08.22.11

Polygamy Cult 's Civil War

With Warren Jeffs in prison for life, a new “prophet” is trying to seize control of the cult from his family. Carol McKinley on the nasty battle, which includes threats, spies—and the FBI.

Two weeks after cult leader Warren Jeffs was convicted on two counts of child rape, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) find themselves torn between dueling prophets trying to wrest control of America’s largest polygamy movement.

The common sentiment inside the cult’s Short Creek compound, on the Arizona-Utah border, remains that “Uncle Warren” was framed, according to insiders, despite heaps of damning evidence presented by prosecutors during his bizarre two-week trial. Meanwhile, Jeffs has told his followers that he’s in jail for life because they were unwilling to repent.

Into this confusion, another so-called prophet, William Edson Jessop, is making a power play. Jessop has been holding alternative Sunday services, and the day after Jeffs was effectively muzzled, arriving at a prison in Huntsville, Texas, on Aug. 10, Jessop sent a typed message to 1,800 FLDS families in Short Creek. “This is a letter as a brother and a friend,” it begins, and warns Jeffs’s followers that if they don’t “come clean,” they will “be going down with the wicked and be damned.”  While Jeffs claims to be above the law, Jessop says he will not ignore the “laws of the land.” In other words, no underage marriages on his watch.

Jessop has been using Jeffs’s own words to position himself as the divinely anointed heir. In January 2007, Jeffs made a tearful taped confession from a Utah jail that he was a phony, calling himself “the greatest of all sinners and the wickedest man.” On the prison video, Jeffs proclaimed that Jessop was the true prophet. While Jeffs later recounted this statement, he gave Jessop an opening, which he’s now trying to leverage.

Jessop warns Jeffs’s followers that if they don’t “come clean,” they will “be going down with the wicked and be damned.”

But Jeffs will not let go of his flock quietly, even from jail. (Beyond the giant statue, they are planning for the convicted rapist.) Within minutes of the mailing, Lyle Jeffs, a younger brother who has been leading the cult in Jeffs’s absence, got word of Jessop’s note and relayed a mass text, ordering families to disregard the “poison.” Many of Jessop’s letters ended up unopened and tossed in the post office’s junk-mail garbage can.

Former cult members claim that such bullying tactics from what they call “Warren’s god squad” are commonplace. “They have spies,” says Andrew Chatwin, who was once in FLDS. “It’s a pattern. As soon as there’s word about any outside influence, the people are ordered to turn it away.” Chatwin believes it will take at least a year before Jeffs’s followers begin to come to grips with his horrible crimes: “He still has a hold on the community. Warren’s con job is still on.”

If the parking lot of the FLDS meeting house is any indication, Chatwin’s take seems spot-on. Short Creek residents report that Jeffs’s church was packed with thousands of worshipers yesterday. Meanwhile, Jessop’s upstart “true FLDS” congregation has been assembling only around 200, though that is well up from the handful who turned out before the conviction.

When I was in Short Creek recently on assignment doing a mini-documentary on the sect, I visited Jessop’s service, held in the back of an excavation business. Just before 11 a.m., cars start pulling up, van doors slide open, and hopeful believers spill out carrying pies and covered dishes to share after the 90-minute service. The day I was there, some of them actually waved, curious about the Gentile lady in the pants. Little girls in braids and prairie dresses and boys in black ties and dusty Sunday shoes peaked at our crew from behind their mother’s skirts. This is a refreshing change from the old FLDS stealth team, which follows outsiders, taking pictures and generally bullying them out of town.

In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see a creepy reminder of Warren Jeffs’s paranoid dictatorship focused on the parking lot. Carved into the high wall of the building next door to Jessop’s church, there is an unnatural-looking hole in what must be the attic. It is a camera, placed there to spy on the folks who dare to show their faces. Anyone caught on the surveillance tape is ex-communicated.  “One day, we got a boy to climb up in there and cut the wires,” one of Jessop’s followers tells me. “They probably went right back and fixed it. But it felt good.”

“The gloves have got to come off to fix this mess,” says Jeffs’s former head of security, Willie Jessop (not be confused with “prophet” William E. Jessop), who split with the convicted child rapist seven months ago after hearing about the abuse and has emerged as a spokesman for his similarly named new spiritual leader. “He (Jeffs) was our Santa Claus.  It’s people like me who should have taken a stand, and we didn’t.”

If the past week is any indication, this schism should prove to be a wild ride. The FBI and the civil-rights division of the Justice Department have been in town gathering complaints from ex-members, insiders tell me, including claims that local police stood by as FLDS bullies plowed under their crops, let out their livestock, and killed their pets. Meanwhile, the fire chief and his treasurer were indicted last week, and face 43 counts of misusing tens of thousands of dollars of public money.

Meanwhile, Jessop’s church moved to end the FLDS’s self-imposed segregation from outsiders: his flock sent dozens of children, dressed in what they call “their Crikker clothes” through the halls of nearby El Capitan K-12 public school for the first time, mixing with kids they had been told were “wicked.” In turn, they risk being labeled as “pligs,” a slang term outsiders reserve for polygamist families.

Socialization will be a challenge, but consider the academic road ahead.  Home-schooled under Jeffs’ controlled curriculum, these FLDS youngsters have had no science or U.S. history. Instead, they have been told that  Jeffs is god on earth and that the U.S. President is the enemy. So far, so good, says Jessop the spokesperson: “Sometimes you’ve got to go through surgery in order to feel better.”