How the plight of several young men became a legal battle to bring down a polygamist sect.
Gathered inside a gated compound, under the watchful eye of a security guard but beneath a beautiful mountain backdrop, a group of young men speak casually about their mothers’ reassignment to new husbands, running construction crews as teenagers, and celebrating the 2000 New Year half believing the world was about to end.
Richard Gilbert, one of the oldest of the so-called Lost Boys of polygamy, pauses to examine clean glasses in the dishwasher, wondering if the white stuff is leftover milk or a calcium deposit. He apologizes for the messiness of the apartment he shares with several other young men on the property of their Sandy patron, businessman Dan Fischer.
At 19, Gilbert has assumed an older brother role among the group of exiles from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). It’s nothing he hasn’t done before.
What Gilbert calls “the flood” began in early 2003, a few months after the death of FLDS Prophet Rulon Jeffs and takeover of the church by one of his sons, Warren Jeffs. Gilbert already had been kicked out of the church and was living in a Hurricane duplex with three other young former FLDS members. There came a knock on the door, then another, and another.
In a period of two months, about 50 boys showed up. “A lot of times it was, ‘Father told me to get out,’” Gilbert said. “In a lot of cases it was ‘Warren wouldn’t let me stay.’”
It was, according to anti-polygamy activists, the most blatant sign that things had gotten completely out of control inside the FLDS, and proof positive that demand of FLDS leaders for ever-larger numbers of wives purged the church of its young men.
Gilbert said FLDS parents would often show their boys the door on orders of the Prophet, then file runaway reports to protect themselves. Frequently, the boys crashing at Gilbert’s would be sent back home by authorities only to show up again one week later.
“The cops would come twice a week to get the kids. The third time, the cops asked, ‘Why do we have to keep coming back here?’ I told them, ‘These kids have been kicked out, and I’m not shutting the door in their face.’” And neither has Fischer, the president of a local dental products company who’s vowed to help them, both for his purposes and the boys’ good.
Since going public with their stories July 31 on the steps of the Utah Capitol, the Lost Boys have given interviews to dozens of newspapers and television stations. They have their very own media handler, a professional public relations specialist hired by Fischer to work with the boys and field calls from Sony Pictures and national television magazine programs ABC’s Primetime and Dateline NBC. Gilbert, handsome and hip, was photographed last week for a spread in Details magazine.
He speaks confidently before sitting patiently for photos. He and the other Lost Boys are anything but the shrinking violets one might expect of boys who had spent their entire lives in the cloistered twin polygamist communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.—taught to fear outsiders, barred from watching television and most communication with the opposite sex. But then, these boys have had a lot of practice lately.
Like the other boys—at once too independent and too sweet-tempered for their ages—Gilbert doesn’t seem to have a clue of the scope of the battle for which he is providing a public face. Gilbert is not only the most visible Lost Boy, but one of six plaintiffs in a month-old lawsuit charging FLDS leaders with systematically expelling young boys to reduce competition for wives.
The Lost Boys phenomenon is a production of Sandy businessman Dan Fischer. If not for the former FLDS member, the boys would still be spread throughout southern Utah in a loosely connected tribe.
Fischer tracked down the boys and is using earnings from his successful dental equipment business to become a patron, both of the boys and the broader cause he has come to share with increasingly active anti-polygamy campaigners: bringing down the FLDS leadership.
A rotating cast of boys lives in an outbuilding at Fischer’s home. His charitable foundation, Smiles for Diversity, pays college tuition for three boys in Salt Lake County, and rent for others in St. George. Fischer additionally pays salaries for four full-time employees to help the boys and for round-the-clock security to protect them and himself from the threat of “blood atonement” Fischer said is increasingly preached by FLDS leaders.
Fischer also is kicking in to bolster the boys’ legal claim with money to hire “multiple, qualified attorneys.” Shem Fischer–Dan’s younger brother by 22 years and right-hand man in the Lost Boys production—estimated that about $1 million had been spent on the effort so far.
