Warren Jeffs is the brutal tyrant behind America’s leading Mormon cult – as well as a prolific polygamist with a penchant for child brides. For two years he has been the target of an FBI manhunt. Sanjiv Bhattacharya joined the chase
It is astonishing how much a cult leader can get done while he is on the run from the FBI. Witness the case of Warren Jeffs, leader of the largest fundamentalist Mormon cult in the US, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) whose members number in the region of 10,000.
In the two years Jeffs has been a fugitive from justice, he has built compounds in Colorado, South Dakota and Texas, the latter including a huge temple. He has rigorously controlled his followers, draining them of $5m (£2.7m) 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 is 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 of a minor as an accomplice. If 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 police in six states – might suggest that he is a highly sophisticated fugitive. And perhaps he is. But he cannot 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 when I set off to try to track Jeffs down for my programme The Man With 80 Wives. I spent a month criss-crossing the country questioning his followers and former followers, his brother and nephew and, most significantly, some of his most senior henchmen, known as “bishops”.
It was hard going – Jeffs’s followers are openly hostile to outsiders. They tail your car, shout abuse. Nevertheless, I came close. I learnt that he had recently performed marriages near the communities I was investigating. And I managed to contact key members of Jeffs’ hierarchy, the very people who would know his whereabouts and could well have been harbouring him.
But when I mentioned their names to Robert Foster, the FBI agent in charge of the investigation, he told me he had never heard of them. He had not heard about the marriages Jeffs had performed. And he had never been down to Jeffs’ compound in Texas.
That was in October, a year into the supposed manhunt. The FBI has changed gear since then. Agent Foster has been replaced by Agent John E Lewis, and this past few months, the net appears to finally be closing in on the FLDS.
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 10 Most Wanted, alongside Osama bin Laden, with a $100,000 reward. 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 $107m trust has been frozen, and collection notices for property back taxes have been posted on every door. Police and lawyers have swarmed the community, slapping indictments on eight of Jeffs’ lieutenants for sundry sex crimes against minors.
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 was not re-elected. 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, 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. Even when the cult established its own local polygamist police force – which in effect served as Jeffs’s personal militia (and harassed me constantly while I was there) – the states of Utah and Arizona chose to look the other way. And now, they are faced with a religious despot of cartoonish proportions. Jeffs’s tyranny is extraordinary in its details. He did not 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 except the Mormon scriptures. Even laughter was forbidden, because, as he assured his followers, it caused “the spirit of God to leak from their bodies”.
Despite his exile Jeffs has successfully filled his flock with fear – primarily the fear of losing their places in heaven, for which he is gatekeeper, but also the fear of the outside world and fear of each other.
Like his fellow most wanted fugitive, Bin Laden, he distributes tapes of his speeches to his followers. The similarities go on – they are both over 6ft tall, unfeminist to say the least, and it is believed that Jeffs may even have spent time hiding in a secret cave.
The fear of outsiders in Short Creek is immediately apparent. It is something of a tradition among polygamists, who have for so long been on the outside of the law. I cleared streets in seconds – children were rushed indoors, blinds were drawn, shop owners would turn the sign to “closed”. And yet, the fundamentalists are wary of each other too. Jeffs has infected his flock with a culture of snitching. An air of mistrust pervades.
This came to its peak when he enlisted a group of teenage boys to spy for him. Known as the Sons of Helaman, they would come knocking on a fictitious pretext, invite themselves in and report back to Jeffs any infractions of 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’ taste for punishment.
Should a man displease him, he commonly throws him out of his home and business (both often built on church property). Then he “reassigns” his wives and children to a “worthier” man.
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 Short Creek businessman, told me about his experience. In 2004, Warren sent him away to repent – for no reason other than it was the Lord’s wish – and the next thing Holm knew his wives were remarried to his own brother.
Polygamy is commonly accused of demeaning and devaluing women, and 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 who are deemed worthless. Hundreds of fathers and teenage boys have been expelled from the FLDS to leave more young girls for the older men. And as with Holm, the betrayal for these “Lost Boys” comes from the closest family members. 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 at the city limits, or at a bus shelter in Las Vegas, some four hours’ drive away, and then turning their backs on them forever.
