SALT LAKE CITY – The head of the nation’s largest polygamous community, headquartered along the Arizona-Utah line, was accused Thursday in a lawsuit of repeatedly sodomizing his nephew and for decades covering up wide-scale sexual abuse of children by fellow members of his sect.
The allegations were the most serious and graphic to be brought against Warren Jeffs, 48, the embattled self-proclaimed prophet of a breakaway religious sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
Jeffs and his top lieutenants in the FLDS have been the focus of a series of criminal investigations under way for years by the attorneys general of Utah and Arizona. So far, no criminal charges have been filed against anyone in the church hierarchy, but Thursday’s civil suit opened a new track in the investigations.
Rodney Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney who represents the FLDS, did not return phone calls to comment on the suit, which was filed shortly before Utah’s 3rd Judicial District Court closed for the day.
Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff said he received a copy of the suit Thursday and was considering expanding his current investigation to include the specific allegations of sexual abuse and cover-up.
“We are very interested in the information in the complaint and are looking into the allegations to determine whether to open a criminal investigation,” Shurtleff said.
“We already have a criminal task force in place that is looking into all kinds of allegations of criminal conduct by certain members of the FLDS.”
Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard was at the Democratic National Convention in Boston on Thursday and did not return calls.
The lawsuit filed by Brent Jeffs accused his uncle, Warren Jeffs, and two other men, Warren’s brothers Blaine and Leslie, of molesting him repeatedly more than a decade ago in the basement of a Sunday school the FLDS ran in Salt Lake City. The Sunday school, known as the Alta Academy, has since closed.
“On repeated occasions, defendant prophet Warren would enter the basement room where the children were located, find (Brent) and instruct him to come to a nearby lavatory,” the suit alleges.
“While in the lavatory, defendant prophet, and/or defendant Blaine and/or defendant Leslie confronted (Brent) and instruction him to remove his clothes.”
The suit claims that after Brent was undressed, the defendants told him it was “God’s will” that he submit to one or all three of the men.
“Defendant prophet Warren then told (Brent) that these sodomizing activities were a way for (Brent) to ‘become a man,’ ” the suit alleges. “The defendant prophet Warren admonished (Brent) that it was God’s will that he not tell anyone – particularly his parents – about said activities.”
Brent, now 21, was 5 and 6 years old when he claims the serial molestations took place. His attorneys said in the suit that he “decided to come forward with this information after his brother, Clayne, who lived in the same FLDS community, committed suicide.”
Joanne L. Suder, one of four attorneys who filed the suit, said Brent would not comment publicly.
Shurtleff and Goddard, the two attorneys general conducting the criminal investigations into the FLDS, have said repeatedly that one of the greatest challenges to bringing criminal charges is the reluctance of victims to step forward.
“I never would have expected a nephew of the prophet to have that kind of courage,” said Sam Brower, a private investigator in southern Utah who has been following the FLDS for five years. “This is a landmark moment.
“You can’t begin to imagine the uproar this is going to cause. There are going to be people who say his nephew is a liar and speaking for the devil. And there are going to be others who’ll just be floored.”
The FLDS faithful
The FLDS is based in Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, a pair of isolated communities that spill across the state line in a remote area of the Arizona Strip 120 miles from the Grand Canyon.
Church leaders control the police force, the school board, virtually every business and government enterprise.
A religious and charitable trust known as the United Effort Plan, or UEP, owns all but a few parcels of land in both towns.
Warren Jeffs is president and director of the UEP. He controls all of the trust’s finances, which have been reported to run into the tens of millions.
Within the church, Jeffs is omnipotent prophet. He is revered as God’s only representative on Earth and holds the keys to heaven because he alone can sanction marriage.
The FLDS faithful believe a man must have at least three wives to reach the Celestial Kingdom. Women, though, are considered property and can reach the highest level of heaven only if their husbands take them.
Jeffs claims his sect is following a fundamentalist righteous path abandoned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints when it renounced plural marriage on Earth in 1890.
But even when it practiced polygamy, the mainstream church never set quotas on wives and never treated women as chattel.
FLDS women are not allowed to cut their hair and must wear ankle-length gingham pioneer dresses.
They typically marry in their teens and bear dozens of children.
Jeffs himself is said to have 50 to 100 wives and hundreds of children.
Until January, he conducted religious services in a giant convocation center in Colorado City.
In January, however, Jeffs excommunicated two dozen leading church officials and announced the faithful were unworthy of having services or the blessings of plural marriage.
Ousted church members and others who monitor the FLDS said Jeffs was feeling the pressure of the ongoing criminal investigation and the pending collapse of a church-dominated bank that defaulted on $13.8 million in uninsured loans this summer.
Last November, one of Jeffs’ closest allies purchased 1,691 acres near the town of Eldorado in a remote part of western Texas and began building a compound that now includes three huge dormitories, a massive meeting hall, barns, storage sheds and other facilities to house at least several hundred people.
The lawsuit filed Thursday in Salt Lake City requested a temporary restraining order to keep Jeffs and the FLDS from disposing of assets that could be used to pay damages to Brent Jeffs.
Brent’s attorneys said they hoped to get a hearing on that request some time next week.
Besides the allegations of sodomy and sexual cover-up, the 24-page suit accused Warren of ruining the lives of scores of young men by expelling them from Colorado City and Hildale because they were deemed a threat to older, more loyal men in the church who wanted plural wives.
“The prophet’s practice of expelling FLDS church members from their families and community occurs almost exclusively with your males between the ages of 14 and 20, particularly if said young males show interest in their teenage female counterparts,” the suit says.