A hand-written note that polygamist Warren S. Jeffs wanted to hand to a 5th District judge last week apparently stated that he is not the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jeffs stood at the end of a March 27 hearing and asked if he could approach Judge James L. Shumate. When the judge said no, Jeffs explained, “I just need to take care of one matter.”
His attorneys then gathered around Jeffs and looked at a page he held, which was described to The Salt Lake Tribune by a law enforcement source.
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KSL TV reported Wednesday one sentence deciphered from the half-page letter read, “I have not been a prophet and am not a prophet.” The television station also said the note referred to a failure in leadership of the FLDS church. KSL’s story was based on reporting by the Deseret Morning News, who asked handwriting and digital enhancement experts to analyze a photograph taken of the note during the hearing.
The full context and what Jeffs meant by the statements – that he has never claimed to be a prophet, that he hijacked the post or is remorseful about his leadership – is unknown. Reports about the comments are drawing wide ranging – and wild – interpretations from law enforcement, people who’ve closely followed the Jeffs’ case and from his followers.
“I’ve been saying he’s not a prophet for three years now,” said Sam Brower, a private investigator in Cedar City who helped build the criminal cases against Jeffs. “It’s kind of a relief to me. I kind of hope it’s true.”
“I’ve always thought that if something like that happened there would be a collective sigh of relief,” Brower added.
Jeffs told his brother Nephi Jeffs something similar in a conversation videorecorded in January at the Purgatory Correctional Facility in Hurricane, several sources told The Salt Lake Tribune. In the same visit, Jeffs reportedly later changed his mind, telling his brother not to deliver the message.
Several FLDS faithful are questioning the veracity of the reports, which they believe are meant to discredit Jeffs.
One FLDS woman told the Tribune that Jeffs has never identified himself as the “prophet” – though he was considered one by his followers.
“He feels a weakness in the position he stands in,” she said. “If he said that reported statement to Nephi, there was a reason for it. It makes him no less of a prophet in my mind.
“As you can expect, I am skeptical of the whole thing,” she said in an e-mail.
A man who asked to not be identified, said that law enforcement is intent on destroying the FLDS leader.
“If they kill him he is a martyr. So the object is to destroy his credibility or his influence with his people,” said the man, who was exiled from the FLDS community several years ago but still supports Jeffs.
If the descriptions of the conversation and note are accurate, it could prove an “unprecedented” situation for the 6,000 or so FLDS members who have followed Jeffs since 2002, said one expert. Current teachings within the FLDS faith hold that only one man – the prophet – holds ecclesiastical keys, received through ordination from the previous leader.
“There are people I know down there who believed in him absolutely,” said Ken Driggs, an Atlanta attorney and FLDS scholar. “It strikes at the underpinning of their faith, and what they have built their faith around and that is a sad thing for anybody to confront.”
Walter Bugden, one of Jeffs’ three attorneys, refused to comment on the note after last week’s hearing and was unavailable Wednesday night.
Jeffs, 51, is charged with being an accomplice to rape for conducting an arranged marriage in 2001 between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. He has been incarcerated at the Purgatory Correctional Facility since Sept. 5.
Always a thin man, Jeffs looked skeletal and feeble during the March 27 hearing. He had difficulty staying awake and tracking the proceedings.
Jeffs was taken to Dixie Regional Medical Center on Jan. 28 after experiencing what has been described to the Tribune as a panic attack.
On Tuesday, Shumate issued a sealed order in response to a petition, also undisclosed, filed by Jeffs’ attorneys.
Medical and psychological reports and challenges to evidence are among the court filings that can be kept from public scrutiny.