Richard Gilbert was 16 when he was tossed out of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
His offense? A desire to continue public school after an edict from FLDS leader Warren Jeffs that followers homeschool their children.
And the bad deed that led to a similar fate for Tom Steed at age 15? Talking to nonmembers and watching three movies – including “Charlie’s Angels” and “The 6th Day.”
Now 19, these two “lost boys” were among 50 youths at the state Capitol on Saturday as South Jordan dentist and businessman Dan Fischer issued a plea for mentors and financial support of children abandoned by the FLDS community.
“These are just a few of the boys who’ve been told to leave or left on their own,” Steed said. “Many had nowhere to go, no food to eat. Some of them were kicked out with nothing more than the clothes on their backs and with the understanding they would be destroyed [by God].”
The boys have been exploited, victimized and discarded, deprived of basic educations and threatened with eternal damnation, Fischer said.
“These boys and young men need America’s help,” said Fischer, a former FLDS member who has formed the nonprofit Diversity Foundation to help the boys get schooling and even college educations.
“The boys need dads. I want very much to rally support.”
Among those already joining the cause as mentors: Jon Krakauer, author of Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, and Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff.
Krakauer agreed within the past few days to mentor Steed, embarking on what Fischer called “the first of what could be many Cinderella stories.”
“It breaks my heart and keeps me awake at night to know there are hundreds of boys and women who are abused and mistreated in the name of religion,” said Shurtleff, adding that FLDS teachings that paint a dark view of the outside world, coupled with their limited educations, make the youths particularly vulnerable when driven from their homes.
“That is a sin that can not be allowed to continue,” Shurtleff said. “Their own faith has been destroyed, their dreams turned to dust.”
Shurtleff said that among other actions, his office is looking at pursuing abandonment charges against parents who shirk responsibility for their children.
The FLDS church, which has about 10,000 members, is primarily centered in the twin border cities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. It also has outposts in Creston, British Columbia; Eldorado, Texas; and Sonora, Mexico. Warren Jeffs has ruled the faith since 2002, his tenure marked by a stream of expulsions of men and boys he deems unworthy.
Fischer estimates that some 400 boys – some as young as 13 – have been kicked out since 1998 for transgressions that include talking to girls and exposing their arms on hot summer days.
In truth, the offenses are largely a pretext for getting rid of young men who might be competition for marriageable girls in the polygamous community.
Most families willingly abandon and then shun their sons, fearful that putting up with teen rebellion or disobeying Jeffs’ edicts might harm them.
Some boys leave on their own after becoming disillusioned with the faith, the oppressive lifestyle or odds against being able to have a family of their own.
Many boys make their way to the homes of older siblings who previously left the faith, while others seek refuge at safe houses set up by former members in St. George, Hurricane and La Verkin.
And there are those who wind up on the street.
Davis Holm was 17 when a band of young men his own age hassled him out of town, using guns to make their point.
“I lived under overpasses like a bum,” said Holm, whose mother also eventually left the community. “I had nowhere to go.”
“There was no support structure at that point in time,” said Holm, now 27, who worked in construction and recently finished schooling to become a massage therapist.
Richard Gilbert said people need to understand that “fathers are not always the bad guys” since they, too, are often persecuted by Jeffs.
But Steed asked parents still following Jeffs’ directives to take heed: “Take responsibility for your children and your actions. Ignorance is not acceptable.”
Fischer, founder of Ultradent Inc., which makes dental products, and a former polygamist, has long provided jobs for men and boys ousted from their families or the FLDS faith.
“He was always right there to help somebody if they needed help,” said Ezra Draper, who as a teen received help from Fischer.
“You come out with no resources, skilled in a trade but no education beyond high school or eighth grade,” said Draper, 32, who moved from the border community to Bonner’s Ferry, Idaho, last summer after parting ways with Jeffs.
Fischer told The Salt Lake Tribune that he became disillusioned with the faith after graduating from dental school, though it took some years before he made � a break.
“The last few years I was there my heart was not in it,” he said. “But it was a given that as soon as I announced I was not in it, I would not see my family or be welcome.”
The breaking point came 12 years ago as he became troubled by practices at Alta Academy, the private FLDS school Warren Jeffs directed, and the lack of opportunities available to his 14 children.
After years of quietly lending assistance to those ousted from the FLDS community, Fischer said, a convergence of events led him to take the effort public. He acknowledges that girls who have left the community need help, too, but said his attention for now is centered on the boys.
“Certainly, we felt things were coming more and more to a head as more and more families continued to be destroyed down there,” he said.
“Additionally, we were encouraged by Joanne Suder’s work in bringing people together to create a synergy which made this more logical to come out now.”
Suder is representing Brent Jeffs, who filed a civil lawsuit last week against Jeffs and two of his half brothers, Blaine and Leslie, alleging they sexually abused him at Alta Academy.
Fischer previously set up a foundation called Smiles for Diversity to encourage dentists to promote respect for human diversity, a move spurred by an attack on a Jewish day-care center in California and the murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
How to help
• Call 1-877-GET-A-DAD
• Or send a donation to the Diversity Foundation, care of Lynette Phillips, 505 W. 10200 South, South Jordan, UT, 84095