SALT LAKE CITY — Damned by his religion, denied by his family and left with nowhere else to go, the teenager slept in a cold tool shed just steps from a company owned by his relatives.
They went home at night to warm, cozy beds while Tom Sam Steed stole bread, cereal and nutrition bars from a gas station just to survive. He tried, several times, to kill himself, convinced he was worth nothing.
His salvation came when he got a job cleaning carpets and finally left the control of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, and its leader, Warren Jeffs.
Former members describe a religion that thrives on domination. Every detail of their life was scripted — from plural marriages to what they could wear, whom they could associate with and what job they could have.
In the last 41/2 years, more than 400 teenage boys have been excommunicated, many for seemingly minor infractions such as watching a movie or talking to a girl.
Former church members suspect something else is causing the banishment of young men. In a polygamous community, there are only so many women to go around. Older men don’t want to compete with young men for wives. The boys have to go.
Now, they have been thrust into a society they have been taught is evil. They are homeless, uneducated, confused and unprepared for a world where they can make their own choices.
They are lost boys.
Sweaty and out of breath, four teenage boys barge into the kitchen for glasses of water after an exhausting game of basketball. They tease each other about who won, then stretch out on couches and chairs.
In many ways, they are just typical teenagers. But ask them how many brothers and sisters they have, and it’s clear these teens have had unusual lives. Seventeen brothers and sisters for one, 21 for another. Another lost count after 300. Most of their fathers have at least two wives.
Almost all of the 11 boys gathered this day grew up in the ”creek” — the twin FLDS communities of Colorado City, Ariz., and Hildale, Utah, where most of the estimated 10,000 residents are church members, the largest polygamous group in the West. (Colorado City used to be called Short Creek.) Other boys lived in FLDS communities elsewhere in the West.
The FLDS is different from the mainstream Mormon church, which has disavowed polygamy and denounced the FLDS.
”We’re taught the only way into heaven is through this church,” said Steed, whose friends call him T.S. ”If you leave, that’s worse than murder.”
But this restricted life is the only one they have ever known.
Some boys ran away or left after a family member did, too. Others say they were ousted for violations such as wanting to go to public school.
Rod Parker, a Salt Lake City attorney and spokesman for the church, denies that. Parker said it is hard to generalize about the boys but that they are not involved with the church anymore because of the choices they have made.
”They tend to be juvenile delinquents, they tend to have criminal problems, they have drug problems. They have all kinds of things going on with their lives that are incompatible with the church,” Parker said.
Once out of the creek, the boys mostly roamed southern Utah, living in flophouses or their cars, dabbling in drugs and alcohol, meeting up with other apostates, or excommunicated members.
They can’t return to their families because church members are forbidden from associating with apostates. Sometimes, parents secretly send money to their boys. But mostly, they are on their own.
A second chance
Three years ago, Shem Fischer and his brother Dan Fischer helped a few excommunicated boys find jobs and an education in Salt Lake City. Former FLDS members, the brothers knew the struggles the boys faced.
Dan Fischer, founder of a dental products manufacturer, never lived in the creek but was once a believer and at one time had three wives. Shem Fischer grew up in the creek and only left three years ago at the age of 33.
He never had reason to question the church until he started working outside the community, doing sales and marketing for his family’s cabinetry and interior design business.
The FLDS doesn’t believe man landed on the moon. When Fischer learned the truth, he was embarrassed.
”It makes you really start questioning what else you’ve been duped on,” he said.
After the brothers helped a few boys, they started getting calls about six months ago from others who had been kicked out and sometimes dropped off in nearby communities with just the clothes on their backs. Word got around that the brothers wanted to help, and soon more than 400 excommunicated boys had been identified.
There were so many, a nonprofit foundation connected to Fischer’s business couldn’t support them all. Now the brothers have turned to the public for help with food, housing and mentors for the boys.
”I hope that they can see they are not trash. They are valuable human citizens,” Shem Fischer said.
He said that with jobs, four boys will be able to afford the $900-a-month rent of a small, four-bedroom house in Midvale. One boy works the evening shift at Wendy’s. Two others are on construction jobs.
They aren’t used to remembering when job interviews are or how to pay bills. They don’t know how to mingle with people, and some struggle to talk to girls.
”You’re taught that everyone out here is corrupt and evil,” Steed said. ”You have no idea how life works, no idea how to survive in modern society.”
Steed is already getting a new start. He recently traveled to Boulder, Colo., to visit his mentor, Jon Krakauer, author of the best-selling Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, a book about the FLDS church.
Krakauer has offered to help pay for Steed’s education or help him open a carpet-cleaning business.
”Society doesn’t pay any attention to this,” said Krakauer, who spent years researching the FLDS community. ”This is a scary culture. It’s like having the Taliban right up the road from Vegas, and no one pays any notice. These kids don’t know how to say the Pledge of Allegiance. The United States of America is not something that’s revered.”