FLDS sect may splinter now that Warren Jeffs is in prison

The Fundamentalist LDS Church could be in for a leadership shake-up — or it may splinter now that polygamous sect leader Warren Jeffs is in prison, the attorney generals of Arizona and Utah say.

“It’s awfully hard to have a leader in prison,” Terry Goddard said in an interview with the Deseret Morning News.

Goddard was in Park City this past week for the conference of the National Association of Attorneys General. In the interview, he weighed in on Jeffs’ recent sentence.

Jeffs was convicted of first-degree felony rape as an accomplice and sentenced to two terms of five-years-to-life in the Utah State Prison for performing a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. His attorneys have said they will appeal.

The FLDS leader is facing similar charges in Arizona, and a federal grand jury has indicted him for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution stemming from his time on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said there may be a split within the ranks of the closed polygamous society.

“I’ve heard from members of the FLDS Church who are standing by him 100 percent,” Shurtleff said. “(They are) telling me how wrong we are, how godly a man he is and how we don’t know the true Warren Jeffs.”

Others are beginning to waver.

“We’ve heard there are a number who are hedging their bets and looking to the new potential leader,” he said, adding that there may be divisions within FLDS enclaves scattered across the West and in Canada.

Goddard said he expects a challenge to Jeffs’ leadership, especially since the FLDS leader renounced his role as “prophet” in a series of jailhouse conversations that were recorded.

Tape recordings

The Washington County Attorney’s Office also has released 10 recorded telephone conversations in response to a records request by the Deseret Morning News.

On the CD, Jeffs announces that he had been “immoral” with a sister and a daughter when he was 20, but does not elaborate. His defense attorneys have said the conversations were made at a time when Jeffs was suffering from medical and mental problems, and he has since recanted his renunciation as the FLDS prophet. In one conversation a follower asks: “Are you just giving us a test right now?”

The tapes also coincide with a suicide attempt Jeffs made while incarcerated.

In one conversation, Jeffs orders people to move homes and tells one of his wives, Naomi, that she will be given to someone else.

“You will need to be re-baptized and that you’ll be given to Brother William. So will all the ladies,” he said. “You heard the recording? Did you hear the recording I made?”

“Yes,” Naomi Jeffs replies.

In another phone call, Jeffs speaks to the man he declared in one conversation to be the real prophet, William Jessop.

“I know of your ordination, that you are the key holder, and I sent a note with my signature verifying it so that there is no question, according to Section 43, although not valid,” Jeffs said. “And all the work since father’s passing has to be re-done. And there’s many men that are sent away that do hold priesthood, and their families will need to be put back.”

“Section 43” is a reference to the Doctrine and Covenants and makes reference to false claims of revelation. The FLDS Church is a breakaway sect from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“And then I say this to you, I am one of the most wicked men on the face of the Earth since the days of Father Adam,” Jeffs said. “OK? Have you been able to hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” Jessop said.

“Thank you and goodbye. You’ll need to….”

“Good luck,” Jessop replies.

“Thank you.”

Ex-FLDS members have said those loyal to Jeffs will not believe the declarations or even pay attention to the tapes.

“A lot of people absolutely refuse to look at anything,” said Isaac Wyler, who still lives in Colorado City, Ariz. “There’s a few people that are questioning things.”

In faithful followers’ homes, portraits of Jeffs still hang on the walls, Wyler said. But so do pictures of Jessop and Wendell Nielsen, another FLDS leader.

Power center

Goddard does not believe this is the beginning of the end of the FLDS Church, but he said future leaders would not be able to exercise as much control over people’s lives outside the faith.

“I do believe that between Shurtleff’s office and mine, we’ve done a good job of taking away the non-religious aspects that used to be power centers for the prophet’s position,” he said.

Over the past several years, the states have taken control of the school district and the FLDS Church’s real-estate arm and decertified police officers in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah, and Colorado City, Ariz., who were perceived as loyal to Jeffs above their law-enforcement duties.

“That means whoever takes the job won’t be able to arbitrarily throw people out of their houses, won’t be able to provide the faithful with a job as a school administrator, won’t be able to have a completely subservient police force,” Goddard said.

The attorneys general from Utah and Arizona dismissed accusations the states have engaged in a campaign to systematically destroy a religion.

“What we’ve done, from the beginning, is focus on the abuse of children and then on the abuse of secular power,” Goddard said. “None of that talks about people’s underlying beliefs, and I think it would be wrong to talk about those underlying beliefs. What adults do in their religious observances is entirely their business.”

Including polygamy?

“I’ll just stop with what adults do with their religious beliefs,” he replied.

Both Goddard and Shurtleff now say they have no evidence to suggest that child-bride marriages are continuing within the FLDS Church.

Goddard refused to say if his office was pursuing additional criminal cases against Jeffs or others within the FLDS Church. The Utah Attorney General’s Office has been conducting an organized crime probe, but Shurtleff declined to say if any charges are imminent.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office said that since Jeffs’ conviction, it has seen an increase in the number of people from the border towns calling a hotline set up for victims of domestic violence. Local nonprofit groups that help women and children in polygamy continue to see people seeking help.

“For a woman in Colorado City to call for help, it’s a huge step,” Goddard said.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday December 3, 2007.
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