SALT LAKE CITY — Wendell Musser followed church leader Warren Jeffs like many others do, with devotion and loyalty so deep that he obeyed without question when called to take a secret mission.
Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, was on the run from lawsuits in Utah and criminal charges in Arizona tied to the sect’s belief in polygamy and spiritual marriages involving minors.
Musser’s task in 2005: Take care of Jeffs’ many wives in remote areas of Colorado.
Ultimately, the secrecy would breed doubt — and a mistake — that cost Musser his wife, child and membership in the church.
He has filed a lawsuit against Jeffs to learn the whereabouts of his family. The court filing and an interview with Musser provide details of Jeffs’ life on the run for nearly two years before he was arrested during a traffic stop in Nevada last August.
It is a story of small-town isolation, disguises, hours of prayer, high-tech devices and meetings with Jeffs in a parking lot in Colorado Springs.
“It was an honor to get a mission for the church,” Musser, now 22, said. “But it was really a lot different than I expected. It was out in the middle of nowhere, and we were hiding.”
Jeffs, 51, is in the Washington County, Utah, jail awaiting trial on felony charges of rape as an accomplice in the spiritual marriage of a 14-year-old girl to a 19-year-old cousin.
Considered a prophet of God by followers, he has led the FLDS, as the church is known, since 2002 after the death of his father.
Jeffs disappeared from public life about a year later as pressure on the church’s practice of plural marriage drew scrutiny from authorities in Utah and Arizona.
Polygamy is illegal in both states, but the FLDS believes it brings glorification in heaven. In Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where the church faithful number an estimated 10,000, arranged marriage is also practiced, often involving minor girls and older men.
Musser’s own marriage to Vivian Barlow hastily occurred in a Kanab, Utah, motel in April 2005, about four hours after he was told by Jeffs that he would marry. They eventually grew to love each other.
Seven months later, a phone call from Jeffs, an uncle, put Musser on an odyssey that has changed his life.
Jeffs said the couple’s faithful behavior had qualified them for service. The details were spare, and Musser was ordered not to discuss the matter with anyone — not even his wife.
He was to wrap up his job with a granite countertop company and wait for word that it was time to go.
“He was really careful with people. He really would only call people that he trusted and he knew the cops were looking for him,” Musser said of Jeffs.
At the time, Jeffs had been indicted on felony sexual misconduct charges in Arizona. A Utah judge had also seized a $110 million property trust that holds land and homes in communities where most church members live.
Among the FLDS, the details of their prophet’s troubles were vague, and members were told not to watch television or read newspapers, Musser said.
“Warren said there was some big test coming and that a lot of people would leave Colorado City. They would fall away,” Musser said. “I believed because I was really committed.”
Weeks after the first phone call, Musser got another call from Jeffs. Two men soon arrived to pack the couple’s belongings in a truck. Musser, Vivian and their infant son Levi made a 19-hour trip to an empty house in Williamsburg, Colo., about 30 miles west of Pueblo.
“It was a big, big sacrifice, for sure,” Musser said. “You’re giving up your family, your job, everything. I didn’t even know where it was until we got there.”
The house would be the first of three in Colorado — Williamsburg, Florence, Westcliffe — where the family would live over seven months, with a rotating cast of Jeffs’ wives, which Musser estimates could number as high as 180.
“A lot of them were quite emotional and upset,” Musser said. “They wanted to be with Warren so bad. He would tell them that they were not good enough to be with him. It really tampered with their hearts, messed up their minds.”
The women, about eight in the house at a time, were between ages 25 and 30. Sometimes they’d live with the Mussers for a few weeks or a few months.
When the roster changed, Musser would get a phone call with a location identified through global positioning system coordinates. At the rendezvous, another trusted FLDS caretaker would whisk the women away.
“I honestly believe they didn’t even know where they were going,” Musser said.
Daily life in the safe houses was regimented and bland. Everyone woke at 6 a.m. for a study session of sermons from Leroy S. Johnson, a former FLDS prophet. Meals were scheduled and household chores assigned by Musser, who was the only one allowed to leave the home.
The women talked and sewed. There was no television, games or entertainment.
Every hour, as ordered by Jeffs, housemates would head to their rooms and pray, asking God to protect him.
Musser continued to hear from Jeffs by phone, although sometimes they would meet in the parking lot of a Colorado Springs store. Jeffs was usually in disguise — sunglasses and hats with attached wigs or sporting a full beard — and always traveled in a different car.
He made periodic visits to the homes, never staying longer than four hours, Musser said.
Jeffs would preach, sharing his revelations from God, including one that the end was near and that God was finished with “Short Creek,” a reference to the twin FLDS towns on the Utah-Arizona border.
The news rattled Musser, who said he believed Jeffs was rejecting the community but still draining millions of dollars in tithes and countless hours of service from church members.
Musser said he and his wife began to wonder: Just what are we doing? How much longer?
“I didn’t really understand why, if we were doing the right thing, why we had to hide,” he said. “My beliefs just kind of fell apart.”
Then he made a mistake.
On an errand to Colorado Springs, Musser stopped for a drink and was later arrested for driving under the influence. He spent a few days in jail. Police noticed the Hildale address on his license and asked about Jeffs.
“I was pretty scared,” Musser said. “And I was afraid to go back to the house because I was afraid (police) would be following me.”
He called his contact, Nephi Jeffs, and was told to dump the cell phones, GPS systems and anything else that would connect him to the house shared by the wives in Westcliffe.
After waiting several days, Musser returned to Westcliffe but found his family and Jeffs’ wives were gone. Someone else was living in the house.
Musser hasn’t seen his wife or son, who turns 2 on July 30, since last July. Sent back to Hildale and ordered to write repentance letters, Musser feigned obedience and then returned to Colorado to look for his family.
He’s been told Jeffs assigned Vivian and Levi to another “more worthy” husband, a common punishment.
“I tried to play his game, but it didn’t feel like the honorable thing to sit there and say, ‘You’re right Warren,'” Musser said. “I just wanted to get my family and get out.”
In April, he sued Jeffs for information about his wife’s whereabouts. Musser still hasn’t learned anything, and his attorney, Roger Hoole, said he is prepared to sue “every church leader until we finally get some answers.”
Jeffs’ attorneys have declined to comment.
Musser has left the FLDS and is living in Payette, Idaho, where he and his brother have a construction business. He fears his wife has been “brainwashed” into believing that he is evil. He also mourns the loss of a year in his son’s life.
“I’m not going to miss another one. If he has an honorable bone in his body, he’ll do the right thing,” Musser said of Jeffs. “I’m going to have a part in my son’s life. I have that right.”