Though Warren Jeffs is facing up to life in prison, the fundamentalist Mormon leader will continue to control the lives of thousands of his followers, people familiar with the polygamist sect say.
Jeffs was convicted Tuesday of being an accessory to rape for coercing a 14-year-old girl to marry her 19-year-old cousin. The verdict set off speculation over what will happen to the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints if he is given a lengthy prison term.
But, former members say Jeffs will probably still be revered as the prophet, the leader of the sect who is regarded as God’s voice on Earth. They said they expect Jeffs, for the time being, to continue to be a dominant force in the lives of the estimated 10,000 sect members who live along the border of Utah and Arizona.
“For those who believe, he is a prophet anointed by God,” said Dan Fischer, a former member who started a network to care for boys who were kicked out of the sect so older men could have multiple brides. “There is nothing that man can do to change that.”
Fischer added, “Should he decide that someone should be ousted [from the sect], he can still pull that off from prison, just like a mafia boss can run the mob from jail.”
The polygamist sect broke off from the mainstream Mormon Church 72 years ago; under its rules, the prophet can only be replaced when he dies, said Brenda Jensen, another former member. It’s still possible, she said, that Jeffs could anoint a successor or that a splinter group could form.
In Jeffs’ absence, it is thought that other senior members of the notoriously insular sect have taken day-to-day control of running the group. Among those members are Wendell Nielsen, believed to be Jeffs’ closest confidant; Lyle Jeffs, Warren’s brother; and William Jessop.
Several people told ABC News that some families have started putting Nielsen’s picture up on their wall, next to photos of Jeffs, and that some have started listening to tape recordings of Nielsen’s sermons.
It was not clear whether Jeffs’ confidants would take the sect in a new direction, though Benjamin Bistline, a former member and author of a history of the group, said he thought Nielsen may not be as harsh as Jeffs.
“I don’t think he will be taking people’s wives away from them,” he said.
As prophet, Jeffs paired the community’s girls and women with the men he said God told him in revelations were meant to be married. Sect teachings emphasize that young girls and women are to be obedient to their husbands and serve them “mind, body and soul” to achieve salvation in the afterlife.
“The prophet was God to us,” Jeffs’ accuser testified during the trial. “He was God on Earth and his counselors were pretty much the same, so they had jurisdiction over us.”
Those who disobeyed Jeffs risked excommunication from the sect and banishment from their homes. Their families often were told not to have any contact with them.
Bistline, however, said Jeffs had been losing power even before his arrest.
The sect once controlled a trust that held virtually all of the land and buildings in the sect’s communities of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz. The trust gave Jeffs power over sect members, Bistline said, placing them in risk of losing their homes if they did not follow his commands.
A court gave control of the United Effort Plan Trust to a fiduciary, Bruce Wisan, in 2005.
“That’s what took the power away from him,” said Bistline. “Since then, he can’t use that extortion over the people anymore. That’s when people started leaving.”
Wisan said many group members were still wary of taking title to their homes for fear of being excommunicated.
Wisan and former group members said that they thought the sect’s leadership would be more cautious about marrying off underage girls and that Jeffs’ conviction could inspire some people to leave the group.
None of the former members, however, who spoke with ABC News, expected rapid change and none expected the group to stop practicing polygamy.
“He’ll always be in charge,” Shannon Price said of Jeffs. “Polygamy will always be part of the culture in one way or another.”
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