HILDALE, Utah (Reuters) – From a cell in the Purgatory jail 10 months after his arrest, fundamentalist Mormon leader Warren Jeffs is still God’s voice on Earth to thousands of polygamists in this isolated community.
“Warren Jeffs isn’t ‘gone’. He doesn’t have to be there to rule the place,” said Enos Steed, a 21-year-old former member of Jeff’s Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), a polygamist sect that broke from the mainstream Mormon church 72 years ago.
To about 10,000 followers in the twin border communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Arizona, Jeffs remains a spiritual leader who channels divine revelations and a feared prophet, even 25 miles (40 km) away in Purgatory, a jail in the Utah city of Hurricane where he awaits trial.
“As long as he is alive he will be the prophet, unless he stands up before them and renounces the religion, denounces what he’s been doing for the past decade. That’s the only way, besides dying, he will not be the prophet,” said Steed.
Steed is one of hundreds of so-called “lost boys,” males who are exiled from the sect partly to reduce competition for young brides.
Jeffs, 51, was declared on May 28 mentally fit to stand trial in September, charged as an accomplice to rape for using his authority to order a 14-year-old girl against her wishes to marry and have sex with her 19-year-old cousin.
The mainstream Mormon Church, based in Salt Lake City, introduced polygamy before the Civil War but banned it in 1890 and now excommunicates any member who practices plural marriage. The FLDS, the nation’s largest polygamist group, consider themselves Mormon purists.
But despite Jeffs’s lingering power, there’s an air of change in the sandstone desert plateau where locals still wear 19th-century clothes even in stifling heat and are taught to shun outsiders, avoid newspapers, television and the Internet, and obey only the prophet, not the state.
Some authority is shifting to two of Jeffs’s top deputies — Wendell Nielsen and William Timpson Jessop — whose pictures are appearing in the homes of members next to those of Jeffs, said Gary Engels, assigned by the Mohave County attorney to investigate Colorado City, Arizona.
“There’s a little sense of change in the area. People who aren’t members of the FLDS church anymore claim some of the people who are members are a little friendlier,” he said, adding that illegal marriages of underage brides — rampant under Jeffs — seem to have slowed or stopped.
The Deseret Morning News, owned by the Mormon church, reported in April that Jeffs apparently told a judge he abdicated his role as prophet in jail. Local authorities say the news, if true, has not reached loyal followers.
Other changes are more subtle. In the past, outsiders were often followed by “church security” in cars with tinted windows, or not served in stores. But a Reuters correspondent recently walked the streets of Colorado City without being shadowed and bought a bottle of water from a store assistant who smiled as she handed over change.
“We’re seeing more cooperation than we ever have with the police and other institutions in the community,” said Bruce Wisan, a court-appointed accountant overseeing a trust holding $114 million of the sect’s assets.
The United Effort Plan Trust, created 70 years ago by FLDS leaders who said it belonged to God, has been administered by Wisan since 2005. It holds virtually all land and buildings in Hildale, Colorado City and a FLDS community in Canada.
It once gave Jeffs and other sect leaders a powerful lever to command loyalty, keeping members in constant risk of losing their homes, with little recourse to local police who only recently have started to enforce the laws of the state.
“Warren was rewarding loyalty and punishing disloyalty and that’s what gave him the real power,” said former sect member Richard Holm, whose lost his family in 2003 when Jeffs assigned his two wives and nine children to another man.
“The men that were fiercely loyal to him were generally motivated by desire for another wife,” said Holm, 55, who has since renounced polygamy and organized religion. “To them, I am the worst kind of apostate. But I think you can get to heaven through monogamy.”
Holm, a former town official, said if Jeffs has surrendered as prophet, his deputies may resist passing that on to thousands of followers who contribute at least 10 percent of their earnings a month to the FLDS.
“They have incentive to hush him up and carry on as though he is still dictating.”
Two months ago, Holm became the first former sect member to receive a property deed from Wisan. “That’s a milestone,” he said. He has reclaimed the 1.3-acre (0.5-hectare) property.
“The only problem is the ice-cold relationship with the neighbors. There is the unsettling concern that if there is the need for emergency services or whatever, those are all operated by members who are fiercely loyal to Warren.
“They would rather see me dead than help. I know that.”
But the number of those neighbors is dwindling. Many have scattered to FLDS strongholds in Eldorado, Texas, and South Dakota’s Black Hills, local residents say. “His followers are moving out,” said Ben Bistline, 72, who left the FLDS and wrote “The Polygamists — A History of Colorado City”.
“The political atmosphere is changing,” he said.
Wisan has identified 42 former FLDS members living in homes they built who want titles to the land. “We’re in the process of working through that right now,” he said.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff has no plans to prosecute polygamists unless they commit other crimes. His top concern, he said, are thousands of children pulled from public schools by a generation of parents fiercely loyal to Jeffs.
“That is something we’ve got to work on,” he said.