With the authorities in hot pursuit, a Mormon ‘Prophet’, Warren Jeffs, has gone to ground with his 70 wives – and enough ammo for Armageddon. Andrew Gumbel reports from a community in fear.
Opinions differ about the precise moment when Warren Jeffs, self-appointed prophet of the last sizeable community of polygamous Mormons in the United States, started to go a little nuts. Some say it stems back to his adolescence when, as a gawky social misfit teased by his schoolmates, he was briefly thrown out of his father’s house in Salt Lake City for an offence against his younger brothers alleged to be so grave it is mentioned by the faithful only in a low whisper.
Others say he developed a fanatical obsession with power and obedience when, in his twenties, he became headmaster of a religious school and routinely delivered savage beatings with a belt or yardstick to children who fell foul of his authority.
Others still say the real trouble started in 1998, when his father and predecessor as prophet, Rulon Jeffs, was incapacitated by a stroke and set Warren up as one of two candidates he deemed equally worthy of his succession. Warren, described by his critics as almost pathologically jealous, rapidly positioned himself as de facto regent and, after his father’s death in 2002, proceeded to strip his rival, Winston Blackmore, of all authority.
What is clear, however, is that Jeffs is now behaving like a dictator losing his grip, prompting fears that the community under his dominion, the remote twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City, on the Utah-Arizona border, is on the verge of imploding. Fanatical, demented, unstable – such are the words used to describe him by critics both inside and outside the community.
Residents and law enforcement officials in both states are openly talking about the terrifying possibility of another Waco or Jonestown; in other words, a confrontation leading to mass bloodshed among the faithful.
One quickly understands why. Jeffs permits no books, newspapers or television for his followers, telling them that much of the outside world is evil. Public entertainment was never a big feature of life in Colorado City, just the occasional dance or picnic, but now it has been banned altogether. Jeffs expects every family to hang at least one portrait of him above their mantlepiece, and to listen to tapes of his sermons – there are at least 150 – until they can be recited verbatim.
To enforce his will, he has formed a gang of teenage boys, known variously as Uncle Warren’s Sons of Helaman or, simply, the God Squad, who knock on people’s doors unannounced and conduct searches to check for signs of insubordination.
Since Jeffs controls the trust that owns all the land in Hildale and Colorado City, and since he claims divine authority to determine every aspect of the lives of the 6,000-odd inhabitants, from the jobs they do to the people they marry, he has many ways of expressing his displeasure.
In the past few months, he has broken up three dozen polygamous families, “reassigning” wives and children whose menfolk have fallen out of favour. Last month, Jeffs excommunicated and expelled 20 prominent people, including his nonagenarian chief bishop, Fred Jessop, longstanding mayor Dan Barlow, and several members of Barlow’s extended family. The current whereabouts of some of those expelled is far from clear.
Others, meanwhile, have refused to leave, rising up instead in open revolt against him.
The most visible rebel, 35-year-old Ross Chatwin, recently invited the national media to gather in front of the house he has been ordered to give up and hear him liken Jeffs to Adolf Hitler. “Warren is out of control,” Chatwin later told me in his sparsely furnished living room, as four of his six children ran in and out.
“If men are not perfectly obedient and submissive to him, he shatters their families. And people go along with it, because they are totally convinced he is talking to God daily. It truly is one of the most effective brain-washing schemes since Hitler.”
At the same time as Jeffs is conducting a purge within his community, he is facing mounting pressure from the outside world, as ever more alarming reports surface of a polygamy culture in Colorado City tantamount to a slavery racket in teenage girls. The testimony of dozens of girls who have run away from the community, some of whom have gone on to testify in court, suggests that sex abuse, paedophilia and incest are rampant.
Young girls – they used to be as young as 11 or 12, although in recent times they have more typically been 15 or 16 – are given away in marriage solely on the say-so of the prophet. They will be traded among the men like chattel. Often, their designated husbands are old enough to be their grandfathers, or even their great-grandfathers, and have multiple wives and children already. Not only are the girls not consulted ahead of time; they are effectively raped on their wedding nights, and held in a state of captivity thereafter.
After decades of inactivity – the result of fear, laziness and a residual sympathy for the polygamists among mainstream Mormons — the authorities in both Arizona and Utah have decided it is time to crack down, and Warren Jeffs may very well be their prime target. Weak laws make it hard to prosecute polygamy in and of itself, but both states deem it a felony for a man to have sex with a minor, and Utah birth certificates show that Jeffs has conceived children with at least two girls under the age of 18.
Shortly after learning he was under investigation last summer, Jeffs abruptly announced that he was ending his regular Saturday morning church services and would perform no more plural marriages until further notice. Naturally, he did not reveal the seriousness of his plight; instead, he told his faithful that they were to blame for failing to “honour the word of God”, and that the great “privilege” of polygamy was thus withdrawn from them by the Lord Almighty Himself.