Until recently, the 55-year-old Fischer hadn’t been among outspoken former polygamists pushing for action against the FLDS, but said increasingly erratic behavior by church leaders, in particular the increasing breakup of families, has created a situation impossible to ignore. “I am not someone who is radically anti-polygamy, [but] I think the leadership is sick,” said Fischer. “Every time another [polygamous] family is destroyed, there are about 20-40 kids scarred,” he said. “You can’t go back and erase those memories.”
Fischer knows. His mother was told by church leaders to leave his father in October 1999, and within days, was married to the Prophet.
Fischer grew up in an FLDS family, but his parents didn’t move to Colorado City until he had finished high school. Fischer attended the University of Utah, something he claims is now denied, along with high school, to most FLDS children, as part of increasing attempts at control by church leaders. He is most passionate when speaking of the need to get FLDS children an education.
“Freedom comes from being able to make intelligent decisions,” he said. “You can’t make intelligent decisions in ignorance.”
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Fischer wants to stop the church’s most extreme practices, so he can stop cleaning up the mess. In the high stakes legal game to end the FLDS as an institution, he could be the unwitting sculptor of a new legal definition for freedom of religion. Fischer maintains that, while they have the right to practice their beliefs, religious institutions don’t have the power to disrupt and exploit lives.
Polygamy’s enemies have long argued the practice means exploitation for young women and even girls trafficked among older men. The Lost Boys lawsuit is perhaps the first to point out that young men can suffer polygamy’s effects as well. They may not lose their sexual innocence, but ejected from a religious community and mindset they’ve known from infancy, they can be rendered homeless and hopeless.
Armed with a sizable amount of money from his business, Fischer hopes to help deliver a deathblow to the FLDS and its powerful psychological grip on those who follow its teachings.
The Lost Boys are a powerful public-relations tool in the arsenal of anti-polygamy activists. The church has powerful tools as well, including the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion and Lawrence v. Texas, a Supreme Court decision of last year that said privacy rights prevent prosecution of certain sexual practices. Legal battles will test whether those rights include the ability of polygamous communities to control the details of believers’ lives, including whether polygamous communities can willingly throw away their children.
Patterned after the early Mormon church, the FLDS holds all property in trust, meaning excommunicated members often lose their homes. Members hand over much of their earnings to the church, and many member businesses are controlled by church leaders. Marriages are arranged and dissolved by command of the Prophet.
FLDS leaders dictate conservative clothing styles—dresses on top of pants for girls—and the daily activities of members’ lives. The Lost Boys tell of daily morning marching sessions, mandatory community cleanups and weekend work when all males gather for construction projects. The boys also tell of being bored out of their minds with no television, no music and no sports.
The attack headed the way of the FLDS may be the most significant since the large-scale raids on the community 51 years ago by Arizona Gov. Howard Pyle.
The Lost Boys’ lawsuit is one of three civil claims filed this summer against the FLDS in U.S. courts. In Canada, civil-rights activists last month filed a complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal, charging government ministers with ignoring alleged crimes in Bountiful, an FLDS outpost in the province. Former wives from that community are talking to Canadian lawyers.
The most ominous sign for the FLDS is that East Coast law firms specializing in large class-action lawsuits have begun to smell blood, with several firms exploring potential claims that church leaders have made themselves rich on the backs of believers.
The Lost Boys lawsuit essentially argues that the FLDS hierarchy controls the boys’ parents, property and money and has assumed the responsibility of caring for the children.
The boys are suing for lost educational opportunity, return of earnings they claim they were forced to give the church, and wages they say they are owed for unpaid work. They also want payment to treat psychological scars left “from being cut off from family, friends, community, and having been condemned to eternal damnation.”
The church doesn’t argue some of the boys were shown the door, but maintains it’s no one else’s business. Rodney Parker, a church attorney, said all religions have a First Amendment right to decide who can be a member. The age of the excommunicated doesn’t matter. “There is no exception in the First Amendment for minors,” he said.
