HILDALE, Utah -The surveillance cameras around his walled compound are gone. But everywhere the prophet looks these days, he sees trouble.
From southern Canada to northern Arizona and western Texas, authorities and activists are intensifying their investigations into the inner workings of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs.
In the past few days:
• Jeffs was accused in a lawsuit of sodomizing his then-5-year-old nephew and covering up serial child molestations by fellow church leaders for decades. In a statement Friday, he denied the allegation.
• Texas authorities cited FLDS officials for 29 environmental violations at a compound the church is building on a remote ranch in the western part of the state.
• The attorney general of British Columbia organized a task force to look into allegations of sexual exploitation, child abuse and forced marriages at an FLDS community near the Canadian-U.S. border.
• Dozens of young men and boys who were chased out of the FLDS so older men could have a better pick of young brides have taken the unprecedented step of going public with their stories and appealing for help.
• Rumors have circulated that one of Jeffs’ dozens of wives may have run away into protective custody.
Amid the whirlwind of events, Jeffs seems to have disappeared and his carefully crafted world appears to be teetering.
The prophet was never one to mingle with the masses. He doesn’t give interviews and always travels with a phalanx of bodyguards.
Several months ago, Jeffs took his privacy to a new level, erecting an 8-foot cinderblock wall around his home along West Utah Street and mounting surveillance cameras atop the ramparts.
Those cameras were gone last week and the compound was quiet.
“We think he’s down in Texas and he took the cameras with him for his new place,” said Sam Brower, a private investigator who has been monitoring Jeffs and the FLDS for five years.
No one knows for sure, but circumstantial evidence indicates Jeffs may, indeed, be living on a 1,691-acre ranch near the tiny town of Eldorado in west Texas.
One of Jeffs’ closest aides bought the ranch in November for $800 an acre and named it the YFZ Ranch. YFZ reportedly stands for Yearn For Zion, the title of a recording Jeffs made several years ago.
On July 10, one of Jeffs’ wives, Barbara Anne Barlow, died at the ranch. A justice of the peace ruled the 39-year-old died of natural causes after a battle with cancer. She was buried in a private cemetery at the ranch.
“Of everything that’s happened, the lawsuit could be the most important development,” said Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who has worked with his Utah counterpart, Mark Shurtleff, on a carefully coordinated criminal investigation of the FLDS.
“Our biggest problem has been getting credible victims to come forward, and my understanding is this young man is extremely credible.”
The young man is Brent Jeffs, a nephew of the prophet and the first member of the first family of the church known to openly break ranks. In his lawsuit, he claims three of his uncles raped him repeatedly in the bathroom of a Sunday school in Salt Lake City that since has closed.
Under Utah law, minors who are sexually abused have until their 22nd birthday to file suit against their attackers. Brent is 21.
He said in his suit that his uncles told him he faced eternal damnation if he ever told anyone. He decided to come forward after his brother, who grew up in similar conditions, committed suicide two years ago.
Salt Lake City attorney Rodney Parker, who represents the FLDS, said he spoke with Warren after the suit was filed and issued a written statement:
“The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and its president, Warren S. Jeffs, deny in the strongest possible terms the allegations made by Mr. Brent Jeffs.
“The church and President Jeffs believe that the filing of this action is part of a continuing effort by enemies of the church to defame it and its institutions. President Jeffs is confident that ultimately these allegations will be shown to be total fabrications.”
The lawsuit, filed Thursday in Salt Lake City, was significant not only for the allegations it raised, but for the forces that came together to build the case against Jeffs.
Four nationally known attorneys from three states collaborated on the lawsuit.
The lead attorney is Joanne L. Suder of Baltimore, who has worked with sexual-abuse victims for decades.
Suder, 53, has made a career representing victims of medical malpractice and sexual abuse.
Ten years ago, Suder filed a $350 million suit on behalf of five students who claimed they were molested in Catholic schools run by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. She worked with prosecutors to build the criminal case that led to a life sentence against the lay teacher accused of the molestations.
Suder also represented several women who claimed they were sexually molested by a former Maryland state health secretary and nationally syndicated health columnist who wrote several popular diet books. The health official was later banned from practicing medicine for life in Maryland.
The other attorneys involved in Brent Jeffs’ lawsuit are Patrick A. Shea of Salt Lake City, director of the Bureau of Land Management in the Clinton administration, and Fort Worth partners John S. Jose and Rickey J. Brantley, two of the foremost personal injury lawyers in Texas.
Texas authorities have been increasingly aggressive in confronting FLDS officials at their new retreat. David Allred, an aide to Warren Jeffs, originally told local officials that he bought the land in Schleicher County to build a corporate hunting retreat.
After local pilots flew over the compound and photographed construction of three huge dormitory buildings and a massive meeting hall, Allred admitted to Sheriff David Doran that he lied about the hunting retreat because he did not want the church or town to have to deal with unwanted publicity.
Texas environmental officials have been particularly aggressive about enforcing their regulations at the FLDS compound.
Just last week, they issued 29 citations for violations ranging from operating a public water supply system without a permit to dumping wastewater on ranch roads to hold down dust.
“This group apparently thought they were going down to Texas looking for sanctuary,” Goddard said. “It sounds like the Texas authorities have instigated their own level of scrutiny, as well they should.”
Canadian authorities also have stepped up their scrutiny of another FLDS community in the town of Bountiful near the U.S. border.
Until recently, Bountiful was controlled by Winston Blackmore, a bishop in the FLDS, who church members said often exchanged young women with the main congregation in Arizona and Utah.
Jeffs, however, recently excommunicated Blackmore and several hundred Bountiful members as part of a churchwide crackdown.
Like Jeffs, Blackmore long has kept a low profile, but his excommunication has split the two FLDS communities and may prove to be still more unwanted trouble for the beleaguered prophet.
Key dates for FLDS
Sept. 8, 2002: Rulon Jeffs, 92, head of FLDS, dies.
September 2002: Son Warren Jeffs becomes “prophet.”
July 10, 2003: Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne asks the state auditor general to investigate Colorado City schools.
Aug. 10, 2003: Jeffs announces all church services and plural marriages are suspended.
Aug. 22, 2003: Arizona and Utah officials hold a “polygamy summit” to discuss ways of cooperating in a crackdown.
November 2003: David Allred, an associate of Jeffs, purchases 1,691 acres in Schleicher County, Texas.
Feb. 3: Twenty-seven Arizona legislators ask the state attorney general to prosecute criminal activity such as bigamy, rape and incest in Colorado City.
March: Pilots flying over Texas property see three unusually large buildings under construction and alert authorities. Allred says he is building a hunting retreat. An anti-polygamy activist claims Jeffs plans to move his most faithful followers to the ranch.
April: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality cites ranch for series of violations.
May: FLDS officials admit Texas land won’t be used for hunting retreat. Schleicher County sheriff flies to Colorado City to meet church elders.
Early July: Construction continues with more massive buildings. Women dressed in ankle-length dresses worn by FLDS disciples seen working in fields cleared for crops. Texas environmental officials continue their pressure on ranch.
Thursday: Jeffs’ 21-year-old nephew files suit in Salt Lake City alleging that he was sexually molested by his uncle when he was a child.
Friday: Jeffs issues statement denying the allegations.