08.04.11 3:34 AM ET
Polygamy Meets Big Brother
The West Texas jury deciding the fate of polygamy cult leader Warren Jeffs listened through headphones to 21 minutes of heavy breathing yesterday. Some in the room wept. Others held their hands over their mouths. The X-rated recording, a cornerstone of the state’s child-sex-assault case, allegedly chronicled Jeffs’ encounter with a 12-year-old girl, an episode that ended with the self-proclaimed prophet declaring, “In Jesus Christ, amen.”
The jurors heard an almost inaudible voice. “Amen,” echoed the child.
It got worse. According to prosecutors, Jeffs and his new “celestial wife” were not alone. A dozen of his most trusted men were witnesses to the “sealing.” It was a family affair: At least one of Jeffs’ other wives, his purported favorite, Naomi, was also in the room. “What are you feeling?” Jeffs asked the girl. And in a moment that froze everyone in the courtroom, she answered meekly, “Very well, thank you.”
This recording shocked the courtroom. It will shock most people reading this. But it won’t shock the members of Jeffs’ sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints, or FLDS, which broke from the Mormon church when the mainstream church renounced polygamy more than 100 years ago. They weren’t allowed to hear it, nor will they read this article. As the trial has quickly gone downhill for Jeffs, who faces life imprisonment, he has recently banned his flock from following any kind of news, which means no Internet surfing. At Short Creek, Jeffs’ compound on the border of Utah and Arizona where most of his followers live, a goon squad, 90 men strong, patrols the area around the clock, looking for news snoopers, sect insiders tell The Daily Beast. Any member reading about “Uncle Warren” will be excommunicated. “People are trembling in fear,” says one of Jeffs’ many brothers, who was kicked out several years ago, his family given to a “more worthy” FLDS member. “It’s all a big cover-up. And it makes me sick.”
The incriminating audio, taped by the prophet himself as part of church record, was found during a 2008 raid of Jeffs’ remote 1,700-acre YFZ ranch, just outside Eldorado, Texas. It was hidden in the FLDS temple vault, in a highly fortified maze behind bookcases and doors, and walls and more doors, as in a James Bond movie. The true believers who have heard rumors about the tapes, though, doubt their authenticity. “Those tapes are fake,” an FLDS man whom I’ll call “Richard” tells me. “People can make up anything! Remember the moon landing? We never landed on the moon. That was a government conspiracy they just conjured up to fool the American people.”
I personally experienced the creepy reach of Jeffs’ security detail. While in Short Creek recently, producing a story for HDNet’s magazine show World Report, my crew and I were trailed as soon as we hit town. We had Nevada license plates and we were driving a red car, a sign of the Devil. Every turn we made, they appeared in the rearview mirror. One would follow, and then another would take its place for a few blocks, only to be replaced by another, like a game of musical cars.
Short Creek has a paranoia problem. Most every house is surrounded by elaborate walls, preventing prying eyes from watching scores of FLDS kids in prairie clothes as they jump on trampolines and play in the dirt. It’s not uncommon to see security cameras tucked into the eaves of the homes. The FLDS mob keeps electronic watch as well. One man had his computer hacked by church leadership. When they pored over his private writings and found he’d been questioning the sect on blogs, they kicked him out, telling him he’d been a “traitor to the brethren.” Another defector’s office was bugged, his computers stolen. This spring, church members were charged with breaking into an old log cabin, which was being transformed into a library. They hauled out the books, burning many of them, and changed the locks, barring the legal owner (former FLDS member Stephanie Corgrove) from getting back inside. “This has got to stop,” Corgrove told me. We were staring at a large circle of burned embers, including what was left of a charred anatomy textbook. “I guess they thought the human body was inappropriate.”
Based on a second audio recording played in court on Tuesday, Jeffs didn’t seem offended by anatomy at all. On this earlier tape, he asked 12 of his plural wives to disrobe as he gave them private training to be “heavenly comfort wives,” which appears to have included group sex. “I need more than one wife to be with me at a time,” Jeffs told them. “The Lord has shown me that in heaven the gods are with quorums of women when they conceive children.” At one point on the tape, he shows them how to keep their pubic hair trimmed. The tape was made in December 2004, and at least one of the females on the tape was another of Jeffs’ alleged young victims, just 14 at the time. DNA experts are almost 100 percent sure he’s the father of her child, born when she was 15.
The next couple of days in court may be a train wreck. Jeffs is representing himself, after firing his seven lawyers early on. And though an attorney has been at his side during the trial, it’s obvious that Jeffs is not taking any legal advice for his courtroom diatribes. It’s doubtful that any lawyer would be advising him to end his remarks with “amen.” Instead of “objection,” he cries out, “This sayeth the Lord, cease!” Yesterday afternoon, after the damning audiotape, his opening defense statement focused on religious persecution. He did not mention child sexual assault, even though the tapes remained fresh on everyone’s mind. His first witness: an FLDS man who read passages of Scripture. With his security detail locking down the home front, Jeffs appears to be using his trial as an opportunity to spread the Gospel.