Another pending lawsuit comes from Dan Fischer’s younger brother. Shem Fischer and his brothers built several businesses in Colorado City, including the power company and a cabinetry business, but turned all stock certificates and most profits over to church leaders. Shem claims he was robbed when he was pressured out of the church, leaving Colorado City and his job with a single suitcase.
In late July, Brent Jeffs, a nephew of FLDS leader Warren Jeffs, sued seeking payment for alleged sexual abuse at the hands of Jeffs and others. In a statement, FLDS leaders called Brent Jeffs’ allegations of ritual sodomy “total fabrications,” and “part of a continuing effort by enemies of the Church to defame it and its institutions.”
As far as the “continuing effort” goes, the church may be right. It’s no coincidence that the lead lawyer handling Jeffs’ nephew’s claim and the Lost Boys’ lawsuit is the same person, Joanne Suder, a Baltimore attorney with more than 20 years experience in child sex-abuse cases and a history of successful lawsuits against the Catholic Church.
Frustrated at their inability to get authorities to act against the FLDS, anti-polygamy activists have set about to change the political climate for prosecution of alleged crimes in polygamist communities north of the Grand Canyon.
“Since the states won’t do their job, we are looking at other options to take these guys down,” said Flora Jessop, with Help the Child Brides. Civil lawsuits were the group’s “last option,” she said.
Jessop was the mover behind Brent Jeffs’ sexual-assault lawsuit. She researched the case and found Suder willing to take it on.
Anti-polygamy activists claim governments have been afraid of prosecuting polygamy since the 1953 raids that landed many polygamists in jail, but became a political debacle as authorities struggled with what to do with the remaining women and children.
“Politicians don’t like to take chances,” said Shem Fischer, who tracked down the first six Lost Boys and took them to Washington, D.C., to meet with lawyers. “If they can see a civil suit filed and won, they will file criminal suits,” he said.
He recalled the case of a 16-year-old and two brothers abandoned in Salt Lake City by parents convinced their sons weren’t worthy. After abandoning the boys, they headed for Colorado City and salvation.
Fischer thought that was a clear case of a crime, and said as much to Utah’s attorney general, Mark Shurtleff.
“I drug these kids up to his office with tears in my eyes. ‘Here is your case. Here is the evidence,’” Fischer recalled. But Shurtleff wouldn’t, or couldn’t, prosecute.
Kirk Torgensen, chief deputy Utah attorney general, blisters at that, saying Shurtleff has shown unprecedented willingness to examine alleged crimes in the FLDS community, but can’t prosecute “stories.”
“There comes a point where people have to provide real evidence,” he said. “We’ve been telling people for three years to bring the evidence I can take to court. They haven’t done it.”
Shurtleff has previously said his office is conducting investigations in the FLDS community that include welfare fraud, child abuse and, in the case of the Lost Boys, child abandonment.
His opponents in November’s election fault the attorney general’s approach. Democrat Greg Skordas said Shurtleff’s early tough talk about polygamy caused FLDS members to become unwilling to cooperate with authorities. Libertarian Andy McCullough won’t prosecute men for having more than one wife, but with Skordas, said an attorney general friendlier toward the FLDS community would have a better chance uncovering any alleged underlying crimes.
Fischer hopes for a more aggressive approach from the attorney general, but isn’t willing to wait. For several years he has been in discussion with lawyers about possible action against the FLDS. This year, he said activists came to him seeking help in finding cast-off young men. He enlisted brother Shem for the task of finding the Lost Boys.
One of the first found was Gilbert, who had a long list of phone numbers from his days running the Lost Boy flophouse. At the beginning of his search, Shem Fischer said he expected to find about 100 boys, but in the past four months, he has identified 400 males between the ages of 15-23 who have left the FLDS during the past four years.
One of the last boys to be booted from the church arrived at Fischer’s guesthouse late last month, when Fischer officially became the boy’s legal guardian. The 15-year-old had spent the past three years as a pingpong ball, bouncing between FLDS property and Gilbert’s Hurricane duplex, alternately shooed away by church authorities and sent back by the courts.
