08.05.11

Warren Jeffs' Flock in Denial

Jeffs’ child sex abuse conviction leaves his flock confused and unwilling to accept his fate. Carol McKinley on how the faithful are coping with their prophet’s absence and awaiting his return.

Warren Jeffs’ most loyal followers are likely waking up today blaming themselves for the public smackdown of the person they worship as “the purest man on earth.” If only they had prayed harder, prepared more thoroughly, or stopped thinking bad thoughts.

At one church service, an exact replica of Jeffs’ jail cell, complete with a toilet and plyboard cutout of Jeffs himself, had been strategically placed so worshippers had to pass by it to get inside. 

“People are constantly told, ‘Well, he’ll be delivered soon, but you’re not faithful enough for his deliverance,” says Arnold Richter. “And so, even children run around thinking ‘...it’s because of my little sins that our prophet’s still in jail.’”  Richter has four kids of his own who often were scared by Jeffs’ Sunday sermon predictions of meteors and earthquakes. He has been out of Jeffs’ Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) for six months—kicked out for questioning the prophet.

Richter was told to leave his wife and children before sundown, with no chance to say goodbye. But what he did shocked and maybe even intimidated church leadership. He stayed with his family. Richter still lives among FLDS friends and family, many of whom no longer speak to him.

Now considered an “apostate,” Richter says he’s numb to the bombshells falling every day in the courtroom in San Angelo, Texas. On Thursday, it took a jury of 10 women and two men just three and a half hours to find the so-called prophet guilty of raping two children, one 12 years old. The prosecution promises it will prove that the 55-year-old Jeffs took as many as two dozen child brides. The information is scheduled to be revealed in the next two days, during the penalty phase. Prosecutors say Jeffs broke up 300 families, ripping wives and children from “disobedient” men like Richter, and often giving them to other men. Many of the alleged offenders still live alone, puzzled as to what they did wrong. Some have died with a broken heart.

FLDS members are still in denial, convinced “the jail bars will open” and Jeffs will walk free among them again. That’s what he’s promised them. Indeed, a huge, H-shaped building called “the prophet’s house” is waiting for him on the Yearning for Zion ranch just outside Eldorado, Texas.

“It’s a big sumbitch!” J.D. Doyle drawls with excitement. Doyle makes routine flights over the 1,700-acre compound in his biplane. He was buzzing overhead when the foundation was poured in 2004. “When they first bought the land, they told the town leaders they were going to use this as a hunting retreat! But I saw three buildings going up the size of apartments, and I said, ‘That ain’t no hunting retreat! They lied to us!’”

Doyle keeps track of every building that goes up on the property, from the cheese factory to the school. He reports one problem with the prophet’s house, though:  it’s unfinished. There’s no money left to complete it because much of the FLDS cash is going to pay Jeffs’ many expensive lawyers, several of whom he fired during the trial.

“Have you noticed how ragged and patched their clothes are?” a man fresh out of the FLDS asked. He left because he no longer could afford to tithe to the church, and was thus deemed “unworthy.” Of the thousands of people who follow Jeffs, many do live at a poverty level, working from sun-up to sundown to fill church coffers.

Thousands of believers who remain will soon realize their prophet is not coming back. He has told them to prepare for “the Destructions,” which could happen at any time. “We can’t make any commitments because our existence here is probably on the line,” an insider explains. “It doesn’t matter what they do to Warren. It’s temporary.” 

For anyone alarmed that that cryptic remark conjures a possible Jim Jones ending to the FLDS, ex-members say it won’t happen. “The FLDS doesn’t believe in suicide. You’ll go to hell,” so-called apostate Andrew Chatwin says. “They’re probably waiting for the end of the world.”

For the most worthy members, this could be a good thing. Jeffs has prophesied that the purest will be lifted above the chaos as everything on earth goes up in flames during the “Destructions”—and set back down to make their long walk to Jackson County, Missouri, aka Zion, where the streets will be paved with gold. There they will await the second coming of Christ. Says Chatwin, “There will be wars as they travel. They are expecting a pillar of fire to guide them at night, and cloud cover to protect them by day.”

Followers believe "the jail bars will open" and Jeffs will walk free among them again.

Richter said such “revelations” keep people afraid to leave the church. And he said he believes that Jeffs will have more clout in jail—as a martyr—than out. “He’ll have much more power than he ever had. It’s a controlling effect upon the people. If he were out of prison, he wouldn’t have that ability.”

Richter and others who pulled away from the FLDS have discovered what Jeffs was most afraid they would develop: the power to think for themselves.