Heavy-handed style deepened divisions, onetime friend says
When the leader of a fundamentalist polygamist group goes on trial, what raditionally happens is instant martyrdom – fervent supporters are horrified their leader is being persecuted and they circle the wagons.
That may happen with some people in the case of Warren Jeffs.
But there may be others who will likely breathe a sigh of relief and quietly wait it out while the criminal justice system deals with Jeffs’ criminal charges in Utah and Arizona.
“This situation is a little bit different,” said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta defense attorney who has done scholarly research for years on the Fundamentalist LDS Church and knows Jeffs.
Driggs is writing two books on the group and has been called as an expert witness in litigation involving the church. Beyond that, he has long-standing personal friendships with many people in the polygamous
communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz.
Jeffs’ heavy-handed leadership has deepened divisions within the church that were quietly and smoothly dealt with by Jeffs’ late father, Rulon Jeffs. There now are deep-seated personal, philosophical and
economic differences that may have rendered Warren Jeffs’ leadership “a little precarious,” Driggs said.
“The community has been fractured as a result of things Warren has done,” Driggs said. “There weren’t these splits in the community under his father.”
* In a recent purge, Jeffs excommunicated many men of the Barlow family, most of them sons and grandsons of John Y. Barlow, a spiritual leader of the church until his death in 1949 who headed a large and
“They have a lot of following and loyalty in the community,” Driggs said. “John Y. Barlow was the leader of what many consider to be a more unified Mormon fundamentalist community.”
* Warren Jeffs was sued in 2004 by a nephew who claims Jeffs and two other relatives sexually abused him when he was a boy. Driggs said Jeffs instructed his lawyers not to respond to the lawsuit. Eventually, for
this and other legal and financial reasons, a 3rd District judge appointed a special fiduciary and a new board of trustees to oversee the United Effort Plan (UEP), which essentially controls church assets.
* Purely anecdotal evidence suggests Jeffs has been solemnizing more marriages involving underage brides than in the past, although Driggs is quick to point out he has no hard facts to back this.
* Jeffs seems to have sided with a faction that wants to isolate itself from the outside world and has alienated, or ousted, those who wanted positive relationships with outsiders to bring business, jobs and
income into the community.
One of the people Jeffs excommunicated two years ago was Dan Barlow, who resigned as mayor of Colorado City shortly afterward.
“Dan was very concerned about getting jobs and economic ties with the outside world so their people had work and income, and he got pretty experienced with the press. When these eruptions happened, he was able
to put a face on them that was human,” Driggs said. “Dan was anxious to build relationships with people in the outside community that had economic value, and part of that was just getting along with people and
being a little less weird.”
Driggs said that when Dan Barlow was kicked out, no one filled that vacuum.
“There is a public relations aspect to that. Warren didn’t care, or didn’t seem to see that as a priority – that they have to deal with the outside world,” Driggs said.
Other polygamist groups in Utah are working to differentiate themselves from the FLDS Church. The pro-polygamy group Principle Voices has been on a public relations offensive, trying to explain the
diversity in fundamentalist circles.
Children and teenagers from several polygamous communities staged a rally earlier this month to denounce claims they are forced into child bride marriages or abused.
“This does give us an opportunity to explain that Warren Jeffs is just a small percentage of the total fundamentalist community,” said Anne Wilde, a former polygamist wife and one of the directors of
Driggs said the last time he saw Jeffs was in 2002, when he visited Colorado City for a week. “I used to know him fairly well before he became the prophet and went off the deep end.”
Driggs said Jeffs now gets portrayed as a kind of demonic figure with powerful sway over a flock of followers. “I never saw him as real charismatic; he’s pretty bland as a speaker. I never observed anything
extraordinary about him.”
So what happened with Warren Jeffs?
“I can’t tell you,” Driggs said.
What Driggs does predict is that many will support Jeffs to the end without question, but there also are others in the church who will not raise their voices but are quietly relieved at the latest turn of
“I think a lot of people down there are keeping their heads down, trying not to get excommunicated and waiting to see what will happen.”
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