It is his alleged crimes against children, however, that reveal the truest picture of Jeffs’ personal sociopathy.
I met Warren’s half-brother Ward at his home in a suburb of Salt Lake City. This huge and hearty man shook with grief when he described how his children had suffered at Warren’s hands. He believes at least four of them were raped by Warren – all of them boys around five or six years old, all sodomised routinely in the lavatories 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, came 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 uncle, but it is yet to become a criminal case. “I just want to expose him for who he is, however I can.”
Ward and Warren had grown up together in the Salt Lake Valley, 400 miles from Short Creek. Their father, Rulon Jeffs, was an affluent businessman who became the Prophet before Warren. The picture Ward paints of the younger Warren is that of a quiet, nerdy type who was never particularly popular. Born to his father’s fourth and favoured wife, Marilyn, after high school Warren worked with his father as an accountant. He then became a maths and science teacher at the FLDS’s private school.
Within three years he was the school’s 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. And yet, this stentorian bore and maths geek also saw himself as a wag, an entertainer. “Oh, he thought he was a hoot,” says Brent. “He was always cracking jokes, and we all had to laugh.”
By the time Rulon and Warren moved to Short Creek in 1998 – convinced that the Apocalypse was near – Rulon was nearing 90 and he suffered a series of strokes that rendered him all but unintelligible. Warren began to speak for him. And as Rulon’s condition deteriorated, so Warren’s power increased until he was effectively running the FLDS. Within five days of Rulon’s death in 2002, Warren had not only declared himself the Prophet, citing divine revelation, but also had his pick of his father’s wives, essentially marrying his grieving stepmothers.
In the four years since, Jeffs’ extremism has accelerated, and with it, his paranoia. By 2003 the show-off and joker had given way to a recluse who travelled with an armed guard. In 2004 he moved out of Short Creek to the tiny farming town of Eldorado, 1,000 miles south east in Texas.
The effort and expense expended on his Eldorado compound – a vast, gleaming white temple visible for miles around, with a road system, several large houses, two big meeting halls and a thriving vegetable garden – seems to indicate that Jeffs is taking the long view.
Relocating his chosen few from the scrutiny of Short Creek to a private ranch shielded on all sides is a rational choice for a Prophet this reclusive.
But the grimmer possibilities cannot be ignored. Cults and west Texas have an ominous history after Waco. And for Jeffs, Judgement Day could happen any time now – he has been predicting the end of the world since 1998.
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’.”
Former members of the FLDS agree that there could be a bloody end to all this. Ross Chatwin told me that “in his last sermon Warren said, ‘stand up if you would die for me’ and a thousand people got up”.
When I put this to Sheriff Doran of Eldorado, however, he dismissed it all as 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.”
An odd response, given 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 ranch practises polygamy, which is illegal.
A reluctance to confront Jeffs also seems to suit the current climate in the US regarding matters of religion. During Bush’s faith-based presidency it is taboo to question religious belief and fashionable to exalt faith over reason. And what is the FLDS if not faith-based?
It will be fascinating to see how the Jeffs story plays out. A showdown in Texas would be the most exciting final chapter, and may well be what Warren has in mind – a tense, long-drawn stand-off on prime-time television ending in a gunfight in which he is shot to pieces by federal agents.
It would forever enshrine him in a tradition of Mormon martyrs – none more venerated than the religion’s founder Joseph Smith, who was also hounded and shot.
It is more likely that he will simply be picked up in transit. If the recent pressure is sustained, it will not be long – 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 few communities. I doubt he will go quietly – his bodyguards are armed, and the martyrdom option will always be available.
But my hope is that by some chance, the Prophet will survive his arrest and we will see him on trial, taking the stand to defend himself. Only then will we see exactly who his followers have venerated as a God-figure, a modern Christ. Only then will we see exactly how much damage faith can do.
The Man With 80 Wives is on Channel 4 tonight [April 19, 2006] at 10.50pm