Jeffs has since retreated behind the eight-foot high walls of his compound, which occupies two whole city blocks in Hildale and bristles with video surveillance cameras. He is believed to have more than 70 wives, who are holed up with him and – according to Ross Chatwin – are themselves subject to 24-hour video surveillance.
He hardly appears in public any more, communicating largely through a deputy called Sam Barlow. Even his lawyer, kept more than usually busy these days, has little or no direct contact with him.
Nobody knows what would happen if the law chose to swoop on Jeffs’ compound. Not far away, next to the bishop’s residence, is a tightly guarded cave, or “fall-out shelter” as some call it, believed to be packed with emergency supplies and an unknown number of firearms. According to the town’s informal historian, Ben Bistline, the community bought 100 semi-automatic rifles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition sometime in the 1980s. There have been sporadic reports of consignments of arms arriving in trucks since then, but nobody knows for sure how many.
With fear in far greater supply than hard information, rumours are rife. One theory has it that Jeffs is planning to flee with his most faithful followers to a secret compound he is building 20 miles south of the Arizona-Mexico border. Another suggests he has his sights on Jackson County, Missouri, where the founding prophet of the Mormon religion, Joseph Smith, tried to establish his fledgling community in the 1830s before being run out into Illinois. Jeffs has certainly been hoarding money recently: two years ago, he took over all the businesses in Colorado City, pocketing their profits for himself, and he has made increasing “tithing” demands, ostensibly to ward off the community’s enemies whom he characterises as tools of the devil.
It is also entirely possible Jeffs will sit tight exactly where he is, and wait for the authorities to make the first move. That, in turn, scares the daylights out of anti-polygamy campaigners like Flora Jessop, who escaped from Colorado City 18 years ago and still has numerous family members in the town. “It has gone beyond a cult. It is at the point of being a terrorist organisation,” she said. “People there believe they can make their own laws in defiance of all governmental control. They are prepared to die for their leader, and that’s exactly what’s going to happen if American citizens choose not to show concern. These people are no different from suicide bombers in Iraq.”
Flora Jessop’s aunt Jenny Larson, who left Colorado City in the 1940s when she was 11 and now makes it her business to help escaping teenage girls make their getaway, has a photo in her collection of “Uncle Rulon”, Warren Jeffs’ father, on the day he married wives number 75 and 76. Uncle Rulon was over 90 at the time, while the girls, blonde and impeccably groomed, were sisters aged 14 and 16. “Why, that horny old bastard,” Larson spits in disgust as she shows the photo to me.
Larson has observed several generations of Colorado City polygamists from her home in St George, Utah, 35 miles away. She remembers the prophet of her youth, John Y. Barlow, as a “big fat pig” who slurped water out of a jug at Saturday morning services rather than using the glass provided, and had no qualms about marrying a 12-year-old who took his fancy. One of Barlow’s more recent successors, Leroy Johnson, also married an 12-year-old, while one of Johnson’s brothers paired himself off with his own stepdaughters, aged 9 and 11.
Larson has seen dozens of mothers and children show up at her door, disoriented and terrified as they try to decide whether they have done the right thing, or consigned their souls to eternal damnation by running away. She has seen families broken up, rearranged, intermarried and broken up all over again, purely on the whim of the prophet. She drew an inordinately complicated family tree for me to demonstrate how one woman she knew ended up being her own mother-in-law and grandmother to her own children.
She also described how, for years, there was no doctor in town, only the bishop’s wife who acted as general practitioner, dentist and midwife. Dozens of babies died in childbirth, she said.
“It’s very sad, because these women and children have put their whole belief in one stupid man. They actually believe this garbage,” she said. Ross Chatwin, who has only just begun his own personal journey away from the fundamentalist mindset, described the strange comfort people in Colorado City took in bearing no responsibility for their own lives and entrusting everything to the prophet, “the one mighty and strong”.
Gauging the mood in town, it becomes apparent that many residents exude a child-like quality of blank innocence, displaying impeccable politeness and smiling broadly even as they say, implausibly, that they do not know the answers to your questions. The flipside of that studied trustfulness, though, is that many people – Chatwin estimates up to 3,000, or half the town — prize obedience above their own lives.
“If the prophet presents something as a choice between saving their lives and saving their souls, they will choose salvation over life,” he said. It does not help that the fundamentalist Mormons preach that the end of the world is imminent. According to a tape-recording of one of his sermons, Warren Jeffs described the 11 September attacks as a “magnificent portent and cause of great hope” because he thought it would hasten Armageddon.
