COLORADO CITY, Ariz. — Family man and community leader Richard Holm was a loyal member of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for 50 years — until the phone rang one night in 2003.
Holm had been critical of new church leader Warren Jeffs. It was a very private discontent, but word apparently got back to the man regarded as the sect’s prophet.
In this desert theocracy, even quiet dissent turned out to be costly.
The life-altering phone call came from Holm’s father-in-law. He said he “was told to repossess” his two daughters — Holm’s wives — and their seven children. The orders came from the prophet.
Holm recalled their telephone discussion: “I asked why he was doing this, and he said he didn’t know why Warren was doing it but that he had to comply.”
Holm, 53, lived in a church-owned house at the time and tithed 10% of his earnings to the FLDS. He contacted Jeffs for an explanation.
By Holm’s account, Jeffs said that “the Lord told me you don’t hold the priesthood and you need to leave [FLDS] property.”
He added: “If your wives stay with you, they will go down with the wicked.”
Holm said he was ordered to write a detailed list of his sins. Unsure why his family was taken away, he didn’t know what to confess.
However, hoping to recover his family, Holm went to a motel and wrote Jeffs six letters of repentance.
“I described my life to him. I brought out memories that were for me very sacred and tender in my life. I told him I supported him as prophet,” Holm said.
Being considered a rebel was new to Holm. He grew up in the community with 11 mothers and 60 brothers and sisters. By his account, it was a happy childhood. He later became a member of the Colorado City Town Council.
He admired what he saw as the openness of earlier FLDS leaders such as Leroy Johnson and Fred Jessop. That changed when Warren Jeffs took over. The new prophet was more reclusive, arbitrary and authoritarian.
“I didn’t like that,” Holm said.
Jeffs began requiring people to “check in” with him, something Holm also didn’t like. He avoided Jeffs as much as possible.
“I enjoyed not talking to him,” he said.
Holm’s feelings must have become apparent to Jeffs before he interceded in the Holm family and demanded the letters of confession.
For six weeks after writing them, Holm waited to be let back into the church and have his family restored.
“I kept thinking, ‘Today is the day I’ll get back in,’ ” he said.
Then Holm got a call, this one from his brother. They met at a coffee shop and went for a ride in the brother’s truck.
“He said, ‘I got a call from Uncle Warren yesterday, and he gave me responsibility for your family,’ ” Holm said, recounting his brother’s message.
“I said, ‘Are you saying you are married to my wife?’ ” Holm recalled.
In fact, that was the prophet’s wish, Holm was told.
His two wives went along with it. Within a year, one was pregnant with his brother’s child.
“I told him for what he did he would die,” Holm said.
Dozens of others have received similar treatment — their wives and children taken away and given to other men. They rarely fight it and are seldom invited back.
Paul Musser, 51, said he had his wife and 13 children taken.
“I met with my family and said, ‘The prophet does not want me to be your father anymore,’ ” he said. “It was gut-wrenching.”
The practice is sanctioned in the FLDS text “In Light and Truth: Raising Children in the Family Order of Heaven.” The book, which includes such chapters as “Your Husband Is Your Lord and Master,” says any man dishonoring his priesthood or marriage covenant “forfeits his wives and children.”
What constitutes “dishonoring” is murky and interpreted broadly. The effect has devastated Holm, who now lives in nearby Hurricane, Utah.
“The irony of the situation is that men are willing to do anything at the edict of this madman,” Holm said.
“They can steal a man’s family. They can steal everything a man has.”