 at the time, he suffered a series of strokes that rendered him all but unintelligible. So Warren began to speak for him. And as Rulon's conditions deteriorated, so Warren's power increased until he was effectively running the FLDS single handed. He made sure to oust his chief rival for Prophet - Winston Blackmore, who currently lives in Bountiful, Canada, with over 30 wives and 100 children.
So by the time of Rulon's death in 2002, Warrens' takeover was swift and ruthless. Within five days, he not only declared himself the Prophet, citing divine revelation as always, but he also had his pick of his father's wives, essentially marrying his grieving stepmothers. It was a move that appalled even Rulon's widows, but only two had the courage to resist - they were sent to live with their parents with the assurance that their access to heaven was denied. An altogether more extreme era was just beginning.
In his four years as Prophet, Jeff's extremism has only accelerated, and with it, his paranoia. By 2003 the show-off and joker had given way to a recluse who traveled with an armed bodyguard. A high wall fitted with a string of CCTV cameras was erected around his Short Creek compound, but it was not enough. He still lived on a public street and felt exposed. So in 2004 he moved out, leaving the complex of properties to his senior bishops and sundry wives. It's believed he still visits on occasion, under cover of darkness, to hold conferences and perform marriages, but clearly Short Creek represents his past. His future lies over a thousand miles south east, in the tiny farming town of Eldorado in West Texas.
It's thought the last photograph of Jeffs was taken in Eldorado in January 2005. It was taken with an inadequate zoom lens from a plane at 1000ft - which is the only way to get a look at the FLDS's 1600 acre ranch - but it does show a speck of a man broadly resembling Jeffs addressing a small crowd at the laying of the first stone of the temple. All that was known at the time was that Jeffs had big plans - the scale of the construction equipment and materials arriving at the ranch suggested a major endeavour. But few could have imagined anything quite this extravagant - a vast, gleaming white building visible for miles around, with a road system, several large houses, two big meeting halls and a thriving vegetable garden. The sheer effort and expense expended in Eldorado seems to indicate that Jeffs is taking the long view - he's relocating his chosen few away from the scrutiny of Short Creek where strangers can drive past your home, to a private ranch shielded on all sides from the highway by acres of rolling prairie. For a Prophet this reclusive, it's a rational choice.
And yet, the grimmer possibilities cannot be ignored. Cults and West Texas have an ominous history after Waco. And for Jeffs, Judgement Day could happen any day now - he's been predicting the end of the world since 1998. There's a hint of the apocalyptic in the name of the business that purchased the property - Yearn For Zion - and according to Sam Brower, a private investigator who has been trailing Jeffs for years, the temple itself is a sign. "The FLDS has never had a temple before. And they have a prophecy that says 'with the laying of the last stone of the temple, the people shall be raised up to Zion'."
Could there be a bloody end to all this? Former members of the FLDS think so. Ross Chatwin told me that "in his last sermon Warren said 'stand up if would you die for me' and a thousand people got up." As for whether his followers would kill for him, it cannot be ruled out. The history of Mormon fundamentalism - those groups which have preserved polygamy since the mainstream church renounced the practice in 1890 - is riddled with violence, not least because the principle of blood atonement (murder, essentially) is explicitly sanctioned in Mormon scripture.
When I put this to Sheriff Doran of Eldorado, however, he dismissed it all as unnecessarily alarmist. "Show me the evidence," he said. "I've got no problem with them. We have freedom of religion in this country, so until I find evidence of a crime that has been committed, they're fine by me."
It seemed an odd response, given the circumstances. Sure, polygamy is tricky to prosecute since plural wives are only 'spiritually' married, not legally (and they would deny it if asked). And I can appreciate why the Sheriff is sensitive about his comments in the media, since he knows that the FLDS seniority read the papers and he is one of the only outsiders to have an actual dialogue with them - he speaks to Warren's senior bishop on the ranch, and has even paid him a few short visits.
But nevertheless, "I've got no problem with them" sounds faintly absurd - as though he's shrugging off the fact that an apocalyptic cult leader, alleged paedophile and wanted fugitive has erected an enormous temple in his back yard. Not to mention the fact that everyone on the YFZ ranch practices polygamy which is illegal. This sense of the ridiculous was only compounded a week later when the FBI agent revealed he had never heard of the bishop with whom the Sheriff was in contact. Where was the urgency?
