SALT LAKE CITY — As he sat in jail awaiting trial, the leader of a polygamous sect renounced his role as a church prophet and said he had been “immoral” with a sister and daughter decades ago, according to court documents.
Fifth District Judge James Shumate agreed, saying the recordings could be prejudicial. But he unsealed the documents Tuesday, revealing some contents from those recordings.
Jeffs, 51, was convicted on two counts of rape as an accomplice in the arranged marriage of a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is president of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The church has a large complex near the West Texas town of Eldorado.
In telephone calls Jan. 24, Jeffs told family that he “had been immoral with a sister and a daughter” when he was 20, according to the documents.
He goes on to renounce his role as the church prophet and says the Lord had “revealed to him that he was a wicked man.”
Jeffs does not elaborate on the conduct. Some listeners responded by telling Jeffs he is the prophet and was “being tested,” according to the documents.
The court filings also recount a Jan. 25 visit to the Washington County jail by a brother, Nephi Jeffs.
On videotape, Warren Jeffs said he had been fasting for three days and had been awake through the night. He began to dictate a religious message to followers but fell silent in mid-sentence and didn’t speak again for 13 minutes.
Again, he renounced his position as head of the church.
Nephi Jeffs tried to encourage him and said his brother should see a doctor. Warren Jeffs was taken to a hospital three days later. Court documents say he lost 30 pounds, was dehydrated and suffering from sleep deprivation.
Jeffs was given medication for depression.
In February, when his health had improved, he abandoned his earlier statements about not being a prophet and said he had “experienced a great spiritual test,” according to documents.
Ken Driggs, a Georgia lawyer and polygamy expert, said Jeffs’ health problems raise questions about the validity of any statements.
“I think it would take something pretty extreme to undercut a whole community’s confidence in him,” said Driggs, who lived in Colorado City, Ariz., an FLDS community on the Utah-Arizona border.
As for Jeffs’ “immoral” conduct — “I wouldn’t read too much into it,” he said.
“What that community may regard as immoral conduct is not necessarily what the outside world would consider immoral conduct. He could be talking about thoughts, or some affectionate or physical conduct,” Driggs said.
Among FLDS members, who cover their bodies from neck to ankle, even small physical gestures would be considered inappropriate, he said.
A half brother, Ward Jeffs, said he doesn’t believe Warren Jeffs was married or had children at age 20. Warren Jeffs was a teacher at a private FLDS school in Salt Lake City in 1976.
Ward Jeffs, who has left the FLDS church, said he had no knowledge of allegations of inappropriate behavior with a sister. The half brothers are no longer close.
Defense attorney Wally Bugden said the judge released the documents without his knowledge.
“I had no idea,” Bugden told The Salt Lake Tribune. “There are significant due process issues for Mr. Jeffs as it relates to future cases in Arizona and there are significant privacy issues that we believe are protected.”
Utah courts spokeswoman Nancy Volmer said she didn’t know why Shumate unsealed the documents. A court hearing was planned for Nov. 6 on a request by news media and a private investigator to release them as well as others.
Jeffs has led the FLDS church since 2002, taking over from his father. Faithful members, who hold polygamy as central tenet of their religion, revere the head of a church as prophet who communicates directly with God.
He could be sentenced to life in prison Nov. 20. Jeffs also faces criminal charges in Arizona and in Utah’s federal court.