On the day he was sentenced, Warren Jeffs’ followers did not stand for him.
Through all of the previous court hearings in his rape-as-an-accomplice trial, the dozen or so faithful members of the Fundamentalist LDS Church stood as a sign of respect every time he entered or exited the St. George courtroom.
On Nov. 20, they did not.
A statement issued by Jeffs’ lawyers, announcing that he “resigned as president of the Corporation of the President of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Inc.” may explain why. Jeffs’ lawyers said Wednesday he resigned the day he was sentenced.
“The fact they did not stand up, we felt something had happened relative to his standing as prophet,” said Washington County Sheriff Kirk Smith.
It is unclear if Jeffs has renounced his role as prophet of the FLDS faith. He did so in several conversations with family and followers that were taped while he was incarcerated in Washington County’s Purgatory Jail. He later recanted his renouncement, his attorneys said, and it coincided with a suicide attempt.
Jeffs is now in the Utah State Prison, where he has begun serving two five-to-life sentences for performing a marriage between then-14-year-old Elissa Wall and her 19-year-old cousin, Allen Steed. Currently, Jeffs is undergoing a five-week orientation course for new inmates.
“He’s doing just fine,” Utah Department of Corrections spokeswoman Angie Welling said Wednesday. “There have been no behavioral issues, no write-ups.”
Wall had no comment on Jeffs’ resignation, her attorneys told the Deseret Morning News.
“No comment,” said deputy Washington County Attorney Brian Filter.
Meanwhile, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff offered a sort-of “olive branch” to whomever may succeed Jeffs — if they stop performing child-bride marriages and abusing women and children.
“Whoever the new president is, I would be happy to meet with him and let him ask questions and let him know what we’ve been about the past seven years,” Shurtleff told the Deseret Morning News. “I hope it will be more of an open society in the future.”
This latest declaration has many wondering what the future holds for Jeffs’ thousands of followers in the polygamous border towns of Hildale, Utah; Colorado City, Ariz.; and enclaves scattered across the West. Many ex-members learned of Jeffs’ resignation from a Deseret Morning News reporter.
“He could still be everything he claims he is (in a religious context,) except he’s not president of that corporation anymore,” said Isaac Wyler, who lives in Colorado City.
Law enforcement officers, who have pursued Jeffs for years, are stunned.
“I’m kind of speechless,” said Mohave County, Ariz., attorney’s investigator Gary Engels, who has been building several criminal cases against Jeffs.
“I find it very interesting,” he said Wednesday. “I’d have to think about it and analyze it. Think about the reasons for why he did this and what’s going to happen now.”
Jeffs’ resignation does not change anything in the scale of the numerous civil lawsuits he is facing. Wall and other ex-FLDS members are taking him to court. So is the court-appointed special fiduciary of the United Effort Plan Trust, the real-estate holdings of the FLDS Church.
How Jeffs’ most loyal followers will react remains largely a mystery.
“He seems to be trying to make positive statements that ‘I’m not the leader’ and the die-hards don’t seem to be recognizing that,” said UEP fiduciary Bruce Wisan.
Follow the leader?
In Hildale and Colorado City, things are quiet. At the FLDS Church’s temple site in Eldorado, Texas, faithful members were taken by surprise, authorities said.
“They had no knowledge of it,” Schleicher County Sheriff David Doran said after he hung up the phone with FLDS leaders in Texas. “They seemed surprised.”
In a story published in Sunday’s Deseret Morning News, the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona said the FLDS Church may splinter with Jeffs in prison. The impact of Jeffs’ resignation will be felt, Wyler believes.
“It’s going to be another whiplash,” he said. “When a whip cracks, all the weak ones will fall off and the strong ones will stay.”
Ken Driggs, a Georgia attorney and an expert on fundamentalist Mormonism who has lived with the FLDS faithful, said Jeffs may have resigned to save the FLDS communities.
“It gives them a chance to get a fresh start,” he said. “It would probably be easier for someone else to come along and break from the customs in the past that involved underage marriages that got them — and him — in so much trouble.”
Who will fill the void if Jeffs has truly stepped down as FLDS leader may have already been decided. In his jailhouse conversations, Jeffs pointed to William Jessop.
“I know of your ordination, that you are the key-holder… ,” Jeffs said in a phone call with Jessop that was tape-recorded in the Purgatory Jail and recently released to the Deseret Morning News through a government records request.
Ex-members say Jessop’s picture hangs on the walls in FLDS homes, alongside portraits of Jeffs and Wendell Nielsen, another sect leader. Wisan said his attempts to speak to Jeffs, or anybody else perceived to be a leader, have been stymied.
“We still don’t know who leadership really is,” he said