The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS for short, grew directly out of the mainstream Mormon church’s rejection of polygamy in 1890. Renouncing plural marriage was the price Washington exacted for Utah to attain statehood, and like all edicts issued from above it stirred widespread resentment and mistrust. Devout Mormons found it very hard to let go of polygamy, because the practice had been preached by Joseph Smith himself; Smith said a man needed to marry at least three wives to reach the highest echelon of heaven.
The fundamentalists first came in the 1920s to Colorado City and Hildale – then known as Short Creek – and were able to settle and grow largely because of the area’s remoteness. On the Arizona side, they were cut off from the rest of the state by the Grand Canyon. On the Utah side, civilisation was closer, although for the first 40 years there was no more than a dirt road connecting them to St George.
The community became expert at playing one set of state officials off against the other, and even more expert at squeezing the state and the federal government for subsidies and public assistance. Polygamists generally formalise their first marriage to reap the tax advantages of marital status, but leave subsequent matches undeclared. That means that all but one of their wives can claim single motherhood status.
With money flowing in for food stamps, health care, child care, the city police force (who are under the prophet’s de facto authority), the local school district (ditto), and special federally funded projects including the construction of an airport just south of Colorado City, the fundamentalists receive more than $16 million a year from the government authorities they profess to despise. They call this “bleeding the beast” and take great pride in it.
Part of the reason they have got away with so much for so long is because of the continuing shock waves from a raid on the community organised by the Arizona police and National Guard in 1953. Arizona’s then governor Howard Pyle coordinated a dawn swoop in which 122 adults were arrested and 263 children taken into foster care. Pyle believed he was eradicating a great social cesspool, but the media focussed instead on images of children being wrenched from their mothers’ arms, leading to a firestorm of indignation from commentators who denounced the raid as a shocking intrusion on religious and personal freedoms. Within three years, the polygamists were out of prison and reunited with their families, while Pyle’s political career disintegrated.
The problem has grown exponentially over the past half-century, as a community then numbering just a few hundred increased to several thousand. Growth has stretched resources to near breaking point, and the place reeks of poverty. Although construction of outsize houses continues apace, many of the roads remain unpaved. Metal junk is piled up all around town, the water mains leak and the water supply contains dangerous quantities of radon. In the absence of central heating, most households resort to wood-burning stoves, shrouding the town in a frequent brown haze.
Some critics, like Jenny Larson and Flora Jessop, will tell you the place has always been run as a hellish cult, while others, such as the local historian Ben Bistline, will argue that the leadership has become more dictatorial over time. Clearly, the female and male perspectives are very different. But both agree that Warren Jeffs has taken things to a new extreme, perhaps because he does not have the same charismatic hold as his predecessors.
Uncle Rulon was certainly no picnic – he once had all the dogs in town rounded up and shot after a child was attacked by a Rottweiler – but Warren has been denounced even by one of his own brothers as an unprecedented fanatic. “[He] preaches that you must be perfect in your obedience,” the brother told the author Jon Krakauer, who spend an extensive period in Colorado City. “You must have the spirit twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, or you’ll be cut off and go to hell.”
Likewise, there have been schisms and splits in the fundamentalist church before, especially following the death of one prophet and pending the establishment of another. (Schisms seem to be hardwired into the Mormon religion, perhaps because its founding myth sets two feuding brothers, Nephi and Laman, at each other’s throats.) Nobody, though, recalls the sense of foreboding and possible implosion that prevails now.
The Utah Attorney General has said he suspects Jeffs of planning a “blood atonement” – also known as human sacrifice – of a teenage girl who resisted marrying the man assigned to her. (The girl ran away to another fundamentalist community in Canada before returning and submitting to the prophet’s will.) To another reluctant teenage bride, Ruth Stubbs, he said: “You can either live here and live in hell, and then when you die have eternal happiness. Or else, you can go out into the world and live in hell and die and even have more eternal hell.”
Stubbs subsequently went to the authorities and saw her husband, a Hildale policeman, convicted of bigamy and sexual misconduct with a minor, largely on her testimony.
The key to prising open the closed up world of Colorado City is persuading more teenagers like Stubbs to come forward and testify. That’s no easy feat, because runaway brides tend to be as suspicious of the authorities as they are of the prophet.
Flora Jessop and other campaigners have lambasted state agencies for frequent insensitivity, including instances where runaway teenagers were sent back to their parents. But officials in both Arizona and Utah now say dealing with the polygamists is a top priority. Jessop says education is the key ? educating both the authorities and the women and children who are kept deliberately in the dark by their male keepers. “We have to hope the authorities take heed of what we are saying,” Jessop told me, “so we don’t end up with a bunch of innocent people getting hurt.”