A head taller than the other Lost Boys and with a deep drawling voice, the boy comes off like what, until recently, he was: the foreman of a construction crew, supporting himself by building rock walls around homes in St. George for an FLDS construction company. Fischer prefers that the boy not be named because he wants to see him have a fresh start in life without embarrassment and the burden of his past.
The boy said he never quite understood the religion—”something about Zion, and some great plan, something like that, and the wicked going to hell”—but took pride in his construction work. He learned framing, carpentry, plumbing and roofing.
Fischer enrolled him in public school two weeks ago. The boy is nervous about his new life in a world where 15-year-olds don’t run masonry crews.
Like several of the Lost Boys, the youth comes from a family he says was “pulled apart by the Prophet.”
When he was 11, the boy’s mother, himself and two of his mother’s 14 children were moved overnight to the home of an elderly FLDS leader.
The boy’s voice is soft giving the facts of his history, rising only when he talks about learning his 17-year-old sister had married a 30-year-old—”I was so pissed, I wanted to kill him”—or when talking about his mother, the only part of his former life he cares to remember.
The 15-year-old admits to not being the most devoted church member, but said he doesn’t know what he did wrong to be kicked out. “I was trying to put on a show making it look like I was a good kid. It seemed like the harder I tried to be good, the worse they treated me,” he said.
Edward Timpson, 19, knows what it’s like not to be welcome among the FLDS. His father is a member of the “Second Ward,” a breakaway FLDS sect. “I was called an apostate my entire life,” said Timpson, who spent his later high school years in a state of numbed misery.
Anti-polygamy activists acknowledge the phenomenon of young men leaving the FLDS communities isn’t new, but claim the problem has multiplied exponentially. For a cause they point to recent years’ teachings that the end of the world was past due. Fundamentalist theology teaches multiple wives are necessary for salvation. As the days got shorter, some higher-ups apparently figured 20 wives were better than 10, and began snatching up other men’s wives and sending young men packing.
Shem Fischer said that The End was in the air one morning five years ago, when his mother telephoned at 4:30 a.m. to say “your father has been released from me.” The entire family, minus its 72-year-old father, gathered at the Prophet’s home to hear in person the news that the three wives of Fischer’s father were to be reapportioned to other men, including one man moving down from Salt Lake City in preparation for the millennium.
Fischer recalls his 10-year-old sister “just sobbing profusely.”
“She asks Warren, puts a direct question to Warren, and says, ‘Well, is there any hope for my dad?’ And Warren is like, ‘Well, as you know, he has been released from his wives because he’s not worthy of lifting them up in the last days. The time is too short. He doesn’t have time to repent.’”
FLDS leaders began predicting the end of the world in the 1990s. A given family’s chances were entirely dependent on having a “worthy” father. As the millennium approached, “the level of worthiness appeared to escalate,” said Dan Fischer, but “we never anticipated this type of goofiness.”
An initial date for the end of the world was given as Jan. 3, 2001. When the world didn’t end, church leaders explained the people hadn’t been faithful enough, and the date was pushed out a couple of months. Shem Fischer said three dates were given prior to his leaving the church.
“A lot of people were encouraged to run up credit, because they wouldn’t have to pay it back,” the younger Fischer said. “To believe this stuff you have to raise the congregation from the crib. It’s too bizarre for converts.”
Former members say the instability became worse in 2002, when Warren Jeffs took over church leadership upon the death of his father, Rulon, and reached a peak this January, when 21 men were told to leave while their wives and families were reassigned.
Raymond Hardy’s father was one of those men. A soft-spoken, self-described “computer geek,” Hardy spends much of his time in his room at Fischer’s guesthouse helping to maintain the Lost Boys’ Internet connection to the outside world, www.smiles-for-diversity.org.
