A year-long search for his wife and child has ended for Wendell Musser – but not with the outcome he hoped.
Once a trusted caretaker for polygamous sect leader Warren S. Jeffs but now estranged from the faith, Musser had not seen his family since last June when Jeffs exiled him and hid his loved ones.
But on Friday, at the invitation of his father, Musser flew to Utah from Idaho. Unsure what was happening, he was taken to an auto repair shop in Hildale.
There, he was told by his wife, Vivian Barlow, that she and their 22-month-old son are out of his life forever.
Musser said he cried when he first saw them. He then spent the next 90 minutes describing his exhaustive search for them, professing his love and asking for a second chance.
He apologized for drinking and driving, which led Jeffs to take away his family and oust him from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. He apologized, too, for resorting to a lawsuit and media appeals to find his family, explaining he had no other alternative.
Barlow rebuked and denounced him – and even refused to let him hold Levi. She asked him to leave them alone.
“I said I won’t walk away and can’t walk away from Levi,” said Musser, 22. “I sure wanted to hold him real bad. He’s so cute, he’s walking around. He was staring at me the whole time. I don’t know if he recognized me or not.”
Musser’s father and father-in-law looked on as the couple spoke. Helaman Barlow, a Colorado City Town Marshal’s deputy and two Washington County Sheriff’s deputies also stood by.
“We were there to keep the peace,” said Darrell Cashin, a Washington County deputy, who was asked to participate by Helaman Barlow. “The meeting was very cordial. He wants to be able to have rights to see his child and she doesn’t think he should have any. She was scared, so was he. It was a very emotional situation for them.”
Cashin said he will be following up because a missing persons report was filed on Barlow, 20, and Levi.
Musser and Barlow were united in arranged spiritual marriage conducted by Jeffs on April 1, 2004; he was 19 and she was 17. Barlow gave birth to Levi on July 30, 2005. Musser said they were in love and that their life together was a joy.
In December 2005, Jeffs called the couple on a “caretaker mission.” They traveled to Colorado and spent seven months looking after some of Jeffs’ wives as part of a secret network created to help the sect leader elude capture.
Musser described it as a harrowing experience that involved shifting hideouts and the use of disguises, cell phones, satellite navigation systems and other tactics to avoid detection.
Along with the pressure of helping Jeffs evade capture was the unrelenting responsibility of caring for the prophet’s spiritual wives. Musser said he was troubled from the start by the assignment and what he learned about Jeffs.
Overburdened, Musser made a fatal mistake last summer when he was arrested for driving while intoxicated. He spent two days in jail, only to discover when released that his family had disappeared and Jeffs had ordered him out of the faith.
Musser launched a several-months search for his family, but was unable to find them. Extended family members and FLDS leaders refused to help him, telling him he no longer had any right to his family.
Musser filed a missing person report and, earlier this month, a lawsuit against Jeffs to assert his rights as Levi’s father. A response to that lawsuit was due Friday.
Instead, he was brought face-to-face with Vivian.
Musser asked Vivian repeatedly if they could meet privately, but she refused.
So, while the others watched, he did his best to refute her claims that he had deserted them, that he was out for money or wanted to harm Jeffs. Musser explained he had sued the sect leader only to learn her whereabouts.
“They have definitely worked on her mind so that was a little discouraging,” Musser said. “They act like I never loved her. She knows inside there is no doubt about it.”
Barlow told Musser that since they had never married legally he has no claims to Levi; he reminded her he is listed as the father on the boy’s birth certificate.
“She turned to her father and asked, ‘Is that true?’ and he was just quiet,” Musser said. “I told her there is no reason to hide from me or hide him.”
Musser said the meeting ended hastily after he asked that his attorney Greg Hoole be allowed to join them. At that point, Anthus Barlow, Vivian’s father, dashed out of the building with his daughter and grandson.
Hoole, who waited outside the building, described Musser as “crushed” after the meeting.
On Saturday, Musser was trying to be optimistic, anxious to move out of the media spotlight and “narrow [it] down to just me and her.
“I am holding out hope, I really am,” said Musser. “I don’t know if we’ll ever be together because of the environment she is in. She has to choose and I respect that. I still love her. I tried to tell her that, how I felt when she was with me.”
But Musser said he won’t give up his quest to be part of his son’s life.
For now, that means moving ahead with his lawsuit.
“He knew this was likely to be the result today. But it’s not over, it’s just the beginning now,” said Roger Hoole, Greg’s brother and Musser’s other attorney.
Greg Hoole said that Musser has “always been clear he’ll let Vivian make her own choice but, with respect to Levi, he has an unquestioned right to be with his son.”