Warren Jeffs is one of the USA’s 10 most wanted criminals. If he is cornered, carnage could follow, reports Joanna Walters in Hildale, Utah
A freckled-faced teenager in a frumpish dress bursts into the house with an expression somewhere between defiance and fear. Jennifer Barlow is just 17 and in hiding from a man the FBI has just put on its ’10 Most Wanted’ list, alongside Osama bin Laden.
The Feds are hunting Warren Jeffs, a 50-year-old ‘prophet’ exiled from the Mormon church, who is accused of paedophilia and of forcing young women into a life of polygamy. Jeffs holds sway over several isolated, breakaway communities in the remotest parts of America, including Hildale on the border of Utah and Arizona, where polygamy is the norm. And so far he has evaded capture. Barlow has fled to a friend’s house because she fears Jeffs will force her to marry an older man who already has three or four wives.
‘I tried to call my mom to tell her I’m OK – my parents always told me it is a world of total damnation out there – but my little brother wouldn’t let me speak to her,’ she said, her voice quivering.
In Jeffs’s communities, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), family member is turned against family member, wives are taken from husbands who have riled the leader and married to other men, and Jeffs himself is said to take a new virgin wife every month. But as this real-life socio-religious drama unfolds, its characteristics have already been immortalised on television. Tomorrow, Five will screen a new series that is already simultaneously a hit and a controversy in the US.
Big Love centres on a man, his three wives and their children, who live in three interconnected houses in what resembles suburban Salt Lake City. They pretend to be just neighbours, rather than an illegal polygamous family excommunicated by mainstream Mormons. The series focuses on the interplay between the wives and the husband, Bill, who has to take Viagra to keep up with them all. Bill, and his second wife, Nicki (played by Chloe Sevigny), were originally raised in a polygamous farming community out in the red-rock desert of Utah, where people wear rustic peasant clothing and follow a creepy prophet figure named Roman. The echoes of Hildale are too loud to miss.
At the end of the programme, a message will flash up telling viewers there are many tens of thousands of polygamists in the US today. Many are tolerated by the authorities, partly because polygamy is hard to prove. Originally a fundamental law of Mormonism when it was founded in the 19th century, polygamy was later outlawed, spawning splinter groups, led by the FLDS. Girls born into these now-exiled communities are married off as young as 13 by an omnipotent ‘prophet’ such as Jeffs.
‘I’ve had a report he was seen here within the last week – came in to perform some marriages and then left again,’ said Gary Engels, a district attorney-appointed investigator in Hildale.
Hildale is a small town pressing up against a picturesque red rock cliff 300 miles from Salt Lake City. There is no reason for strangers to turn off the highway and stray into the town, but any who do so are struck by the huge homes, which house on average 20 family members, according to Engels. Outside, playing in the sweltering desert sun are blond boys in breeches and plain long-sleeved shirts buttoned down, while girls wear ankle-length, long-sleeved thick cotton dresses. Women in similar dresses wear their hair rolled identically, high on their heads, in old-fashioned plaits.
This is Jeffs’s flock. He dictates how they dress and behave. Jeffs also rules communities in walled compounds in remote parts of Texas, Colorado, South Dakota, Idaho, Mexico and Canada, between which he flits by private plane.
‘It’s ready to blow. It’s going to turn into another Waco. There is so much going on to encourage law enforcement to come in with guns. Then Warren’s cronies will fire first and a lot of people are going to be killed,’ said Hildale resident Ross Chatwin, referring to the cult leader David Koresh, who died with 75 of his followers in 1993 after a botched FBI siege.
Chatwin, 38, denounced Jeffs after he ordered Chatwin’s wife to marry a ‘worthier’ man in the town. She refused and the couple were thrown out. But although he now wants to see Jeffs’s power destroyed, Chatwin believes passionately in polygamy.
‘It’s the forcing I don’t agree with, and the underage thing. It’s not Christ-like. I would never take a woman under 18. Plural marriage can be very spiritual – you have to sacrifice your individual feelings for the good of the whole family. It’s not about sex – that’s where Big Love got it wrong. To me polygamy is just a lifestyle, like being gay. Except being gay is not natural,’ said Chatwin.
Eight Hildale men are currently awaiting trial over ‘marrying’ underage girls.
Barlow says she was happy as a child, believing the prophet and everything the FLDS taught her – although she hated watching the jealousies of her ‘mothers’.
Hildale is run as a strict theocracy. Television, newspapers and magazines are banned and Jeffs controls the town’s internet service provider. The FLDS forms the council and the police. Almost all Hildale’s citizens were born here. Their fathers and forefathers practised polygamy and the sheltered community is becoming inbred, with birth defects common.
Jeffs declared himself leader after his father, the previous prophet, died in 2002. He swiftly became a fearsome force, banning all non-hymnal music and the village fete. He even closed the church for fear it would foment rebellion. And he breaks up families with brutality.
‘They say Warren walks and talks with God, but I don’t believe it any more,’ said Barlow, who wants to marry 23-year-old Patrick Pipkin.
‘I’ve seen Jeffs marry 15-year-olds to men who are 45 and already have two or three wives,’ said Pipkin. But in a Hildale twist, because of inter-marriage, Patrick is also Barlow’s step-brother.