Of all the challenges in tracking down Warren Jeffs I hadn't counted on a lack of motivation on the part of the authorities. Perhaps it was a simple staffing issue - overstretched agents and underfunded departments. Or perhaps the ghosts of Waco had so scared them off decisive action that their entire investigation had stalled. Perhaps the lessons of the 1953 raid hadn't been learned after all - that timidity in the face of Mormon fundamentalism only exacerbates the situation.
Whatever the reasons behind this hesitancy in confronting Jeffs, it is in step with the way the mainstream Mormon Church (the LDS) has conspicuously dragged its feet where the FLDS is concerned. A political powerhouse of tremendous means, the LDS church wields great influence in Utah where the FLDS was born and raised, and it might have taken the lead in curbing Warren's tyranny by providing assistance to the victims, establishing safe houses to which FLDS members could escape, or offering legal support to the Lost Boys or exiled fathers or coerced young girls. Instead, the LDS church's principal response has been to attempt to distance itself from scandal. Regardless of the likelihood of systemic abuse against children in the FLDS, wholesale indoctrination and welfare fraud in the millions, the LDS church has expended its greatest energy in denying any links with the FLDS and claiming offence that the word 'Mormon' is even used in their connection. And yet the links are transparent, a matter of historical record. After all, the FLDS was born of the Mormon Church's abandonment of polygamy in 1890, a decision made under extreme duress. Polygamy is written right into the scriptures in section 132 of the Doctrine and Covenants. It remains the only substantive difference between the beliefs of the FLDS and the LDS Church. And, despite the Mormon Church's best attempts to bury the fact, the religion was established and led by polygamists - the founding prophet Joseph Smith had over 30 wives, and the pioneering leader Brigham Young had over 60. Yet should you visit the landmark temple in Salt Lake City, you will find no mention of this fact. Polygamy is one of several uncomfortable truths that the Mormon church would sooner we all forget. Another is its refusal to accept black people as priests until 1978.
A reluctance to confront Jeffs also seems to suit the current climate in America as regards matters of faith. During Bush's faith-based Presidency it is taboo to question religious belief and fashionable to exalt faith over reason. His regime openly favours "faith-based initiatives" when it comes to the distribution of tax dollars, and what is the FLDS if not faith-based? And it is fitting that the FLDS has settled only in solid red states like Utah, South Dakota, Arizona and Texas. However outraged the Eldorado locals may sound about the polygamists on their doorstep, the two societies are not as different as they would like to think. Both are small, inward-looking, Bible-reading communities alienated from the throb of modern life. They both hanker for a simpler, pastoral existence and share a fondness for the 19th Century, a time when Mormons could openly practice polygamy, and no one had heard of the theory of evolution.
It will be fascinating to see how the Jeffs story plays out. A showdown in Texas would be the most exciting final chapter and I suspect that's what Warren has in mind - a tense, long-drawn stand-off on prime-time television ending not in his arrest and prison overalls, but in a gunfight in which he is shot to pieces by federal agents. It would forever enshrine him for his followers in a tradition of Mormon martyrs, none more venerated than the religion's founder Joseph Smith who was also hounded and shot. And he would probably take several of his followers down with him.
It's more likely that he will simply be picked up in transit. If the recent pressure is sustained, it won't be long - I don't believe he's that difficult to find. In order to maintain control of his followers, he needs to control their marriages so he has no choice but to travel constantly between a very limited number of small, tightly populated communities. I doubt he'll go quietly - his bodyguards are armed, the martyrdom option will always be available.
But my hope is that by some chance, the Prophet will survive his arrest and in an act of sheer hubris, he will take the stand to defend himself at his own trial. Only then might we begin to understand the nature of this man whom his followers have venerated as a God-figure, a modern Christ. Only then will we see whether he himself believes in in his own divinity, and whether his faithful will stand by him, or realize just how misguided they have been. And then perhaps we will have the discussion as to whether it is any less probable that Jeffs is a modern Christ, than it is for a child to be born to a virgin. Sanjiv Bhattacharya contributes to
The Observer, British GQ, and the
Los Angeles Times Magazine, among other publications. This story first appeared in the July 19, 2006 issue of