07.25.11

Polygamy Power Play

Warren Jeffs, the cult leader with some 100 wives, goes on trial today, charged with bedding girls as young as 12. Carol McKinley on the turf war already engulfing the sect’s compound.

Months ago, Warren Jeffs, leader of America’s best-known polygamy cult, prophesized that God would free him from his west Texas prison cell, prompting his followers to build him a mansion as big as a Holiday Inn in anticipation of his triumphant return home to his 100 or so “wives.” But the jail walls never crumbled, and so Jeffs, handcuffed and surrounded by Texas Rangers, will march into court today, to stand trial in a case that could keep him in prison—and his new home empty—for the rest of this life.

“It’s been a long road,” one of his brothers tells THE DAILY BEAST. Fearful of Jeffs since he kicked him out of the cult, he requested anonymity. “I want justice served. And I’m anxious for the outcome.”

The 55-year-old leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS)—a polygamous offshoot disavowed by the actual Mormon church—is charged with two counts of sexual assault of a child, based on taking two young girls into “celestial marriage” (a church marriage that isn’t legally enacted, to avoid running afoul, technically, of polygamy laws). One of them was just 12, say prosecutors, and the other under 17. (Investigators say at least 19 of his wives were underage.)

The FLDS has about 10,000 members scattered throughout the western United States and Canada, with an estimated 6,000 living in an enclave along the Utah-Arizona border called Short Creek. It was here that Jeffs, upon the death of his father, the previous prophet, first took a seemingly hypnotic hold on the FLDS: he instructed church elders to keep their hands off of his father's wives—and then he married them, bringing dozens of stepmothers into his bed.

Within the FLDS, most people are related in some way. A quick check of the official witness list—78 wives have been subpoenaed in the two-week trial, including the two in question—shows 21 of Jeffs’s wives have the surname Jessop, 15 are Steeds, and 12 are Barlowes. (In “celestial marriages,” since the women are not legally married to Jeffs, the government doesn’t recognize their married surname.)

Perhaps the most interesting twist in the trial: how many of those subpoenaed, even under the threat of contempt, will actually show up. “They (prosecutors) aren’t gonna get any of them wives in that courtroom,” says Isaac Wyler, an FLDS member who was kicked out of the group. “What the heck are they thinking?”

Wyler says he stood up to Jeffs when he felt church leadership starting to eye his 12-year-old daughter. “I told them if they wanted my daughter they’d have to come through my baseball bat,” says Wyler, who still lives among the FLDS in Short Creek, although shunned by most as an apostate.

Wyler and other ex-members compare Jeffs to a dictator who rules by fear. Jeffs’ time behind bars—he’s been held in West Texas without bail since December—hasn’t stopped him from leading his church. He communicates with believers from a pay phone he shares with the other prisoners, and those words are turned into sermons, broadcast throughout the church meeting house in Short Creek on Sunday, after thousands wait in long, hot lines.

“I told them if they wanted my daughter they’d have to come through my baseball bat.”

Jeffs’ message, according to Wyler, is that their lack of faith is responsible for any problems. Accordingly, his followers tithe money to cover his seven lawyers, ensuring that Jeffs will have proper legal firepower for his trial.

Meanwhile, in Short Creek, Wyler and other ex-church members say, a splinter group is making a power play even before opening arguments. Led by a rival prophet named William E. Jessop, these rebels have been gathering every Sunday—about 200 or so, compared with the thousands who attend the regular assemblies—are already meeting in the back of a construction building every Sunday.

Today will mark a show of strength. Jeffs’ trial starts, ironically, on Pioneer Day, an official Mormon holiday that commemorates the entry of Brigham Young and his settler-followers into Salt Lake City. In an attempt to control his flock, Jeffs has banned all news—including via the Internet—as well as celebrations of this holiday. But members of the Jessop spin-off intend to eat watermelon and hot dogs and ride carriages the way they used to do in what they consider the cult’s glory days: when polygamy didn’t also carry the taint of pedophilia.