ST. GEORGE — Persistent questions about how much of a grasp Fundamentalist LDS Church leader Warren Jeffs retains on his followers could help investigators digging into alleged crimes within his polygamous sect.
Some are leaving the FLDS Church and bringing with them information, authorities say. Some of that information has also been about Jeffs, who remains under investigation by the offices of the Utah and Arizona attorneys general.
“It’s not an avalanche, but we are able to talk to people. There’s more of a dialogue,” Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said.
In an interview with the Deseret Morning News, Goddard said law enforcement officials have focused on “every aspect of life” in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. Officials are going after suspected abuses within the Colorado City Unified School District and the multimillion-dollar United Effort Plan Trust. Efforts are being made to reach out to abuse victims within the closed society.
Goddard believes the effort is having results.
“I’d like to think it has made isolation a little more difficult,” Goddard said.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff acknowledged that many FLDS faithful still remain entrenched and refuse to have anything to do with social workers or law enforcement.
“I don’t think that entrenchment by the absolute faithful will ever change until Warren Jeffs is convicted,” Shurtleff said.
Both Shurtleff and Goddard declined to comment on Deseret Morning News reports that Jeffs had abdicated his role as a “prophet.” There were indications of an abdication in a jailhouse conversation with one of his brothers and in a note he tried to give to a judge.
“The bottom line for me is, (Jeffs) has held absolute power over a large number of people, and he has abused his power in ways that we know about and probably in many ways that we don’t know about,” Goddard said. “A lot of people suffered as a result of that.”
Jeffs, 51, is facing criminal charges in St. George’s 5th District Court. Charges accuse him of rape as an accomplice, a first-degree felony. He is accused of performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. Jeffs is facing similar charges in Arizona and has been indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Jeffs was arrested outside Las Vegas last year. At the time, he was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
Questions have been raised about the FLDS leader’s physical and mental health after recent court appearances have showed him dozing off and in one instance, drooling on himself.
Lawyers for news media outlets, including the Deseret Morning News, have presented a court motion asking that a seal on some documents in the case be lifted. The judge has asked attorneys to address federal medical privacy laws to see how they would affect the request.
Jeffs’ defense attorneys are appealing to the Utah Supreme Court, orders binding him over for trial.
It may be fallout from Jeffs’ incarceration and recent declarations, but authorities are seeing more people start to leave the FLDS Church.
“They see their opportunity to get out because they don’t believe in it anymore. They don’t believe in Warren,” said Gary Engels, the Mohave County attorney’s investigator stationed in Colorado City.
The HOPE Organization, which helps those leaving polygamy, said it has helped about 75 people so far this year.
“Some have seen the chink in his armor and are, in fact, seeking help,” Shurtleff said.
A hotline set up by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office to help abuse victims has gone from zero calls to almost 30 a month.
“It is a connection to the world outside of Colorado City and Hildale,” Goddard said.
More resources are being diverted to help people in the polygamous enclaves. The Mohave County Sheriff’s Office has assigned more deputies to Colorado City. The Arizona Department of Public Safety is also assigning more resources to the area, Goddard said.
Goddard wants to see the help expanded. He announced plans at a town hall meeting last week to include the Nevada attorney general in future plans to prosecute abuses within polygamy. The FLDS Church has been expanding into Nevada.
A new FLDS
Changes are noticeable in the FLDS communities.
Washington County sheriff’s deputy Darrell Cashin said FLDS members on the community’s police force have begun working with him and even bringing him cases. Engels said he is finally starting to see cooperation, even though it may be somewhat reluctant.
“People are coming to me, I think, because they don’t know where else to go,” he said. “I’m still considered the devil. I’m sure they (FLDS members) still pray for my destruction.”
Engels was honored last week with the Arizona attorney general’s “white hat” for his work investigating crimes in Colorado City. Goddard hailed him as a “one-man law enforcement agency.”
Those who live in Hildale and Colorado City have noticed even a more relaxed attitude among the faithful. Many have even smiled and waved to those who were declared “apostates.”
Ex-members of the church have said they have seen photographs of FLDS leaders Wendell Nielsen and William Timpson Jessop appearing in homes, next to portraits of Jeffs.
If there is a power shift within the FLDS Church, Goddard said, any new leadership is not likely to have the same control as Jeffs once did.
“They will have new leadership some day, but it will be under very different terms,” he predicted. “Whoever takes over FLDS, he will not have control over the schools. He will not have control over the United Effort (Plan) Trust. He will not have control over the Town Council. He will not have control over the police department. He will not have control of all the property that people’s houses are situated on. That’s a pretty long list.”