With several of the other Lost Boys, Hardy, 19, describes himself as something of a rebel. But what passes for bad among this crowd would barely make it on MTV. The acts Hardy associates with his banishment include hanging out with “apostates,” including a member the “Second Ward” from five miles down the road, plus a secret girlfriend.
Gilbert’s rebellion took the form of a love for football. He sounds like a refugee from the Chinese Cultural Revolution as he gleefully describes watching sports on his family’s secret satellite hookup, and the forbidden full-contact football games he staged outside of town. Both are banned by the FLDS.
For Hardy, his father’s excommunication was the end of a line of increasingly bizarre instructions from church leadership that eventually forced him to leave.
Before “Uncle Rulon” had his stroke, life in Colorado City wasn’t so bad, said Hardy. “You weren’t damned to hell whenever you turned around back then,” he said.
But afterward, things got difficult. Along with television and sports using balls, nonreligious music was banned. Backyard compact disc fires became common.
The orders that grated Hardy most were the banning of computer games and exploring the Internet. “They were slowly knocking off your information sources,” he said.
One day, an FLDS leader pulled Hardy aside and told him not to return to church services until he had a meeting with Jeffs to “straighten things out in my life.”
Hardy never took the meeting. “I knew as soon as I talked to Jeffs it was goodbye, because I had a girlfriend at the time,” he said. Young boys are strictly forbidden to talk to girls in the FLDS communities.
Hardy left, found work in St. George, and stayed there until fellow Lost Boy Gilbert let him know about Fischer’s offer of an education. Two weeks ago, he enrolled in Salt Lake Community College with hopes of getting a computer-science degree.
Along with many former church members, Hardy doesn’t blame polygamy for his troubles. “That religion, some people can live it and live it fine,” he said. “It’s not really the church, it’s the leadership.”
Dan Fischer agrees, but said, “just about anything taken to an extreme becomes a travesty.” He wants compensation for the Lost Boys, but he also wants the courts to intervene in church practices.
The Lost Boys lawsuit charges church leaders with “reckless disregard” for the boys’ welfare, and asks for nothing less than an order that church assets be seized and turned over to an outside trustee for payment of the boys’ claims.
“I have to believe, if the founding fathers could have envisioned this, there would have been laws,” Fischer said. “Freedom of religion does not mean freedom to make victims.”
FLDS attorney Parker said that is a dangerous argument. He asks if critics would bar other traditional cultures from practicing arranged marriages. “To take the position that society has the right to make these decisions for the people down there is simply wrong,” he said.
The FLDS is fighting back in court. One case on appeal argues that the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent overturning of a Texas anti-gay law means the government has no right interfering in polygamist bedrooms, either.
Parker said public hysteria over polygamy has reached a level similar to that at the turn of the last century, when the U.S. government tried to take down mainstream Mormons who practiced polygamy. He argues for tolerance. “You have to look at [church practices] from the cultural perspective of fundamentalists. It really does them a great injustice to judge that system from the standpoint of our secular system.”
Fischer said that argument won’t fly anymore. Traditional respect afforded polygamy in Utah “has become its own smokescreen,” he said, blocking children from the protection afforded by divorce courts and social services in the outside world.
Gilbert denies the Lost Boys are being bribed by Fischer’s largesse to sue their former church, a charge that’s lightly bandied about. He said the only deal they have is this: Fischer will help them—if they will go to school.
“I can say ‘No’ whenever I want,” he said. “I feel like I am doing a good thing.”
Gilbert’s push out the church door began the day Jeffs banned children from returning to public school for the 2000-01 school year.
He enrolled anyway, making the decision, in part, in order to remain in the class of a science teacher he calls one of his life’s two heroes, after Oakland Raiders wide receiver Jerry Rice. He, too, recently began school at Salt Lake Community College, and hopes to study biochemistry eventually.
He said his immediate future won’t include attending a church. “I definitely am not making plans to join another organized religion anytime soon. I’m going to do whatever I feel is right for me in my heart,” he said. “I’m not going to do what other people tell me to do. I did that. It didn’t work out.”