Former FBI’s Most Wanted fugitive Warren Jeffs is serving a life sentence for the aggravated sexual assault of children, but his followers in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) still believe he speaks for God. If history repeats itself, new allegations of sexual abuse from two of Jeffs’s children, airing Wednesday night on CNN’s This is Life, won’t change that.
Private investigator Sam Brower, author of the 2011 book Prophet’s Prey, has been investigating the FLDS for over a decade. He says that most FLDS adherents won’t see the episode, let alone consider its allegations.
“The sad reality of it is that active FLDS members are just not going to believe it,” Brower told The Daily Beast.
But Becky and Roy Jeffs remain hopeful that their allegations of child molestation can alter Jeffs’s standing in the polygamous Mormon offshoot, which has several thousand members in settlements across the Western United States and British Columbia.
In a preview of her CNN interview with Jeffs’s children, This is Life host Lisa Ling noted that “particularly, they want people who are still in the FLDS to know—people who still regard Warren Jeffs as the prophet—that this man was far from perfect.”
Jeffs’s imperfections have never been more visible.
The new documentary Prophet’s Prey, adapted from Brower’s book, reviews Jeffs’s rise to power, conviction, and imprisonment. In some of the film’s most haunting sequences, director Amy Berg details how Jeffs still leads the FLDS faith from within his Texas prison cell, dictating “revelations” that are then distributed to church members, and even releasing a book, Jesus Christ: A Message to All Nations, which urges world leaders to release him.
As CNN reports, Jeffs is “still firmly in control” of the sect.
Jeffs has been leading the FLDS since 2002, when he took over his father’s position along with most of his wives. The FLDS still subscribes to the practice of polygynous plural marriage, which the mainstream Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) disavowed in 1890, prompting several Mormon schisms.
Largely as a result of its polygamous family arrangements, FLDS enclaves have faced legal troubles for the last several years for allegedly operating as theocracies. The church is facing scrutiny from both the Department of Justice for allegedly failing to coordinate with law enforcement officials and from the Department of Labor for alleged violations of child labor laws.
But it has been Jeffs’s sexual crimes that have drawn the most attention to his embattled sect.
Jeffs is estimated to have over 70 wives and dozens of children but his alleged misconduct has not been restricted to them. A 2004 sexual assault lawsuit from his nephew Brent opened the floodgates for more charges of rape and assault. Jeffs began fleeing law enforcement around that time, making the FBI’s Most Wanted list in 2005. He was ultimately arrested in Nevada in 2006 and, in 2007, he was convicted in Utah of being an accomplice to rape for arranging the marriage of an underage girl—Elissa Wall, now the author of the memoir Stolen Innocence—to an adult man.
His conviction was overturned in 2010, but in 2011, Jeffs was convicted in Texas on new charges of child sexual assault and aggravated sexual assault for sex with a 15-year-old girl and a 12-year-old girl respectively. He was sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years.
With the new CNN special, the allegations against Jeffs are piling up even further. In the episode, Roy says that his father molested him when he was 4 or 5 years old.
“I remember him telling me, ‘You should never do this,’” he said. “And then he did it to me.”
His sister, Becky Jeffs, estimates that her father could have molested 10 to 20 children.
“I hope it’s not more than that,” she told Ling.
CNN was unsuccessful in obtaining comment from Warren Jeffs’s attorney.
Becky and Roy’s words are harrowing, but it is unlikely that many who remain in the FLDS community will take them to heart. Even with Jeffs in prison for child sexual assault, he is still seen by the FLDS as a martyr who has been wrongfully imprisoned based on trumped-up charges. And even from within his cell, Jeffs can still control his image.
“They’ll never hear it, first of all,” Brower told The Daily Beast. “I mean, they’re not going to be out watching CNN. They can’t watch TV, they can’t read books, they can’t listen to the radio or they won’t. They’ve been commanded not to and they won’t.”
Brower added that “at best, and this is really rare, they may hear rumors that are presented to them as bitter apostates fighting against God and the prophet.”
Brower also shared a portion of an email he had obtained, written by an active FLDS member to an ex-FLDS member who had attempted to share news of Jeffs’s past conviction, as an example of the allegiance that the imprisoned religious leader inspires.
“You seem to have devoted your life and efforts to destroy Warren, cataloging all of the news media and statements of the disaffected apostates that would validate your cause,” the email read. “But more importantly, as you try to convince me of the wrongdoings of others, you solidify my testimony that you are an advocate of Satan.”
Still, there are some signs that the religion has been bleeding members since Jeffs began serving his life sentence. Brower told Al Jazeera in March that an unprecedented number of people are fleeing the FLDS, more “than we have seen for many years.” Brower estimates that up to 1,000 members have left in the last two years, with about 10,000 remaining.
But new generations of children are being raised in the faith by adults who defend Jeffs. In Brower’s experience, disaffected FLDS members tend not to learn the full truth about their leader until they initiate the process of leaving the community anyway.
“They usually have to take the first steps first and those many thousands of people that don’t are the most loyal, the most indoctrinated, and the most zealous,” Brower said.
FLDS experts and insiders are also concerned that, as Jeffs grows increasingly desperate in prison, conditions are ripe for violence. Among his other proclamations delivered from prison in the past several years, Jeffs has predicted the apocalypse—the date has already passed—and attempted to ban sex in the FLDS community until he is released.
In Prophet’s Prey, Jon Krakauer, author of the FLDS exposé Under the Banner of Heaven, said, “I worry most of all that [Warren Jeffs] is going to incite some bloodshed, intentionally or not intentionally. Intentionally, probably.”
Krakauer could not be reached for comment by The Daily Beast but his fears of possible violence on the horizon are echoed by Brower, Roy Jeffs, and Tonia Tewell, the director of Holding Out HELP, an organization that helps FLDS members transition out of polygamy.
“I can see with how crazy my dad’s getting, with all his revelations [and] weird rules,” Roy Jeffs told CNN. “[T]hey’re so brainwashed by how my dad is, and I worry sometimes that it could end up in a mass suicide because of how much control he has.”
“We know that he takes pleasure in causing pain to other people,” said Brower. “I believe the more he feels that he may be losing his grip, the more potential there is for some kind of violence.”
Tewell suspects that power could be shifting into the hands of Warren’s brother Lyle Jeffs, who reportedly handles the church’s day-to-day affairs and is embroiled in a divorce, but warns that Warren can still inspire a dangerous level of devotion.
“Some people would go all the way to death for him, no question,” she said.